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Author Biography: Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans. Patricia Nelson Limerick is professor of history at the University of Colorado.
First published in the August 1934 edition of Harper's, this essay plunges into DeVoto's rails against the Eastern financial establishment. He draws the line in the sand in the fight over Western resource rights and the autonomy of the region. Written nearly a year after DeVoto's participation in the annual Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, this essay appeared a month before DeVoto's novel We Accept with Pleasure was released on September 21.
The Westerner remains a bewildering creature to the rest of the nation. Socially he has never fused with the energetic barbarian that for many decades symbolized the Middle Westerner to the appalled East. Politically, also, he has remained distinct from the Middle Westerner, to whom our cartoonists allot a more genial grin, a better-filled-out frame, and a neater suit of overalls. To cartoonists, the Middle Westerner is the Dirt Farmer and he lives in the Corn Belt and, except occasionally, he is admitted to be a person of some consequence. On the contrary, it is established that the Westerner is gaunt, ragged, and wild-eyed; also he is a mendicant and rapacious. Under one arm he clasps a concrete dam or a bundle labeled Government-Built Hard Roads. Other labels dangling from his pocket announce that he has grabbed a lot of pork. They allude to Reclamation Projects, Forest Reserves, Experiment Stations, Grazing Acts, the Desert Land Act, Crop Surveys, Home Loan Banks, and similar privileges. Sometimes, with a quaint candor, they mention Land Grant Railroads, and nearly always a caption informs the reader how much Massachusetts paid in Federal taxes and how many miles of concrete in Idaho were laid by the sum. The mendicant's mouth is open: you are to understand that he is bawling for more Privilege and Paternalism. This is his routine appearance when the cartoonists are merely amused, are even willing to tip him a dam or two for the sake of quiet as you would give a child a nickel to go play somewhere else. When, however, the spectacle of human greed dismays the artist the Westerner ceases to be a mere beggar. Gaunt and wild-eyed still, he now rides a whirlwind or rushes over a cliff, invariably dragging the Republic with him, and the lightning round his head is labeled Socialism, Bolshevist Daydreams, or National Bankruptcy. Instead of being merely a national pensioner, he is now a national danger.
This is the symbolism of the Westerner in our metropolitan press-the national wildman, the thunder-bringer, disciple of madness, begetter of economic heresy, immortal nincompoop deluded by maniac visions, forever clamoring, forever threatening the nation's treasury, forever scuttling the ship of state. And yet, a queer thing: a mere change of clothes gives him a different meaning on quite as large a scale. Put a big hat on his head, cover the ragged overalls with hair pants and let high heels show beneath them, knot a bandanna round his neck-and you have immediately one of the few romantic symbols in American life. He has ceased to be a radical nincompoop and is now a free man living greatly, a rider into the sunset, enrapturer of women in dim theaters, solace of routine-weary men who seek relief in wood pulp, a figure of glamour in the reverie of adolescents, the only American who has an art and a literature devoted wholly to his celebration. One perceives a certain incompatibility between these avatars.
The land he inhabits has a further symbolism. The West is the loveliest and most enduring of our myths, the only one that has been universally accepted. In that mythology it has worn many faces. It has meant escape, relief, freedom, sanctuary. It has meant opportunity, the new start, the saving chance. It has meant oblivion. It has meant manifest destiny, the heroic wayfaring, the birth and fulfillment of a race. It has, if you like, meant what the fourth house of the sky has meant in poetry and all religions-it has meant Death. But whatever else it has meant, it has always meant strangeness. That meaning may serve to reconcile the incompatibles.
Much energy has been spent in an effort to determine where the West begins. The definitions of poetry and the luncheon clubs are unsatisfactory: vagueness should not be invoked when a precise answer is possible. The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches. When you reach the line which marks that drop-for convenience, the one-hundredth meridian-you have reached the West. And it is a strange country.
The first part of its strangeness is that it was the last frontier to fall. The American migration leaped across it and in part returned to it from beyond, Californians and Oregonians invading it eastward from their region of plentiful rain. It lingered on invincible after all other frontiers had disappeared, into a time when pioneering was only a memory shimmering with the rainbow of the never-never. The pioneers' grandchildren were now citizens of orderly manufacturing towns, and when they read of to-day's happenings over the hill they necessarily thought of them as belonging to grandfather's romance. It must clearly be a strange country where the legendary saga of redskins and first-fruits was still going on.
