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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made



ON the first page of The New York Times Book Review for 20 September 1992 appeared an article by Alan Brinkley titled 'The Western Historians: Don't Fence Them In.' In the article Brinkley referred (p. 1) to a 1957 Harper's Magazine essay by historian Walter Prescott Webb in which Webb wrote, 'What is the biographer going to do for a region that has so few men of distinction? What is the historian going to do with a country almost without chronology or important battles or great victories? . . . How can he make a thick history out of such thin material? 1 ] Then, to quote Mr. Brinkley:

Webb's lament was evidence of how far western American history had fallen in the 1950's from the position of eminence it had occupied just 20 years before. Beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner's famous 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," and continuing until at least the early 1940'5, the settlement of the West had served as a paradigm for the writing of American history as a whole. Turner's "frontier thesis" had identified a process--"the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advancement of American settlement wesrward" -- that seemed to explain American development--and American democracy -- in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But after World War II, as historians turned to other, less optimistically progressive interpretations of the American past, the Turner thesis went into a broad retreat, and with it the history of the region it had done so much to promote. Webb's essay seemed to acknowledge the end of an era.

Were Webb alive today, however, he would discover a scholarly landscape radically different from the one he described in 1957. Western American history, transformed by a new generation of energetic revisionist scholars, is staging a vigorous and important revival.

The remainder of the Brinkley article discusses present-day Western historiography, noting (on p. 22) that 'central to almost all descriptions of the new history is an obligatory, almost ritualistic repudiation of FrederickJackson Turner.' There is writing that is confrontational but there are also historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick who can write, as she does in her introduction to a collection of essays, Trails: Toward a New Western History, 'Frederick Jackson Turner, father of the frontier thesis, comes in for hard criticism for having bequeathed what many historians regard as an interpretative straitjacket. We should remember not only that Turner was a man of his times but that he realized that fact. It was Turner, after all, who said that each generation interprets history anew, according to its own need for understanding. History can never be static, set down once and for all. One of history's highest goals is to make the past usable.2

Included with the Brinkley article is 'True West: A Reading List,' compiled by Richard E. Nicholls. That reading list is but a small beginning, to help one understand (and form an opinion of) the multitude of facets composing the study and interpretation of Western history. This brief article can but suggest a few of the possibilities for study of the West.

Frederick Jackson Turner, himself, is the subject of a 1985 bibliography of writings published from 1895 to 1982. Much more can now be found, bringing that record to date.3

In the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society there appears a collection of articles under the general title of 'Writing the History of the American West.'4 In one of the articles is an observation that applies to the study of Western history, but applies as well to any other historical studies and judgments, and needs to be understood by anyone evaluating the past. In 'A View from the Spanish Borderlands' Elizabeth A. H. John writes (p. 82): 'I also recognized a fundamental flaw in my Taovayas work.... I had used the standard technique that pioneers of ethnohistory called 'upstreaming': i.e., selecting a tribe as it is known in recent history and tracing it backward in time as far as pertinent documentary and archaeological evidence can be found. The fallacy of that upstreaming begins with questions shaped by modern perceptions of tribal entities, which may bear little relation to early historical realities. Moreover, the complex intertwining of tribal fortunes makes dubious the construction of any single group's history apart from its regional matrix.' Present-day writing about the past, which frequently includes harsh judgments in regard to the slight appreciation or understanding of the role of various groups such as women, the American Indians, and a great number of ethnic groups, cannot possibly project itself accurately into the past. The judgments that condemn or interpret are judgments made using contemporary values. How to discover values and ethics true to the historical period is a problem to be solved and one that is often overlooked or disregarded.

An interesting way by which to try to amalgamate some knowledge of western history, to become aware of the many aspects involved, to identify the numerous historians, scholars, and other persons who work in the field, and to realize the myriad of themes one might examine, is to peruse some of the journals that include Western history material. Such a one is Montana, the Magazine of Western History. To be noted is that Richard W. Etulain, who in the I970S worked on the Daniel Webster papers as a National Historical Publications Commission fellow, is on the editorial board and is both an author and an editor of books about the West. Several of the articles published in Trails: Toward a New Western History, mentioned above, first appeared in this journal.

'Where Is the American West: Report of a Survey' appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of Montana.5 As the author comments, there are differences of opinion about how to define 'West' and 'frontier.' What, geographically, is the West? There is a 'place-versus-process' issue. What is the real West and the West of myth? Scanning titles of articles and chapter titles in books offers a view that suggests the many interpretations. The interpretations vary, too, according to the background of the viewer. We dislike to give up the idea of the macho cowboy, Custer's Last Stand, and the Buffalo Bill shows, to say nothing of the Lone Ranger. Thus, Robert G. Athearn in his The Mythic West in Twentieth CenturyAmerica can write of'The Dudes' West' and 'The Fictional West.'6

If one were interested, he or she could travel over some old ground and perhaps even read anew but differently between the lines. In the November 1981 issue of this journal appeared an article called 'On theRoad.'7 It dealt with migration from New England, particularly New Hampshire and Vermont. Much of that migration was westward. Readers were referred to the books by Lewis Stilwell and Stewart Holbrook.8 Some of the article's sources were manuscript materials in the Library's Special Collections and the microfilmed New England Emigrant Aid Company papers held in the Jones Microtext Center. The reader is referred to that article for other suggested sources. Mentioned there, also, are a few of the guides published in the nineteenth century for the benefit of those 'weltering' travelers. For more on these guides see George Miles's contribution in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society referred to earlier.9 A resourceful student might well apply new perspectives to the migration movement through reworking these old grounds.

