Richard White, “‘It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own:’ A New History of the American West” (1991) –This is a pretty textbook-ish account of the territory between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean from European contact to the Reagan administration. White’s main thesis is that the mythology of the West — of self-made men making their own individualistic stamp on the vast landscape — is challenged to the point of irrelevance by the array of federal interventions that made the West what it is. These range from the federal army destroying independent Native American power to distributing land to people and railroads (mostly railroads) to, after the frontier period, investing massive amounts of money into water and power infrastructure in the West, following it up with federal investment in military and commercial ventures in the same area. This is one of those theses that have become common sense in American history, at least in part due to White’s intervention thirty years ago- I don’t know enough about the historiography of the West to say how they’ve diverted from White since, but I imagine it has.
Probably most interesting to me is the repeated clashes between those who dream of the West as a blank canvas on which to paint their designs and the reality of the place, both ecological and human. From private empire-builders like James Wilkinson and magnates like John Sutter to farmers convinced that “rain follows the plough” into plains and deserts to boomtown boosters of various descriptions, White describes a range of dreamers foiled by reality, though not without cost to people, especially Native peoples and the Hispanic populations of the pre-American-rule West. There’s a lot here about the tortured twists and turns of American Native policy, which makes for informative but infuriating reading. He also describes a fair amount of class conflict, though ultimately gives short shrift to radicals ranging from the IWW to the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. I guess he’s right in that they didn’t alter the structure of forces in the West, and were less politically successful than the similarly western-concentrated New Right. I guess the material reality they ran against was the brutality of a capitalist state. Is that as inevitable a part of Western reality as aridity and distance? Who knows, let’s hope not. ****