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A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell Paperback – November 28, 2002

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Life of John Wesley Powell
  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 28, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195156358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195156355
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.8 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #776,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By David H. Stebbing on 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 By Gary Reger on 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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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Snyder on April 26, 2006
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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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 16, 2001
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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