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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Bookshelf: The Great Word

The American West:
A New Interpretive History

By Robert V. Hine ’48
and John Mack Faragher
Yale University Press, 2001 • 616 pages
$55 hardcover; $26 paperback


The word “West” has enjoyed certain luster throughout America’s past. In 1895, Woodrow
Wilsoncalled it the “great word of our history.” The “‘great word’ was never pure fact but
was always tinged deeply with myth,” Robert V. Hine’ 48 and John Mack Faragher write in
their introduction to The American West: A New Interpretive History. “Though interpretations
of the facts change, the myth survives. The history of the West has been consistently
revised in accord with the dream.”

I started Hine and Faragher’s book, I’ll admit, with only a partial recollection of my high school American history lessons. Like many students of my generation, I knew to be skeptical of the “old” history of westward expansion—the one that praised American pioneers as heroes and rugged individualists. The history I had learned questioned these views, citing the genocide of Native American tribes, clear-cutting of the continent’s great forests and exploitation of immigrant workers as proof of a ruthless, land-grabbing process. The name Fredrick Jackson Turner rang in my ears, though I couldn’t place him on a timeline. Most likely, his “Frontier Thesis”—the late-19th-century essay that labeled the American frontier “a meeting point between civilization and savagery”—had been the topic of some long-forgotten writing assignment.

But within pages of The American West, all these lessons came rushing back to mind. Dates, facts and frontier stories filled my head. Each had an odd familiarity, yet the context
was different. Hine and Faragher’s history moves beyond the long-standing debate between
traditional and revisionist interpretations. On the one hand, the two historians echo
Turner’s thesis, stating that all North America was once a frontier, a West, for the many
people who came to inhabit it. On the other hand, they honor the wealth of revisionist
histories written in the second half of the 20th century, which left many Americans
wondering: “Who was the savage and who the civilized?” The result is a history, as Stephen
Aron says in The Western Historical Quarterly, that recalls the “forgotten history of
collusion” between people vying for survival and opportunity along an ever-changing
frontier. In doing so, Hine and Faragher suggest different directions—possibilities and
paradoxes—for a new generation of Western historians.

Throughout, The American West is filled with engaging stories. From Texas ranches to
California mines, Hine and Faragher capture the idiosyncrasy of the frontier. They
jettison the iconic, pelt-cap-wearing pioneer in favor of a much richer, more nuanced cast
of characters. As a result, the history doubles as a pleasurable general interest read. Dip
into its pages for a deft recounting of the Mormons’ journey to Utah or Lewis and Clark’s
search for a transcontinental waterway. Not unanimously supportive or critical of Western
expansion, The American West tells us how the “frontier is our common past,” so that we
may understand better “our common future.”
—Noah Buhayar ’05
 
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by Pomona College
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