It was strange too in that the westward-making Americans, when they came to their last frontier, found that what they had learned on the way there would do them little good. They were the world's great frontiersmen. The whole continent had been frontier, and in subduing it they had learned an exquisite craftsmanship, an exquisite technique, round which much of the national culture had formed. Yet four-fifths of their travel had lain among trees, and the forests had conditioned their craftsmanship. Was not the first chapter in the heroic legend called "The Cabin in the Clearing"? The roadways through the wilderness were forest-fed streams down which produce could be floated to market and up which the pioneers could make their way by canoe. It was a hard labor, but the very core of American significance was that its results were certain. A man made a clearing with his axe, raised his cabin, fenced his fields, and grew old in security. During the last fifth of the westward journey craftsmanship had had to be somewhat modified, for the Americans had reached the prairies. Yet the problems here differed in degree rather than in kind, for the rivers were still navigable, there was wood for fuel and for the cabin and the fences, and the pioneers could count on even greater security, since this was the richest land in the world. But when they reached the West a craftsmanship refined through more than two centuries, and now felt to be a hereditary way of life, was simply useless.
There could be no cabin in the clearing, for there were no trees to clear and no logs to shape into walls: the pioneer's axe, his greatest tool, was as ineffective as its prototype of the smooth-flint age. The rivers ran contrariwise, most of them ran too shallowly to float a barge or even a canoe, ran brackish water, and in summer sometimes did not run at all. The redskins of the forest had been cruel, pestiferous, and obstinate, but they had never been a match for the Americans. Whereas the mounted Indians of the plains for many years exercised a boisterous superiority over their invaders, easily dominating them because of superior equipment and superior adaptation to the land's necessities. Even the fauna gave the pioneer problems his legendary technique was not adequate to solve. Bear and venison were not to be butchered in the door-yard but had to be followed over the horizon and perhaps could not be met with at all; and the buffalo, the West's beef, had had no precedent in the forests. Not only the fauna was unfamiliar-the tight-fisted land would not grow most of the crops which the pioneers had grown to the eastward, would grow little dependably, and nothing at all except under methods radically different from anything the East had known.
It was a strange land, and all its strangeness came from the simple arithmetic of its rainfall. A grudging land-it gave reluctant crops only. A treacherous land-its thin rain might fail without reason or warning, and then there were no crops at all and the pioneer, who had been ignorant of droughts, promptly starved. An inventive land-besides drought it had other unprepared-for plagues: armies of locusts and beetles, rusts and fungi never encountered in the forests, parasites that destroyed grains and cattle which had been habituated to an Eastern climate. A poisoned land-it was variously salted with strange earths which must be leached away before seeds could germinate. And in the end as in the beginning, a dry land-so that all problems returned to the master problem of how to get enough water on land for which there could never be water enough. In sum, conditions that made unavailing everything that the pioneers had learned, conditions that had to be mastered from scratch if the last frontier was to be subdued.
And, therefore, the final strangeness of the West: it was the place where the frontier culture broke down. The pioneer's tradition of brawn and courage, initiative, individualism, and self-help was unavailing here. He could not conquer this land until history caught up with him. He had, that is, to ally himself with the force which our sentimental critics are sure he wanted to escape from: the Industrial Revolution.
Professor Webb's fine book, The Great Plains, catches the era in the actual process which can only be alluded to here. The country had no rivers for the transportation of goods-so settlement had to await the railroads. It had, except for the alpine regions, no forests. The pioneer might cut sod or mold adobe bricks for a shanty, but he could not fence his claim until industrialism brought him barbed wire. The Plains Indians were better equipped than he for the cavalry campaigns that had to be the West's warfare-so the Industrial Revolution had to give him repeating rifles and repeating pistols, especially the latter. So far as the Winning of the West was a war of conquest, victory waited upon the Spencer, the Winchester, and especially the Colt. And always the first condition: to grow crops where there was not enough water. The Revolution's railroads had to bring westward the Revolution's contrivances for deep cultivation, bigger and tougher plows, new kinds of harrows and surfacers and drills, and its contrivances for large-scale operations, new harvesters and threshers, steam and then gasoline group-machines which quadrupled cultivating power and then quadrupled it again. Finally, the problem of the water itself. The axe-swinging individualist had farmed his small claim with methods not much different from those of Cain's time. The Western pioneer could not farm at all until the Revolution gave him practicable windmills, artesian wells, and the machinery that made his dams possible. When he crossed the hundredth meridian, in order to be Cain at all he had first to become Tubal-Cain.
