BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Presence of the Past Searching for the True History of the West BY CATHY FORMAN SOMETHING IN THE SOIL: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West By Patricia Nelson Limerick. W.W. Norton & Co. 384 pages. . $27.95. n 1987, Patricia Nelson Limerick, history professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, burst onto the scene with the publication of her provocative polemic, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. A snappily written, humorous, accessible synthesis, Legacy explained to reluctant Americans that rather than being a place of happy discovery and rip-roaring adventure, the West was a conquered land, taken from Indians by avaricious whites with a penchant for failure more often than success. Limerick gave voice to a generation of historians tilting at the “frontier thesis” of turn-of-the-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who linked America’s democracy to its abundance of “free” Western land. She became spokeswoman for “The New Western History,” a project that produced works critical of old-style narratives which neglected to take into account race, class, gender, and the environment, and refused to acknowledge the ongoing importance of federal power and presence in the West. Since the publication of Legacy, Limerick has received a prestigious “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and has used her speaking engagements as occasions to elaborate on her understanding of what really happened in the area stretching between the 98th parallel and the Pacific Coast, the Canadian border and the Rio Grande. Limerick has gathered these speeches into an edited collection, Something in the Soil, a smorgasbord of sixteen essays from which readers may sample the array of wit and wisdom for which she is best known. The book is divided into five sections, each of which consists of three or four essays, many relying on lighthearted “talking points” or lists, summaries, and generalizations of patterns Limerick elegantly extrapolates from histories that are often complicated and confusing \(by my count, the book includes ten such enumerations, including a twelve-point guide to Indian-white wars as well as “The Genius of Juan Bautista de Anza: 13 Heroic Strategies for Today’s In Part I, “Forgetting and Remembering,” she loosely addresses ways Americans have chosen to represent the Western past. In one essay, Limerick looks at U.S.-Indian wars, in another she examines ways Americans have wrangled over the term “frontier,” and in the last, she thinks about textbooks’ obstinate tendency to cling to stories of a westward-moving frontier, despite trends countering this narrative. In Part II, Limerick singles out the lives and careers of three “beleaguered great white men.” She defends her decision to scrutinize Juan Bautista de Anza \(who teaches us that we should “dare to be Turner, because, she writes, “stories of the less powerful cannot make complete sense without an intense reckoning with the stories of those white men who exerted power over others.” The third and, in my opinion, strongest section is Part III, which Limerick devotes to the environment. One essay is her humorous mission statement to environmentalists \(“Develop new strategies for rewarding restraint. Encourage the Boy Scouts to give merit badges for not camping, for not carving initials into trees, for not rafting down crowded rivers, for not starting other is a close and sensitive reading of Asian responses to American landscape, and a third is a reassessment of the legacy of California’s Gold Rush. Part IV, “The Historian as Dreamer,” meanders disconcertingly from an essay about Mormons and ethnicity, through a largely autobiographical musing about ways to define Californians, and on to two more essays loosely about meaning and spirituality in the West. Limerick sets out her rules for becoming a successful, accessible historian, teacher, and lecturer in three brief essays in Part V. One, first published in The New York Times Magazine, is a mordantly funny send-up of jargon-heavy, academic prose \(“Why choose camouflage and insulation over clarity and On the whole, the collection provides some good laughs and pungent insights. I can attest that it is light enough reading to be consumed while using an exercise machine, and engaging enough that non-histoin issues of importance to the West \(land use, water rights, federal vs. local power, Had Limerick simply assembled these essays without trying to consolidate them into some kind of meaningful whole, I would end my review here, concluding that Limerick has provided her readers a pleasant sampling of her interesting mind. Instead, she chooses to adopt a slippery metaphor to give shape to the collection, and she pushes hard to convince readers that it is the job of historians to make their work relevant defining “relevance” in terms of the work’s ability to inform present-day decision-making and policy. Neither of these strategies serves her well, and so I want to spend a bit of time examining what these decisions do to Something in the Soil. The metaphor Limerick uses in her title never quite gels. In 1970, she reveals in her introduction, a disgruntled correspondent sent her a nasty letter claiming disdainfully that Limerick’s hometown of Banning, California, “sounds like something in the soil.” Limerick jumps on this phrase, using it to represent a variety of ideas, yet I’m never sure exactly for what the phrase stands. She says she wants to present a “down-to-earth” history of the American West \(soil as wants to allude to the similarities between geological strata and the layering of memory \(soil as repository for past expe 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 8, 2000
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.