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Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West Paperback – March 1, 1992
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"This book goes far beyond biography, into the nature and soul of the American West. It is Stegner at his best, assaying an entire era of our history, packing his pages with insights as shrewd as his prose." —Ivan Doig
About the Author
Wallace Stegner (1909–1993) published more than two dozen books throughout his life, including the novels Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize; Crossing to Safety; The Big Rock Candy Mountain; and The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award. An early environmentalist, Stegner was instrumental—with his now famous “Wilderness Letter”—in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
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I had not read anything by Wallace Stegner for many years, until a recent trip to the Grand Canyon restored my interest in the history of its exploration. Many choices are available to discover the history of the last part of the American west to become marked as something other than "unknown" on government maps. In "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" Stegner expands the horizon beyond the confines of the dangerous canyon walls that threatened John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition through the Grand Canyon.
To be sure, Stegner is an excellent chronicler of the that trip down the Colorado. He captures the adventure, the danger, the great unknowns that faced Powell's crew. That voyage is the centerpiece of the first half of the book, and could stand on its own as a a tour de force of American discover.
Stegner gives us much more. He incorporates sophisticated discussions of the cultural climate, and the intersection of antebellum political mores in Washington, the fabric of relationships between the US government, native Americans, the Mormons and western settlers. He illustrates fine points of topography, geology, geography and river hydrology as he focuses on the essential element of any migration to the west: water. He explores the grand topics and the often overlooked (would "Big Canyon" be as good a name as "Grand Canyon" ? It almost got this name!).
As these lessons unfold, the book never comes across as a textbook. The writing is vibrant and often lyrical, without being overblown or self important. If you've spent any time in the parts of the United States where the rain is scarce and the vistas are vast, this book will provide an important education in the many forces that came to bear on its settlement. Even if you haven't, you'll acquire a solid foundation in the complex calculus that provides the initiative for discovery.
This quite simply a great piece of historical writing.
The result? Water crises, fights over water rights, lying, chicanery and stealing in the name of water rights, corporate farms squeezing out small farmers, urban sprawl and smog in the middle of deserts, dust bowls and more, were either forseen or hinted at by Powell.
The 100th meridian of latitude is the U.S.'s "dry line." Areas to the west, generally, before you get to the Pacific Coast, average less than 20 inches of rain a year. Hence the title, and the basis of Powell's warnings.
And, AND, all of that came after this one-armed Civil War veteran led the first navigation of the entire whitewater section of the Colorado, actually starting on the Green River in Wyoming and running all the way down past the Grand Canyon. (Despite some claims otherwise, it seems pretty clear James White did NOT do this.)
It was this trip, in the name of scientific research, that gave Powell his standing to eventually found the Bureau of Ethnography, do further Western research and make some top-notch recommendations for the development of the west.
The reason I didn't five-star this is that I would like to have seen a little more depth to Powell's post-exploration career. Also, a little more personality profile of Powell's struggle with disappointment over the Newlands Act and other repudiation of his ideas would have been nice.
True, Stegner may not be a professional historian, but it would have been nice to see him incorporate this.
To get an idea of what I mean by the end of this critique, please read Donald Worster's "River Running West." Also, Worster provides a bit of corrective to Stegner's occasional near-hagiographical approach to Powell.
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