Cookie Pioneers

Texas History Movies

text by John Rosenfield Jr., illustrations by Jack Patton
Dallas: PJM Publishers Ltd. 217 pp. (originally published in 1928, reprinted several times until 1970)

Patricia Nelson Limerick began her admirable career as a student of ghost towns, those dusty, blistered counterstatements to the triumphalist version of the winning of the American West. If we won the West so decisively, how come there are so many ghost towns, places where pioneer hopes seem to have been totally defeated? (In my own small county in Texas three communities have vanished utterly, not a chimney, not a brick, not a log to remind of us of the ambitions that once had been nourished there.)

That question writ large—what about the failures (commercial, environmental, cultural, administrative, familial, moral) that accompanied the winning of the West?—animates Ms. Limerick’s important first book, The Legacy of Conquest (1987), which is filled with counterstatements to the triumphalist narrative. She is, perhaps by instinct, a counterstater, even, on occasion, a counterpuncher, as in this little rat-a-tat-tat to the chin of Henry James:

We live on haunted land, on land that is layers deep in human passion and memory. There is, today, no longer any point in sorting out these passions and memories into starkly separate forms of ownership. Whether the majority who died in any particular site were Indians or whites, these places literally ground Americans of all backgrounds in their common history. In truth, the tragedies of the wars are our national joint property, and how we handle that property is one test of our unity or disunity, maturity or immaturity, as a people wearing the label “American.”

For a century or two, white American intellectuals labored under the notion that the United States was sadly disadvantaged when it came to the joint property of history. The novelist Henry James gave this conviction of American cultural inferiority its most memorable statement: “The past, which died so young and had time to produce so little, attracts but scanty attention.” “The light of the sun seems fresh and innocent,” James wrote, “as if it knew as yet but few of the secrets of the world and none of the weariness of shining.”

The sun that shines on North America has, it turns out, seen plenty. A claim of innocence denies the meaning of the lives of those who died violently in the conquest of this continent, and that denial diminishes our souls.

Souls don’t show up too often in American historiography nowadays; they don’t show up very often in Ms. Limerick’s work, either, only being mentioned when she feels that American experience is being condescended to. Usually she’s temperate, even good-natured, though of course always on the alert for mixed messages and other forms of confusion:

Let me call you to your attention as an example of the drawing of historical lessons to a quite extraordinary book, published in 1993, by Emmett C. Murphy with Michael Snell, called The Genius of Sitting Bull: 13 Heroic Strategies For Today’s Business Leader. This book takes stories from Sitting Bull’s life and draws from them applications for today’s business world. Here are…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.