Virtually every schoolchild in the United States knows about the Grand Canyon by sixth grade or so; and as charts in the back of Stephen Pyne’s new book tell us, between three and five million tourists (most of them from the US) now visit the place annually to see for themselves, and more than twenty thousand raft through the canyon each year. So the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is, indeed, an American icon, as Pyne calls it—a national symbol, but of what?
Visitors do not pause to ask. Pyne, who spent long, youthful summers as a firefighter on the canyon’s North Rim, had plenty of time to reflect on the question, and when in graduate school began to explore the way shifting ideas and attitudes among successive generations of observers imposed radically different meanings upon what was, on human time scales, an unchanging, if unusual, juxtaposition of colorful rocks and flowing water. Twenty-four years later, as he tells us in an afterword, he returned to the subject. How the Canyon Became Grand is the artfully wrought result.
The book is organized around the notion that across the past five hundred years exploration went through three successive phases: (1) the initial European venture overseas, between 1492 and 1800, when material gain and saving souls were the guiding expectations; (2) the nineteenth-century scientific effort (1800-1914) that used prevailing ideas to classify everything on the face of the earth and locate each item on an eternal grid of Newtonian time and space; and (3) the twentieth- century effort to explore earth and cosmos anew, with due respect for relativity—i.e., the interaction between observer and observed that allows us to create meaning by symbolic manipulation (mathematical and verbal, as well as visual), and relies on intuition, metaphors, and similes to call attention to the significant elements in an otherwise chaotic flow of sensory input.
Pyne’s short book is an elegant example of the contemporary vogue for this sort of relativity. Since, as Pyne convincingly argues, the eye of the beholder made the Canyon meaningful in different ways in successive ages, he divides the story into three parts: “Two New Worlds” deals with early European reports of the gorge; “Rim and River” describes the “Heroic Age” of exploration and discovery when the Canyon first became Grand; and “Canyon and Cosmos” records its vulgarization as a tourist attraction and national park (since 1919), and the environmentalist clamor of the 1960s that defeated plans for building two dams along the river’s course through the Canyon.
It is surprising to learn that Spanish explorers first visited the Grand Canyon in 1540—more than two generations before our familiar national history began at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And it is equally at odds with our received vision of the American past to be told that the “Colorado River was identified and mapped long before the St. Lawrence, the Columbia, the Hudson, or even the Mississippi.” But the “discovered Canyon quickly …