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A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell [Kindle Edition]

Donald Worster
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

If the word "hero" still belonged in the historian's lexicon, it would certainly be applied to John Wesley Powell. Intrepid explorer, careful scientist, talented writer, and dedicated conservationist, Powell led the expedition that put the Colorado River on American maps and revealed the Grand Canyon to the world. Now comes the first biography of this towering figure in almost fifty years--a book that captures his life in all its heroism, idealism, and ambivalent, ambiguous humanity.
In A River Running West, Donald Worster, one of our leading Western historians, tells the story of Powell's great adventures and describes his historical significance with compelling clarity and skill. Worster paints a vivid portrait of how this man emerged from the early nineteenth-century world of immigrants, fervent religion, and rough-and-tumble rural culture, and barely survived the Civil War battle at Shiloh. The heart of Worster's biography is Powell's epic journey down the Colorado in 1869, a tale of harrowing experiences, lethal accidents, and breathtaking discoveries. After years in the region collecting rocks and fossils and learning to speak the local Native American languages, Powell returned to Washington as an eloquent advocate for the West, one of America's first and most influential conservationists. But in the end, he fell victim to a clique of Western politicians who pushed for unfettered economic development, relegating the aging explorer to a quiet life of anthropological contemplation.
John Wesley Powell embodied the energy, optimism, and westward impulse of the young United States. A River Running West is a gorgeously written, magisterial account of this great American explorer and environmental pioneer, a true story of undaunted courage in the American West.


Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) is best remembered for leading the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869. However, he should more accurately be recalled for directing the survey that mapped the region around the canyon and for establishing and directing the Bureau of American Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution, which put the study of Native Americans on a scientific footing. Drawing on a large number of archival and published sources, Worster (history, Univ. of Kansas; Dust Bowl) traces Powell's life from his frontier childhood through his years in Washington directing both the Bureau and the Geological Survey. The author delineates the influences that led Powell to the West in the first place and shows how he fit into the intellectual milieu of the late 19th century. This thorough and detailed biography is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.DStephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Worster's life-of covers every detail of Powell's peregrinations and writings, fitting them into the great matters that occupied his life. A fascination with nature inspired Powell's self-education in geology and archaeology; as a young man, he lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh, and following the Civil War, he gained fame as the explorer of the final unmapped stretches of the Colorado River. Thus wearing the laurels as the contemporary authority on all things western, including water rights and the regulation of relations with Native Americans, Powell, boosted by the political patronage of James Garfield, reached the top of the then-tiny federal bureaucracy of the 1880s, as chief of both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology. In all, an event-crowded and courageous career, yet Powell the personality is much the fainter element here, through no fault of Worster's, whose subject was disinclined toward self-reflection. The dangerous adventure of Powell's Colorado River runs of 1869 and 1871-72 carries most of the water here and parlays Worster's opus into a stalwart position in western historiography. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 3018 KB
  • Print Length: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (December 14, 2000)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004TFXR4I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #578,876 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Growing With the Country March 14, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Reading this book was like being present at the creation of America. It will appeal especially to U.S. history buffs and to anyone interested in the American West. Worster's telling of the feat that won Powell fame, leading the first expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, has definitely renewed my passion for exploring the West. Powell was a man of ideas, as well as action. For a quarter century he was at the forefront of debates over reserving land for American Indians, how to foster family farming in the arid West, and the thorny issue of water rights. For many years, Powell was a prominent official in Washington, as head of the U.S. Geological Survey, which he helped create, and in other positions. From what I gather in this book, Powell may have been as important as any single individual in making support of scientific research a normal function of the Federal Government. From the perspective of one man's career, Worster touches on a multitude of topics: railroads, telegraph, photography, landscape painting of the West, Mormon settlements, and many more. For the comprehension one gains of American life in those times, this biography is the equal of a first rate novel. Although a work of scholarship, it is written to be enjoyed by the general reader.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mystery and Meaning in John Wesley Powell August 28, 2001
Format:Hardcover
The life of John Wesley Powell presents a mystery and a meaning. Powell, of course, achieved fame for his explorations of the Colorado River and surrounding regions, accomplished in two expeditions in 1869 and 1871-72. The romance of a one-armed man, wounded in the Civil War fighting for the Union, now beating the toughest river in the West, retains its charm to this day; Powell's visage graces plaques all over the West, especially at the Grand Canyon. But the bulk of Powell's life was spent not in rugged exploration but behind desks in Washington, as director of the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology. In his capacity as a bureaucrat Powell proved a tenacious infighter, successful in all but his most important venture (more on that below). The mystery of Powell's life lies in finding the connection between Powell the explorer and Powell the bureaucrat, which seem at first blush to be at such odds with each other. Donald Worster's biography of Powell does not solve this mystery directly, but provides the material out of which a solution can be constructed. In both endeavors it was Powell's ability to claim and retain the loyalty of subordinates (who, in many cases, did the really serious scientific work) and his extraordinary organizational talent that spelled his success. We can see these skills operating clearly in Worster's careful, detailed, chronological narrative of Powell's life. The battles he fought with his Congressional opponents demanded at least as much finesse as the rapids of the Colorado; Worster's book allows us to see Powell's life, despite the surface incongruity of its two halves, as a fundamentally unified whole. The meaning in Powell's life he shared with many men of his generation in both Europe and America. Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
My comment at the end of my title refers to Wallace Stegner's "Beyond the 100th Meridian." While that is a very good book, it comes close to perpetuating a myth of Saint John Wesley Powell.

