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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
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The last 2/3 of the book deals with Washington during the 1870s and 1880s, where Powell participated in the explosive growth of the federal government, particularly in the formation of many new agencies dealing with Western lands. Stegner often mentions “The Education of Henry Adams” as if trying to elevate his insights to the level of Adams’. But Stegner’s book is a purple-prose paean to Powell as a far-sighted saint whose science-based vision for federal flood control and irrigation projects in the seven Western drainage basins wasn’t implemented until after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Stegner devotes many pages to detailing the many historians who failed to recognize Powell as the origin of that vision. The major point of the concluding chapters is that Stegner is the only historian perceptive enough to pierce the haze over the past.
Powell was not, as Stegner would have it, the first person working to bring science into government policy-making. Franklin and Jefferson had emphasized it from the beginning. Nor was Powell the only voice for science after the Civil War. Lincoln had established the National Academy of Sciences specifically for that purpose. The Smithsonian had a ‘revolving door’ relationship that today’s Ivies can only envy. As has been discussed by Tim Parks in the NYRB, when a biographer depicts the subject as an especially admirable human being, glossing over faults, or even flipping them into praiseworthy attributes, it makes the book much less interesting. Maybe Stegner needed a through-line of lofty and inspired vision to make a coherent narrative out of Powell’s life. Or maybe… Stegner wrote this soon after WW II, when the U.S. government, as the world’s dominant power, was greatly expanding its international bureaucracy, analogous to the growth of ‘Western’ bureaucracy after the Civil War. Stegner was a proud right-wing Westerner, and he may have been trying to encourage young Westerners to follow in Powell’s footsteps: go to Washington and fight for the American Way. Whatever Stegner’s reason for it, the saintly slant greatly diminishes the book.
Stegner apparently had access to all the diaries of the 9 people on Powell’s daring expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. His detailed story of that wild river ride through unknown rapids in unknown canyons is gripping. It could well be published as a stand-alone chapter in a book of explorations. Even if you’re not interested in Powell, or Washington bureaucracy after the Civil War, just read the river trip. It’s well worth it. Personally, I’m most impressed by Powell’s extensive work with Indian languages. He compiled many dictionaries of different languages, and learned to speak several of them. If you look up Uto-Aztecan Languages on Wikipedia, you’ll read of raging controversy about the classification of those languages. The conclusion of that controversy is that Powell got it right in the first place.
Stegner writes in a lucid, clear, frequently exciting prose style. Although his history is solid, his writing is somewhat more. For example, at one point Stegner writes of one person who was more than a little deluded about the nature of the West: "The yeasty schemes stirring in Adams' head must have generated gases to cloud his eyesight." Especially in context a brilliant sentence, and not of the quality one anticipates in a historical work, especially one that deals at length with questions of public policy. The volume also contains an Introduction by Stegner's mentor and teacher Bernard DeVoto, an essay that contains in a few pages the heart of DeVoto's own understanding of the West, and which alone would be worth the cost of the volume.
Stegner does an excellent job of relating Powell's own insights and visions to those of others of the day. He contrasts Powell's philosophy with the desires and urges of the people who were rushing to obtain land in the West, and the politicians who were trying to lure them there. He points up similarities and differences in his way of looking at things, from those stoutly opposed to his views, and those in some degree sympathetic to him, like Charles King and the oddly omnipresent Henry Adams. From the earliest pages of the book to the very end, Stegner brings up Adams again and again, which is somewhat unexpected since Adams is not an essential participant in this story.
I have only two complaints with the book, one stylistic and the other substantive. The book contains a few maps but no photographs, and this book would have profited greatly from a number of illustrations. He refers to many, many visual things: vistas, rivers, people, paintings of the West, photographs of the West, maps, Indians, and locales, and at least a few photographs or illustrations would have greatly enhanced the book.
The second complaint is more serious. Stegner is completely unsympathetic to the attacks of Edward D. Cope on Othniel C. Marsh and, primarily by association, Powell. The Cope-Marsh controversy was, as Stegner quite rightly points out, the most destructive scientific controversy in United States history, and one that does absolutely no credit to either major participant. My complaint with Stegner's account is that he makes Cope sound more than a little psychotic, and his complaints more symptoms of mental illness and irrational hatred than anything generated by reasonable causes. Cope's hatred of Marsh was not rational, but neither was it baseless. Cope had indeed suffered grievously at the hands of Marsh, who had used his own considerable political power to prevent Cope from obtaining additional fossil samples. In this Powell was not completely innocent. I believe that anyone studying the Cope-Marsh controversy in greater detail will find Cope and not Marsh to be the more sympathetic figure, and certainly the more likable. The careers of both Cope and Marsh were destroyed by their controversy, but so also was that that of Powell greatly diminished. I can understand why Stegner is so unsympathetic to Cope, while at the same time believing that he overlooks the justness of many of Cope's complaints.
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