Understanding the West

"IT'S YOUR MISFORTUNE AND NONE OF MY OWN:" A NEW HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN WEST. By Richard White, University of Oklahoma Press, 644 pp., $39.95 A SOCIETY TO MATCH THE SCENERY: PERSONAL VISIONS OF THE FUTURE OF THE AMERICAN WEST. Edited by Gary Holthaus, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Charles F. Wilkinson, and Eve Stryker Munson, University Press of Colorado, 260 pp., $24.95

SO here's the difference between East and West, children.

The history of the Eastern United States has been settled. It's future has pretty much been determined by a stabilized population, natural resources largely played out, an economy that may vary in quality but not essential nature, and a culture and politics that are established.

The history of the Western United States, on the other hand, is still unfolding and being argued over. The future is very much in question, especially in terms of population and demographics. There are plenty of natural resources, but they're at a watershed point in terms of what gets used and what gets saved, and this means a changing economy. Culture and politics are evolving.

The East represents stasis. The West, dynamism. That, and the scenery: soft and gracious in the East, tough and spectacular in the West. Garden versus wilderness.

OK, so that view is as opinionated and tinged with myth as it is brutally truncated. But the proof that it's also generally true is reflected in the exciting stir among many of the best Western writers in recent years as they try to figure out what their region has been and is all about. Here are two of the most-recent best.

"It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own," by University of Washington professor Richard White, one of the new breed of young historians of the West, is a synthesis of much of the recent scholarship on the subject with analysis that is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Patiently and with stimulating inquisitiveness, White takes the reader from the days of the first Spanish explorers up through the Reagan years. He covers it all: the conquest of native Americans, the evolution of a social and political order, the impact of extractive industries on the land, the decline of rural communities as the metropolitan West asserted its strength and values, and the role of government in distributing the land and - more importantly - subsidizing development.

These are important not only in themselves but, as White asserts, because the West "served as the kindergarten of the American state," the place where "the federal government created itself." Yet right up to the present, Westerners have "usually regarded the federal government much as they would regard a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter."

"It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them," White writes, provocatively. "Westerners, unlike southerners, never actually tried to remove the source of irritation; they were content with complaining." Many traditional Westerners still complain - these days about environmental protection laws and the efforts to curb subsidies for extractive industries on federal land.

At the end of his long and fact-filled yet highly readable text, White talks about the differences - and similarities - between myth and history. Historians and mythmakers "both seek to order the past in a way that conveys meaning," he writes. Yet myth "refuses to see the past as fundamentally different from the present" and is thus "antihistory." Still, historians must not categorically reject myth, he goes on, because "they cannot understand people's actions without understanding their intentions, and those intentions are often shaped by cultural myths."

This is a most important bit of logic to keep in mind in understanding the region that most represents American mythology.

"A Society to Match the Scenery," the first publication of the Center of the American West, is a vigorous contemporary discussion of the same issues White addresses historically.

Contributors include poets Terry Tempest Williams and Cordelia Candelaria; journalists Edwin and Betsy Marston; Professors Patricia Nelson Limerick and David Getches; Mayor Daniel Kemmis from Missoula, Mont.; former governor of Arizona Bruce Babbitt; native American rights activist John Echohawk; and premier Western writer, Wallace Stegner.

And also "Thomas Jefferson," or rather the Founding Father as portrayed by Clay Straus Jenkinson, director of the Great Plains Chautauqua, a traveling humanities tent show, and a man who knows his subject so well that he can speak in character to late-20th-century Americans and almost make them believe he really is Jefferson. He's relevant here, because it was Jefferson who first set the American vision westward with his purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. And also because his vision - a land of

independent farmers who would scrap the United States Constitution and start the government over every generation - has largely failed.

"The dream of the West is the dream of the New World extended into the present," says Stegner. And that has been both the blessing and the curse of the American West right up to today. Blessing in terms of hope and possibility; curse in that, as Stegner writes, "from the very beginning, Americans approached the West not as the Children of Israel approached the Land of Canaan (except the Mormons, who did just that), but as Egyptian grave robbers might approach the tomb of a pharaoh."

A theme throughout the book is the connection between environment and community.

"The two most vexing issues in the West today, survival of communities and stewardship of resources, are tied together," writes Getches. "Failure on one issue is failure on both." Seen more expansively - the Western experience as metaphor for the world today - the same is true around the globe.

Part of the Western cultural and social landscape has been stories, first cousin to the myths White talks about. Here, too, their importance is noted. "They define, elucidate, and inform our world," says Williams, naturalist-in-residence at the University of Utah, fifth-generation Mormon, and one of the fastest-rising poets in the West. "They teach us what is possible, what we can count on, what we can hold on to in the midst of change."

"We need to define a new and liveable story," says Kittredge, who was a third-generation rancher ripping up the landscape of eastern Oregon before he took up writing and became a professor at the University of Montana. "It will be a story about staying put and taking care of what we've got, in which our home is named as sacred, a story that encourages us to take serious care, a story about making use of the place where we live without killing it."

If that sounds a lot like the way pre-Columbian and pre-European Westerners lived, it is. Their culture has been reduced to relic, but the attitude is reemerging here and there because as Echohawk says, the issues "go right to the questions of our very existence." Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer based in Ashland, Ore.

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