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Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West Paperback – June 18, 1992

ISBN-13: 978-0195078060 ISBN-10: 0195078063 Edition: Reprint

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Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West + Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (June 18, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195078063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195078060
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #536,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review


"Classic."--New Internationalist


"Extremely wonderful and well-written."--Thomas G. Alexander, Brigham Young University


"Worster is an eloquent, often passionate historian....This important book, sure to be furiously debated, is a history of the West in terms of its most essential resource, water....It examines how manipulation of water has combined with frontier myths, expectations, and illusions, some of them carefully cultivated by interested parties, to create the ambiguous modern West."--Wallace Stegner


"Worster is capable of making the most prosaic facts come alive through his mastery of the language, his imagery, and his ability to weave his ideas with events and personalities into a fascinating historical record."--The Los Angeles Times Book Review


"Many readers will disagree with [Worster's] conclusions, but they are so forcefully presented that they cannot be dismissed, and will likely shape the discussions for years to come....A language of exceptional poetry and power....He takes his place in a tradition of awed affectionate writing about the West that includes John Muir and Edward Abbey, Bernard De Voto and Wallace Stegner. That is distinguished company indeed, and Donald Worster stands tall in it."--The New York Times Book Review


"A brilliant book, clear in its argument, exceptional in its literary qualities."--The Los Angeles Times Book Review


"Impassioned and lyrical."--The New York Times Book Review


"An excellent choice for courses that include readings from the New Western History interpretations."--Thomas L. Charlton, Baylor University


About the Author


Donald Worster, who won the Bancroft Prize for his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. He is also the author of The Ends of the Earth, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, and the forthcoming Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Billy D. on June 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
Donald Worster's "Rivers of Empire" is a superb work by the environmental historian, though his critique of California's "hydraulic society" is more a social history. Worster chronicles the exploits of the agribusinessmen and engineers who financed and built the system of damns, reservoirs, and canals which transformed the American West from a sparsely inhabited desert to the site of massive fertile farms and sprawling urban metropolises. Worster argues that the control of scarce water resources gave rise to a symbiotic capitalist/bureaucratic elite and to a modern day empire like its ancient predecessors on the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Huang Ho. This imperial elite, in turn, established and perpetuated itself on the backs of impoverished wage laborers usually of minority or immigrant descent. As an environmentalist, he rails against the wanton waste of water for swimming pools, casino fountains, and ill-suited crops like alfalfa, the depletion of aquifers, and the salinization of rivers - all byproducts of the US government's ambitious 20th century reclamation projects. Worster points out the vengeance of nature in the form of the sedimentation and collapse of dozens of dams. He suggests that these processes and events presage the decay of a socio-economic system which long ago forsook the more harmonious ideals of agrarianism and democracy. This doomsday prediction and Worster's idealistic alternatives are a bit hard to stomach. Also, for all of Worster's sympathy for the underclass of farm laborers, this group never emerges as a real actor in his story. Rather, this is a history of great men, albeit a critical one. Nevertheless, Worster writes with passion; his narrative is fascinating and his contentions are compelling. The book is a fine counterpoint for fans of Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert," and an extremely worthwhile read on its own.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on June 19, 2004
Format: Paperback
I can count on two hands the number of truly pathbreaking works of history published since 1980. "Rivers of Empire" is one of them, and must reading for anyone who seeks to understand the history of this critical region of the United States.
Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas, has been producing outstanding history of the American West and environmentalism for more than a quarter century. When the so-called "New Western History" was avant-garde in historian circles in the early 1980s he was dubbed one of the "Gang of Four" who transformed the field of study--the others being Patricia Nelson Limerick, William Cronen, and Richard White. Worster's work, as well as that of the other three historians, was indeed pathbreaking, and "Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West" is by far his most influential publication. It demonstrates well why Worster was one of the "Gang of Four."
In "Rivers of Empire" Worster argues that the core reality of the American West is its aridity. To make it suitable for large-scale human habitation required the complete transformation of the region; Americans harnessed the rivers and brought water there, irrigating the land and creating great cities. As Worster writes, "The ecological and social transformation of the Great Valley is one of the most spectacular, and more revealing episodes of the American West" (p. 11). The organization and structure of every institution associated with the West reflected the need to control the environment. It brought profound changes to both the region and the people who lived there. This is the story that he tells in this superb book.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By isaac on March 22, 2001
Format: Paperback
'Rivers' presents an extensive yet accessible history of Western development based on the author's unique 'hydraulic' thesis -- a hybrid framework that adds an environmental dimension to traditional socio-economic analysis. Essentially, the idea is that the relationship between humans and environment dictates social structure. Whether or not one buys the theory on the strength of this book alone is beside the point. The importance of 'Rivers' lies in its singular, alternative perspective that, when combined with others, reconstructs a more complete story of the West. With that understanding, the reader may appreciate this work without being bothered by its occasional lapses into the kind of flat ideological analysis that seems inevitable in social histories like this.
'Rivers' offers a number of invaluable insights. Contrary to the idealized vision of the West as the last hope for freedom and democracy, the West birthed a rigid, hierarchical society combining big capitalism with big government. Yet the reason behind this was not the environmental condition of aridity per se, but the romantic capitalistic notion of the desert as something to be subdued and exploited. On an even broader level, therefore, 'Rivers' begins to shed light on the dynamic interplay between the relationship between human and nature and the relationship between humans themselves. In the end, this work's highest value may lie in its contribution to the development of this critical but still largely ignored point.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Snyder on April 26, 2006
Format: Paperback
However, while I appreciate other reviewers' passion, Marc Reisner has a broader scope in that book, covering the aquifer-driven irrigation of the High Plains as well as the river-fed irrigation of the Southwest.

Plus, his book has a 1993 revised edition, making it newer and more informative.

Above all, though, as a journalist, rather than an academic. Reisner is simply the better writer. His book is more of a story than "Rivers of Empire," and reads that way, as well as having the broader and more updated coverage.

Indeed, with an older-style typeface (at least in hardcover), Worster's book looks much more dated.

For somebody new to this subject, this is still a very solid four-star book. But, having read and re-read "Cadillac Desert," in that context, I rate "Rivers of Empire" at 3.5 stars.
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