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 the basic terms of the analogy:
The historical Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 25, 1876. It represented the most ignominious defeat ever suffered by American armed forces. Today, more than 100 years later, America’s economic and social forces have come dangerously close to a similiar humiliation.
Does this make sense? If it was Sitting Bull who inflicted that ignominious defeat in 1876, would not the application of Sitting Bull’s strategies serve the goal of defeating the United States once again? This apparent contradiction does not trouble the authors, nor should it. It is a fundamental aspect of the romanticizing of Western history, that you simply dissolve context and encounter Sitting Bull, not as a person engaged in serious warfare against the United States but as an abstract, courageous, inspirational figure from the colorful Western past….
What Ms. Limerick is dealing with here is a clumsiness, not a contradiction. The authors appear to be laboring to say that, bygones being bygones, Sitting Bull’s strategies can now be put to work for us, rather than against us, though, as I read the literature of the Little Bighorn, the main manifestation of his genius in relation to that battle was that he predicted it, in the great dance-trance he achieved about a week before the battle, in which he saw soldiers falling into camp; and lo, through the (in this case negative) genius of Custer they did fall into camp—they fell forever, as it turned out.
But the larger point Ms. Limerick makes in the passage quoted above, that the dissolving of context is fundamental to the romanticizing of the West, is valid and important. It has been Ms. Limerick’s task—and that of her revisionist colleagues—to continually restore the contexts which the romanticizers just as continually dissolve. She is, I’m afraid, the Historian as Sisphyus, endlessly rolling the rock of realism up Pike’s Peak, only to watch it roll right back down into the pines of romance. Hers—theirs—is a noble but thankless task; rain though they may on the rodeo-parade model of Western history, it’s still that parade that people line up to see: there’ll be an Indian or two, if any can be located, and a couple of faux-Conestoga wagons, maybe a stagecoach, with a tottery old-timer riding shotgun, then a riding club, with a number of bankers and businessmen nervously clutching their saddlehorns, and, finally, several Cadillac convertibles with pretty girls in them. There you have the beloved story: wagons rolling on across the wide Missouri, then Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, then Cadillacs (or, more currently, sport utility vehicles) whizzing along I-90, I-80, I-70, and so on down the ladder of roads.
Still, there are in the history departments gifted dog soldiers who insist on a different narrative. Patricia Nelson Limerick is one of their leaders; in their narrative, instead of an orderly parade, the winning of the West comes in a series of lurches, such as a car makes when it isn’t running too well. There was a lurch to the fur country, to a gold strike or a silver lode, to an oil field, or, perhaps most typically, just a lurch away from what lay behind, something rather like the famous defiant lurch at the end of Thelma and Louise, the one that took the travelers right off a cliff.
The revisionist narrative may be tolerated nowadays but it is not welcomed, much less loved, in part, I suspect, because too many Westerners have too much built-in ambivalence about their own experience. Even the Master (that’s Louis L’Amour, not Henry James, please) had a little ambivalence. Ms. Limerick reports:
…L’Amour is the mid-twentieth century’s successor to Zane Grey, a writer still intoxicated with the independence, nobility, grandeur, and adventure of the frontier. He remains true to the plot formula of tough men in a tough land. “A century ago,” L’Amour wrote in a commentary in 1984, “the Western plains were overrun by buffalo, and many a tear has been shed over their passing, but where they grazed we now raise grain to feed a large part of the world….” This process of progress through conquest reached no terminus: “We are a people born to the frontier, and it has not passed. Our move into space opened the greatest frontier of all, the frontier that has no end.”
But only a year later, in 1985, circumstances disclosed a different Louis L’Amour. “Louis L’Amour’s Real Life Showdown,” the headline in the Denver Post read, “Western Author, Colorado Ute Duel Over Proposed Power-Line.” L’Amour’s idyllic ranch in southwest Colorado faced the threat of “a 345,000-volt power line,” which would frame his view of the mountains…and which might trigger “health problems, ranging from headaches and fatigue to birth defects and cancer.” L’Amour fought back with the conventional Western American weapon—the lawsuit—not the six-gun.
If L’Amour recognized the irony in his situation, he did not share it with reporters. The processes of Western development do run continuously from past to present, from mining, cattle raising, and farming to hydroelectric power and even into space. The power line is a logical outcome of the process of development L’Amour’s novels celebrate. But in this particular case the author was facing the costs of development, of conquest, and not simply cheering for the benefits. “People never worry about these things until it’s too late,” L’Amour said…. Eighty-eight books later, he was at last hot on the trail of the meanings of Western history.
