REVIEW River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell By Donald Worster Oxford University Press 673 pages, $35. want to give Don Worster’s new biography of visionary nine teenth-century explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell the highest praise I know how to bestow upon a work of history. Despite its considerable heft \(I think it A River Running West is a book of such beauty, wit, and insight, that I have lugged it everywhere: to the pool, to the beach, to kids’ sports practices and music lessons. I have read aloud from it to a distraught eight year old in the emergency room at 11 o’clock at night. I even bought an extra copy and sent it to my dad. Granted, I’m an easy sell for a book about Powell, one of the few unambiguous heroes in the history of the American West. Not a pompous booster, schemer, or dreamer, not a speculator or a violent, impulsive, racist colonizer, he voiced big ideas about land use and treatment of people that were well ahead of their time. Powell was convinced, Worster writes, that “the West was not ‘continuously valuable’ for agriculture.” Unlike most other scientists and policy makers in the late nineteenth century, Powell did not believe in the unlimited opportunity of the American West. In his “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region,” which he delivered to Congress in 1879, he challenged the prevailing desire, rooted in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, that it was possible to impose a strict geometric grid upon the land and divide it into individually-owned and operated farmsteads. Powell called into question the practicality of the Homestead Act of 1862 that promised 160 acres of land to anyone able to pay and go. A keen observer wedded to the scientific process, Powell understood the implications of the West’s paucity of rainfall. Writing in the 1870s, he observed that with few rivers to irrigate potential fields and little rain to nourish crops, Western land was not suited to European-style farming. If the federal government wanted to encourage farming in the West, it would have to redraft legislation so that all settlers, especially the little guys, had access to sources of water. As Worster notes, the years immediately following the Civil War are not known for evenhandedness or fair play. By the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential administration, “[a] smell of graft and corruption rose through the floorboards…., one dead rat joining another, until the public nostrils could stand it no longer.” A staunch abolitionist and supporter of the Union, Powell behaved at all times with dignity and honesty. In addition, he was brave. He lost his right arm above the elbow from a war wound. Despite the amputation, Powellfascinated by natural science and, in particular, geologyspearheaded a series of expeditions into the far West where he used his intellect and physical courage to run the rapids of the Colorado River, supporting cartographers and artists who mapped, drew, and photographed the Grand Canyon along the way. He became so interested in Indians and Mormons living in the region that he championed their humanity and rights at a time when others were so blinded by intolerance that they saw only difference, felt only distrust. Ilove Powell so much that when I teach a spring lecture course on the American West, I bring cookies to class to celebrate his birthday. Until the publication of Worster’s biography, those of us in the John Wesley Powell fan club have turned to Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West for information and inspiration. It’s not an easy task, taking on Stegner’s lyrical 1953 masterpiece. At its best, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian reads like a highly dramatic novel, characterizing Powell as a misunderstood visionary, a prophet without a flock. But even acknowledged masterpieces deserve reappraisal. With A River Running West, Worster took a long, hard look at Stegner’s work and decided there was room for improvement. Rather than focusing exclusively on the drama of Powell’s vision and the quality of his heroism, Worster has written a biography that demonstrates the ways he was both representative and exceptional. Worster’s doorstop of a book demonstrates that while Powell stoocifor many of the popular movements and trends in the late nineteenth century, he also stood apart from the prevailing attitudes of his day. Worster has for many years written eloquently and to great acclaim about American environments and their impact on human settlements. Hall Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, he has published several award-winning works that examine human relationships to land, particularly dry Western land, where control of water equals power. In Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, which earned him a Bancroft Prize, he thought through the implications of industrial capitalism on arid land. In this slim volume, Worster managed simultaneously to communicate his disapproval of and sympathy for white settlers farming the drought-stricken Plains during the Great Depression. In Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, Worster thought specifically about riparian The Portable Prophet BY CATHY COWAN 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/18/02
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