The opportunities for investigation are extensive and are to be found in many areas, such as studies of art related to the West and special ones, as demonstrated by Clark C. Spence's articles on dogs who went West10. Another circumstance, which is interesting, is the case of Wallace Stegner, a Westerner and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books about Western subjects. But he summers in Greensboro, Vermont. The Greensboro Historical Society recently published a town history.11Mr. Stegner wrote the foreword, and in it he notes:

. . . something draws us back to Greensboro and has drawn us there for more than fifty years.

The source of that attraction is here in the text or berween the lines of this bicentennial history. This is a place that was missed by all the great events of its two hundred years, and yet is steeped in history, local history, the home-grown, the best kind. It speaks from the stone walls that once bounded fields and disappear into rank woods, and from the barn ramps and cellar holes of burned-out farms, and from the family names that appear as surely on the latest Grand List as on the earliest gravestones. One of the things that some of us find so reassuring about Greensboro is its unbroken record, which is also a promise, of continuity and tradition, and of change so slow that it appears to be changelessness. (p. xiii)

Richard W. Etulain conducted a series of interviews with Mr. Stegner, whichwere published in 1983. The Summer 1990 issue of Montana, The Magazine of Western History offers 'A Conversation with Wallace Stegner'--a continuation of the earlier interviews.l2 To compare the man ofthe West with the man of Greensboro, Vermont, the 'place that was missed by all the great events,' would be an interesting exercise.

While looking through contemporary writings, the writer found unfamiliar terms and expressions. Another possibility! What does 'weltering' mean; one can guess, but it is not a much-used term. And what of the expression 'seeing the elephant'? There are dictionaries of Western terminology as well as a many dictionaries of slang, regional expressions, and etymology. The journal Western Folklore sometimes carries articles on words and phrases. Here is an opportunity for anyone with linguistic interests to go to work.13

For the would-be student of the West, here are several volumes that would be of assistance:

I. American Frontierand Western Issues: A HistoriographicalReview. Ed. Roger L. Nichols. (Contributions in American History, II8) Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, [I986].

2. The Twentieth Century West: HistoricalInterpretations. Ed. Gerald D.

Nash, Richard W. Etulain. [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989].

3. White, Richard, 'Its Your Misfortune and None of My Own' A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,[1991] .

4. Malone, Michael P. and Richard W. Etulain, The American West: A Twentieth-Century History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,[1989] .

5. The Frontier Experience: A Reader's Guide to the Life and Literature of the American West. Ed. Jon Tuska and Vicki Piekarski. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., [1984]. This guide is primarily a record of books; the entry for each book is descriptively annotated.

6. Townley, John M., The Trail West: A Bibliography-Index to western American Trails, 1841-1869.[Reno, Nevada: Jamison Station Press, 1988]. A variety of materials is listed in this guide including diaries, recollections, articles, and dissertations. Chronological, subject, and trail segment indexes are provided.

1. 'The American West, Perpetual Mirage,' Harpers Magazine(May 1957), 25-31.The quote is on p. 31.

2.Trails: Toward a New Western History. Ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick and others (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, I99I), xi-xii.

3.Vernon E. Mattson and William E. Marion, Frederick Jackson Turner: A Reference Guide (Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985). The current indexing service America: History and Life provides an ongoing record of research.

4.1O1, pt. I (I991): 63-I26.

5.Walter Nugent, 42, no. 3:2-23.

6.(Lawrence: The Universitv of Kansas Press, 1986).

7. 22 (NS): 33-35.

8.Lewis D. Stilwell, Migration from Vermont, published in the Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society n.s. 2 (June 1937): 63- 246,and reissued in 1948. Holbrook's Yankee Exodus was published in Igso in New York by Macmillan.

9."'Go West and Grow Up with the Country": An Exhibition of Nineteenth- Century Guides to the American West in the Collections of the American Antiquarian Society,' 101, pt. 1 (1991): I27--164.

10.'Canines to Canaan: The Story of Some Forgotten Four-Footed Pioneers,' American Heritage 32 (February-March 1981): 58-64; 'Pioneers with Wagging Tails: Dogs on the Trail to Oregon,' Idaho Yesterdays 25 (Summer I98I): n. p.

11.The History of Greenshoro: The First Two Hundred Years (Greensboro,Vt.: Printed by Northlight Studio Press, 1990).

12.Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983); Montana, The Magazine of Western History 40 (Summer 1990): 2-12.

13.For example, Peter C. Watts, A Dictionary of the Old West, 185O-I900 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,l977);J.Rea,'Seeing the Elephant,' Western Folklore 28 (I969):21-26.