I feel sure that one reason for the immense, continuing popularity of Louis L’Amour’s works is that he shared no ironies; conversely, the fact that Ms. Limerick’s works are so heavily laced with irony explains much of the resentment they engender in the West, where a love-it-or-leave-it attitude is not uncommon. Irony is thought to be an agent of disillusion and thus, unpatriotic; the mayors and the poetasters won’t touch it.
Despite this, Patricia Nelson Limerick must be one of the most contented academics on the planet. She seems to love university life, love professors, and she holds forth vigorously and fearlessly from a well-defended redoubt at the University of Colorado. In the acknowledgments to Something in the Soil she thanks nearly two hundred people, the majority of them professors. This is a lot more gratitude than usually gets heaped on the professorial caste.
She did her graduate work at Yale, sipping early from the fount of revisionism. Also, while in New Haven, she seems to have slipped across campus in order to pick up a few things at the Deconstruction Store; quite the most brilliant historical set piece in Something in the Soil is her elegant deconstruction of the weird, sad, unnecessary Modoc War in northern California in 1872-1873, a war Ms. Lim-erick breaks into twelve possible narrative lines leading to a like number of morals. Here is her opinion about the barriers to simple narrative lines where American events are concerned:
If you place yourself at a certain distance, there is no clearer fact in American history than the fact of conquest. In North America, just as in much of South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, Europeans invaded a land fully occupied by natives. Sometimes by negotiation and sometimes by warfare the natives lost ground and the invaders gained it. From the caves in the lava beds of northern California, where the Modocs held off the United States Army for months, to the site along the Mystic River in Connecticut, where Puritans burned Pequots trapped in a stockade, the landscape bears witness to the violent subordination of Indian people. These haunted locations are not distant, exotic sights set apart from the turf of our normal lives.
And yet distance makes these facts deceptively clear. Immerse yourself in the story of the dispossession of any one group, and clarity dissolves. There is nothing linear or direct in these stories. Only in rare circumstances were the affairs that we call “white-Indian wars” only matters of whites against Indians. More often, Indians took part on both sides, tribe against tribe or faction against faction….
Moreover, if Indians were often divided against each other the same shortage of solidarity applied to the other side…. In virtually every case, the story of how the war got started and how it proceeded is a long, detailed, and tangled business. These are narratives designed to break the self- esteem of storytellers. You can be the world’s greatest enthusiast for narrative history, and you can still lose your nerve at the prospect of putting yourself at the mercy of these tales from hell….
Ms. Limerick is fortunate in being able to remember the exact date on which she had her determinative insight about the West: that its problems were the legacy of conquest. The insight came in June of 1981, while she was at a conference in Sun Valley. While perhaps not so resonant as Gibbon’s intimation of the Decline and Fall, which came while he was sitting in the ruins of the Capitol, listening to the barefoot friars singing vespers, Ms. Limerick’s moment of vision did come in Sun Valley, itself certainly a legacy of conquest, and an ever more significant one, now that the New York investment banker Herbert Allen has started convening his annual conference of zillionaires nearby.
Henry James grew tired of having to talk about Daisy Miller, Bing Crosby got enough of having to sing “White Christmas,” and it is likely that Patricia Nelson Limerick will one day grow weary of the phrase “legacy of conquest,” although it represents, for her, a kind of historical true north. It seems to have evolved from a most incautious remark of Thomas Jefferson’s:
If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.
Jefferson wrote that in 1791, in a letter to William Short; a little more than a decade later Lewis and Clark were on their way.
Were it not that Ms. Limerick is fastidious about titles, and constantly conscious of the need to write well—she even throws in a few pages of writing tips for the benefit of students and colleagues—she could simply have called her new book The Legacy of Conquest II; the new book is a grab-bag of studies and reflections, most of which extend or amplify themes initiated in her earlier study.
In Something in the Soil she considers the Modoc War, Mormonism, Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, California, environmentalism, and the image of the American West as it appears in textbooks. In mid-book she takes leave, for a time, of the new history (about women, minorities, and the environment), goes back to the old history (about powerful white men), and gives us interesting reconsiderations of three such men: Juan Bautista de Anza (Spanish explorer, for a time in the eighteenth century governor of New Mexico), John Sutter (northern California land baron and self-invented overreacher), and Frederick Jackson Turner (the professor who, for simplicity’s sake, we might just call the father of frontier studies). After the essay on the Modoc War I liked the chapter on Sutter best, perhaps because of a weakness for self-invented overreachers.