The West, then, was born of industrialism. When the age of machinery crossed the hundredth meridian the frontier, which had so long resisted conquest, promptly came under the plow. But industrialism has other products than machines. Drawn to his heritage partly by advertising, which is one of them, the pioneer found prepared and waiting there for him the worst of all: financial organization.
In one sense the California gold rush won the Civil War, and that has its importance for history; but a greater importance is that it developed a mechanism for the exploitation of the West. The inventive men who devised ways of preventing gold-washers from retaining any outrageous profit from their labors skipped eastward into the true West with a perfected system. From 1860 on, the Western mountains have poured into the national wealth an unending stream of gold and silver and copper, a stream which was one of the basic forces in the national expansion. It has not made the West wealthy. It has, to be brief, made the East wealthy. Very early the West memorized a moral: the wealth of a country belongs to its owners, and the owners are not the residents or even the stockholders but the manipulators. Gold, silver, copper, all the minerals, oil-you need not look for their increase in the West, nor even among the generations of widows and orphans thoughtfully advised to invest in them by trust companies. The place to look for that increase is the trust companies, and the holding companies.
All this was demonstrated by the mines even before the Westerners arrived in force. The demonstration was repeated on a magnificent scale by the railroads, which added refinements in their ability to loot the Westerner directly as real-estate agencies and common carriers. Meanwhile the Government, the press, the whole nation were expediting the rush of settlement. It was Zeitgeist, by God! The continent had to be occupied-a bare spot on the map was an affront to the eagle's children. The folk migration, now in its last phase, was speeded up. Manifest destiny received the valuable assistance of high-pressure publicity. Congress, even less aware than the rail splitters that this was a strange country, helped out by passing, during fifty years, a series of imbecile laws which, even if no other forces had been working to that end, would have insured the West's bankruptcy. To inconceivably stupid government was added the activity of the promoter, who in the West had his last and greatest flowering as a statesman. Able to invade the last wilderness after fifty years of frustration, the migrating folk settled on the West like locusts. And they found finance-the finance of the East-waiting for them.
The catch phrase is "a debtor section." This was not, let me repeat, a problem of shouldering an axe and walking into the forest. The country had to be developed with the tools of the Industrial Revolution, and these cost money. The fencing, the wells, the canals and dams, the windmills, the gang plows, the cultivators, the tractors had to be paid for. The pioneers have been a debtor class all through history, and the Westerners as debtors differed only in having to pay more. What distinguished them from the rail-splitters was the fact that history had got ahead of them. They had to pay for the development of the country because the financiers were there first, whereas on the earlier frontiers that development had paid for itself.
Costs are not always apparent on the surface. The financing of an expertly wrecked and re-wrecked railroad may be like the salesman's overcoat-you don't see it on the expense account but it's there just the same.
Excerpted from The Western Paradox by Bernard DeVoto Copyright © 2000 by Mark DeVoto. Excerpted by permission.
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|Select Harper's Conservation Essays|
|The West: A Plundered Province||3|
|The Anxious West||22|
|The West Against Itself||45|
|Sacred Cows and Public Lands||74|
|Statesmen on the Lam||103|
|Two-Gun Desmond Is Back||113|
|Billion Dollar Jackpot||123|
|The Sturdy Corporate Homesteader||133|
|Heading for the Last Roundup||143|
|Conservation: Down and on the Way Out||153|
|Ch. 1||To the Traveler's Eye||177|
|Ch. 2||Damnedest Country Under the Sun||223|
|Ch. 3||Emptiness Can Affect the Unwary||266|
|Ch. 4||Unregarded Inheritance from the Frontier||309|
|Ch. 5||The Eighth City of Cibola||359|
|Ch. 6||A Certain Mentality||401|