“Elliott West is the best historian of the American West writing today.” So says Richard White, no slouch himself, in the foreword (xi) of The Essential West: Collected Essays. Here are fourteen essays, each humane, accessible, enlightening, and enjoyable. Ten appeared in “earlier versions,” while four are completely new.
The opening essay, “Lewis and Park,” contrasts two exploratory expeditions of 1805: the successful Lewis and Clark trip up the Missouri River and over to the Pacific, and the disastrous attempt by the Scotsman Mungo Park to trace Africa’s Niger River from upper reaches to mouth. Park and companions were done in chiefly by insect-borne diseases; the American Corps of Discovery had no such problem. The essay demonstrates clearly (and with thorough scholarship) how communicable diseases, or their absence, affected “the making of empires around the earth” (17).
At least six of the chapter essays focus directly on Great Plains history. The second shows how the Colorado and California gold rushes “redrew the mental contours” (53) of the Plains and the nation. The third, “Called-Out People: The Cheyennes and the Central Plains,” traces how the nation confronted environmental shortages after they migrated to the Plains, switched from village to nomadic life, chased buffalo, required huge numbers of horses, and lost their tribal unity through the exigencies of commerce. The sixth explores “The West before Lewis and Clark” through the lives of a West Indian man, a Missouria woman, and a Mexican woman, all “before the young United States gained the slightest toehold in the West” (149). Chapter 7, loaded with quotations and anecdotes, looks at childhood, examining the lives of girls and boys in the Plains. Chapter 10, “Bison r us: The Buffalo as Cultural Icon,” questions why the mountain man of the early nineteenth century appears as “a romantic, almost godlike figure” while the buffalo hunter-skinner of 1871 to 1883 “is covered, not with glory, but with flies. Yet both men were doing basically the same thing” (222). Chapter 13, “On the Trail with Gus and Call: Lonesome Dove and the Western Myth,” [End Page 205] lets West explore “our national creation myth” (280), the Western, concluding that “Westerns are something like the nation’s Greek chorus, and it won’t shut up” (291).
Space constraints forbid my recounting here the scores of insights and apt phrases that decorate the book throughout. Every chapter, not only those just mentioned, is rewarding, rich, freshly thought out, and enjoyable. White is right. Highly recommended.
University of Notre Dame