Compared to Stegner, who may be a point of reference for many readers curious about this book, Worster paints a far more complete picture of Powell, delving much deeper into journals and letters kept by colleagues, underlings, and exploratory co-travlers of his.

We see a Powell who was NOT totally Stegner's beknighted prophet of a kinder, gentler Western development. Powell did favor independent farmers over corporate conglomerates, but just as much as Nevada's Sen. Stewart, he wanted to drain every last drop from the Colorado. And, Worster also shows how he ran afoul of the most ardent forest conservation advocates late in his Washington career.

In short, Worster indicates the semi-mythical Powell, not just of Stegner but some other writers, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Worster puts Powell's evangelical -- yes, evangelical -- fervor for irrigation in the backdrop of his childhood Methodism. While there's no way of proving this, it is certainly a reasonable interpretation.

He also paints a broader picture of Powell the bureaucrat. Here again, he differs somewhat from Stegner, suggesting that Powell bears a bit of the blame, at least, for his own wing-clipping by Stewart et al late in his career.

At the same time, Worster gives a detailed portrait of just how hard-working Powell was, both as a Washingtonian and the explorer of the Colorado River and Plateau.

In essence, this is "revisionist history" at its best and most proper.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The New Classic in Western History August 16, 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is a beautiful book: well conceived and exquisitely written. It may sound cliché, but this is surely an instant classic. The genius of Donald Worster's A RIVER RUNNING WEST is not that it provides a compelling and captivating account of the life of John Wesley Powell (it does), but rather that through Powell, Worster tells the story of the settlement of the American West, the history of surveying the American West, and the professionalization of science in the 19th Century. Few individuals have represented their times so comprehensively to allow for such a study (only Ben Franklin jumps readily to mind), but Powell serves as a perfect vehicle for a study of period and place. Further, Worster is arguably the finest contemporary writer on the American West, comparable to past greats De Voto and Stegner. To boot, the book's final sentence is an absolute zinger! Anyone interested in the American West must read this book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars but be prepared for some tedious exposition.
It is well worth reading, but be prepared for some tedious exposition.
Published 5 months ago by Virginia Boding
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent adventure story
This was an excellent account of Wesley Powell's dangerous exploration of the Colorado River. We navigated the length of the river using nothing more than wooden canoes. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jim Sullivan
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fan of John Wesley Powell
He was definitely ahead of his time in terms of his view of the fragility of our environment versus the (over) development (dam construction) and demands placed upon our wonderful... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Sunflower
5.0 out of 5 stars History lover's special
A detailed look at one of our unsung military heros that pursued his passion. A good read with many revelations. Read more
Published on February 1, 2013 by R. F. Delanoy
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive, objective account but not very engaging
This is an impressive account of John Wesley Powell's public persona and offers interesting background concerning the times during which he lived and the opening up of the West. Read more
Published on February 2, 2011 by K.S.Ziegler
4.0 out of 5 stars John Wesley Powell--a man for dry seasons
John Wesley Powell, a man for dry seasons

After many diversions, I finally finished reading A River Running West, Donald Worster's full-scale biography of John Wesley... Read more
Published on February 19, 2009 by Nathaniel Levin
3.0 out of 5 stars In a word? Mediocre.
The title a River Running West is something of a misnomer. One could infer from this title that the bulk of this work centers upon Powell's Colorado River excursions (the front... Read more
Published on April 4, 2006 by nto62
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative but a little sterile.
The book is well written and informative about the events of Powell's life and the geological survey in which Powell played such a major role. Read more
Published on November 15, 2001 by M. Grundvig
5.0 out of 5 stars An Enchanting Piece of Scholarship
I enjoyed this book immensely. Thorough, evocative, thrilling, and comprehensive in its scope, it was a delight from beginning to end. Read more
Published on September 8, 2001 by Ken
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