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and wants to suggest the ways that stories themselves transform the land \(soil as Is it that stories have transformed the land, or that they are like the land, or both? Limerick concludes this discussion, writing that “the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material, and substantial ‘something in the soil,’ a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.” It sounds good, as does everything that Limerick writes, but what, exactly, does it mean? Limerick is far more clear when she says, up front, that she wrote these essays and presented them publicly as a kind of “fieldtesting of the New Western History” to “redeem higher education.” “Field-testing,” she explains, entailed running her ideas by non-historians, talking to them, and presenting the abovementioned talking points. This kind of face-to-face interaction between university professors and layfolks will redeem academia, she emphatically insists, especially when scholars are able “to declare the relevance of history to current dilemmas.” She ponders Frederick Jackson Turner’s declamation that the “aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past. […] The antiquarian strives to bring back the past for the sake of the past; the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origins from the past. The goal of the antiquarian is the dead past; the goal of the historian is the living present.” Clinging to her justification of determined presentism, Limerick insists that historians’ duty is to use extrapolations of past historical events to prod policy makers in the right direction. Academics should be working with public school teachers, planning museum exhibits and documentary films, talking at service clubs and retirement homes, answering questions from journalists, and making research accessible to policymakers, activists, and government officials. Why study the past? To help us navigate the rocky streams of the present into smoother waters of the future, Limerick explains. If historians refuse to do this, she admonishes, they risk being irrelevant and remote. Limerick perhaps unconsciously takes swipes several times at historians who don’t take her own brand of “relevance” to heart. Those working in a monographic mode \(doing archival research and compiling findings to tell us about one particular Something in the Soil. When she discusses Indian-white wars, for instance, Limerick writes that scholars who have tried to relate the confusing histories of specific clashes have turned out “…tales from hell because they are stories so loaded with tiresome detail and pointless plot twists that narrative art bends and breaks under their weight.” Having read many a history in this cate But here’s the problem: the events, themselves, were tangled and complicated, and the actors confused and confusing. gory, I can concur that they are often Balkan in their intricacy. But here’s the problem: the events, themselves, were tangled and complicated, and the actors confused and confusing. Historians working from archival sources \(not just summarizing secondary works or surveying current raw material. Yes, it’s their job to make the past as clear as possible, but readers might also have to meet historians half way, and do a bit of brain stretching to follow along. When Limerick surveys American history texts produced in the Nineties, she complains that their authors have for far too long limited themselves to telling the history of the West in the same tired narrative set out by Frederick Jackson Turner. She excuses the textbook authors because, she writes, “it would have taken a particularly determined set of textbook revisers, scholars with time on their hands, to read through all those monographs and assemble a more realistic presentation of the American West. No wonder they took a more economical approach to the use of their time and held on to the old plot of the mobile and vanishing West.” A cheap and unnecessary shot, here, when Limerick might instead credit those intrepid, tireless monographers, digging through dusty archives and dry public records, so that we may know about the very subjects upon which “The New Western History” stands. Readers even busy, over-extended professors tackle such histories not to understand better the complexities of modern-day policy-making, but, perhaps, because they just want to know what happened a long time ago. Limerick has conflated presentism with relevance, a philosophical stand that 1, personally, find limiting. I can’t argue with her that academics irritatingly avoid writing in clear prose. I can’t disagree that historians, as a group, need to make a pledge to write about things in ways that make them irresistible to curious readers. I don’t agree, however, that historians need to reduce everything to easily consumable patterns, or to make everything seem pertinent to present concerns. Monographs are important. They explore race, gender, and class in ways that secondary works cannot. There is at least one other option open to historians who wish to connect more firmly with their readers, without wedding themselves to the concept of present relevance. Like Limerick, many.historians grappling with a desire to attract general readers have consciously examined their writing styles. Instead of adopting Limerick’s tactic of summarizing secondary works, compiling lists, and connecting the deep past with policy and prediction, they have tinkered with narrative strategy, writing compelling stories about those long dead in ways that make for page. turning, intellectually engaging history. Just a few examples of such works include John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, Natalie Zemon Davis’ Women on the Margins, Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett, and Jenhifer Price’s Flight Maps. All of these histories dive into archives and take present-day readers on wonderful, readable, accessible tours of the past. Western history can and should do this, too. El Cathy Gorman is an assistant professor in the history department at Harvard University, completing “Reading, Writing, and Removal: Native American Literacies,. 1824-51,” to be published by the University of California Press. SEPTEMBER 8, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29