Grand Canyon Sweet

John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell; drawing by David Levine

Donald Worster has devoted most of an impressive career to writing about American water—or the lack of it. His book Dust Bowl (1979) is still the best study of that catastrophe; his Rivers of Empire (1985) offers a somber but solid assessment of what water management—or, rather, mismanagement—has done to the West. He concludes, correctly, that the Colorado River has essentially died as a part of nature, to be reborn as money. The Colorado may be the most exploited river in the West, but it is not the only one. Much of the fabled Missouri, river of Lewis and Clark, has been impounded too.

Professor Worster has now gone to the headwaters of American riverine policy in this large biography of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed geologist who twice ran the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and lived to fight long and difficult bureaucratic battles in his efforts to promote a sane water policy for the arid lands of America. One hundred and thirty years of continuous litigation over water rights, with no end in sight, suggests that Powell didn’t succeed.

An awkwardness Professor Worster tries to deal with right up front is that Wallace Stegner—one of Donald Worster’s strongest advocates—happens to have written an especially brilliant book about Major Powell. It’s called Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954); here’s Donald Worster’s reasons for trying to go beyond it:

Stegner’s book now ranks as one of the most influential books ever written about the West, and more than any other work its publication explains Powell’s resurrection to sainthood after World War Two. Yet Stegner’s biography was based on limited research into its subject or the nation’s development. And it laid such strong claim to Powell as a Man of the West, a prophet for the arid region, that it obscured the fact that he was, above all, an intensely nationalistic American.

There’s no reason at all why Donald Worster shouldn’t write a book about John Wesley Powell, and he’s written a good book; but if he is trying to pump himself for the task by picking chinks out of Stegner’s book, he’s chosen the wrong chinks. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian carries seventy pages of intelligent notes on Stegner’s research, and the notion that Wor-ster’s Powell is somehow more “nationalistic” than Stegner’s Powell is hard to credit. Both Stegner and Worster keep Powell in the West as long as possible, because that’s where the portrait gets its color. Both men know that Powell and his wife, Emma, moved into a house on M Street in Washington, D.C., in 1872, and that Powell spent the rest of his working life as a bureaucrat. And, as writers, both Stegner and Worster know that long rehashes of a one-hundred-thirty-year-old bureaucratic battle are not likely to pull many readers to the edge of their seats.

John Wesley Powell was a man of…

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