At one point Ms. Limerick even lets her hair down and admits that she cried a lot during the 1960s, an admission which allows her to devote a few pages to the New Emotionalism (my caps).
Ms. Limerick lopes over a vast territory in these studies; there are no doubt scholars who will fight her for every acre of it. One advantage she has in scholarly sparrings is that she writes very well. The cover copy for The Legacy of Conquest informs us that she contributes regularly to USA Today, making her that rare thing in our culture, a public historian, one who could easily, with a little effort, work her way up to the Talk of the Town:
American undergraduates are… inclined to the breezy and colorful school of ethnicity and culture. Twenty years ago, a curious habit of mind seemed to take over the students. Repeatedly, in midterm and final exams, they would refer to various lifestyles, to the lifestyle of the Pequot or the lifestyle of the Puritans. It did not help me, in my adjustment to the students’ fondness for this word, to hear a repeated radio announcement for a furniture store. The store claimed to offer every kind of furniture you might want, whether, as the ad said, “your lifestyle is colonial or contemporary.” It is a wonderful and wild notion to think of someone in the late twentieth century choosing to have a colonial lifestyle, with a few stools, no chairs, a milk churn, a fireplace to cook in, a few pots, and, if privileged, a spoon or two, with life punctuated by an occasional raid or war of conquest, and with a general sense of subordination to a distant empire.
Then there’s her approach to John Sutter:
“Men! They never change”—that is one viable interpretation of the meaning of John Sutter for our times. Sutter is often referred to as the “Father of California.” If Sutter did not, in literal fact, father California, that failure cannot be blamed on any lack of trying. With his Hawaiian mistress and his many encounters with Indian women and with Indian girls,…in these matters of personal behavior, behavior dampened but not ended by the arrival of the wife he had abandoned in Switzerland in 1834, Sutter seems distinctly modern.
It is also fun to follow Ms. Limerick as she tracks such fundamental concepts as “frontier” or “pioneer” through the headlines of the past few decades. Here’s a much abbreviated list, from her vast collection of contemporary references to pioneers:
Two Cinnamon Roll Pioneers
Pioneer of Edible Landscapes
Pioneer of Microwave Popcorn
Peekaboo Pioneer (Frederick’s of Hollywood)
Though Ms. Limerick has done much good work in this line, the West is a big place and many opportunities remain. I’ll mention only two, both of which need to be sprinkled with a little scholarly gold dust. Since Ms. Limerick likes to deconstruct textbooks, in order to see how the West is faring from decade to decade, she can hardly afford to neglect the weirdest Western textbook ever published, Texas History Movies, a history text in comic-strip form. The Texas Monthly recently called Texas History Movies the second most influential Texas book of the century, after Lonesome Dove, but the ranking is clearly wrong. My novel may have lent its name to a few subdivisions (Dove Estates), forty or fifty saloons, and a lot of horses, but Texas History Movies, at times an officially sanctioned vehicle of historical instruction, stopped two generations of Texas public school students dead in their tracks where history is concerned. The brainchild of a Dallas newspaperman, funded initally by an oil company, first issued in the mid-Twenties, Texas History Movies was still very much around my high school in the early Fifties, as a bootleg but widely used text. The effect, not to mention the irreverence, of those comics would be hard to overstate. When I reached a university I was shocked to discover that history was supposed to be learned from wordy books with few pictures and no comics; to this day I can’t shake the conviction that Sam Houston, Santa Ana, and other luminaries of Lone Star history must have looked just as they appeared in Texas History Movies.*
The second development that needs investigating is the rise of the Empire of Valet Park, in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s old mot—that southern California’s one contribution to civilization is the right to turn right on red—needs a hasty update. Now there’s another contribution, the system of Valet Park, which insures that the person who drives the automobile will not be the person who parks it, particularly if the parking is to take place in one of the tonier zip codes such as Beverly Hills 90210. I first developed a slight sense of menace in relation to Valet Park a year or two ago, when I stopped to drop off some laundry and watched helplessly as my car was whisked away. Later, when I went back to pick up my clothes and looked at the bill I decided that the notion must be that I would just give them my car as a down payment on the cleaning.
There’s a legacy of conquest for you, Valet Park. Ms. Limerick, sharp of eye and quick of retort, should get on it. It would make a dandy story for USA Today.
May 25, 2000
In 1974 the Texas State Historical Association and the Texas Educational Association published a new, much abbreviated edition, with an introduction by George B. Ward (55 pp., $49.95). It omits a number of cartoons in order to remove ethnic slurs and revises the text to correct “historical inaccuracies.” The book is currently available through the Historical Association. ↩