- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (June 18, 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195078063
- ISBN-13: 978-0195078060
- Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.1 x 6.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #380,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West Reprint Edition
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"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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Worster looks to Karl Wittfogel for inspiration and an explanation of the role of water in societies. In Wittfogel’s “hydraulic societies”, those who control the water control the civilization. Wittfogel looks to ancient civilizations to prove his point, most notably the Egyptians and the Nile River. While Wittfogel’s theory is quite logical and persuasive, Worster is not nearly as universally successful.
The American West was essentially a useless wasteland before the implementation of a water system. The water system allowed for the region to be transformed and provided the necessary “life blood” to facilitate a massive increase in population. The irrigation system provided the foundation for urbanization in the West and made a small group of individuals very wealthy. This is an important time period in American history because it marks the point in time in which the American people harnessed the power of the river and completely transformed a region of their territory in order to make it livable.
Worster makes a good argument regarding the importance of regulating and reevaluating the irrigation system in the American West, but he places a tremendous emphasis on the capitalistic aspects of the water system. While some of these characteristics do exist, it distracts from the environmental issues of irrigation and transforming the West. Worster seems almost surprised that something in the United States that could be exploited for profit was taken advantage of. This seems almost naïve and certainly questionable for a historian. Yes, big business and big government greatly profited from “the watering of the west”, but this should not be something that is surprising. The capitalist economy of the United States allows for, and even promotes, this type of corporate domination.
Rivers of Empire looks at the environmental history of the American West through a Marxists lens. Worster is very passionate about his topic and he adamantly defends his position, while not shying away from condemning what he feels to be a wrong. He is idealistic and very optimistic about the future and the potential for a course correction before things become irreversible.
Rivers of Empire is an interesting book because it is, in theory, concerned with the small farmer and the “little guy”, but the majority of the book focuses on the “great men” of history. Worster spends more time on the men he views as the enemy than he does those he is advocating for. Although he spends a great deal of time on the “great men”, he is highly critical of them. A closer examination of the “little guy” could have helped this book drive home its point.
Worster’s Rivers of Empire is a very readable book and it contains fantastic information and it raises some interesting questions and points. The attack on capitalism seems to be a personal agenda for Worster and while it does fit into the context of the book, it could have been toned down. With the personal agenda aside, the ecological message is solid. Americans must recognize the problem that exists with its current methods for providing water in the West. If a course correction is not made soon it could be potentially disastrous. Humans must learn to live with nature and show the proper respect to the world they call home.
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.
Ironically, the supposed individualistic and democratic westerners willingly conspired with the government to create a hydraulic civilization under the suzerainty of the federal government. In order to flourish in the arid West Americans had to build an agricultural system that was dependent upon large-scale government-managed waterworks--productive (for irrigation) and protective (for flood control). This not only made the West habitable, it brought urbanization and wealth there as well. Ancient Egypt first engaged in this type of civilization, and became a dominant power in the process. But always, there were winners and losers in this situation and those left out harped on the inequities of the system. In the American West the "Sagebrush Revolution" of the latter twentieth century pitted the presumably individualist West against the organization and power of the federal government. Ironically, the very organization and power that had created the modern American West was under attack from those who had so benefited from it.
Worster notes that the dominant myth of the West needs to be replaced with a more realistic understanding. He asserts that it is best understood as a story "of people encountering difficult environments, of driving to overcome them through technological means, of creating the necessary social organization to do so, of leading on and on to indigenous bureaucracy and corporatism" (p. 11). He is so right.
This is a wonderful book. Don't miss it!