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  • Capitalism and the American West: Macrocosm and Microcosm
  • David M. Wrobel (bio)
William G. Robbins. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994. xvi + 255 pp. Notes and index. $29.50 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).
Carroll Van West. Capitalism on the Frontier: Billings and the Yellowstone Valley in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. xiii + 281 pp. Maps, tables, photographs, notes, bibliography, and index. $37.50.

For a decade now, revisionist interpretations of the western past have increasingly gained the attention of both the profession and the general public. The term “New Western History,” while certainly not part of general parlance, has managed to permeate outwards from the walls of the academy. But how do Robbins’s Colony and Empire and Van West’s Capitalism on the Frontier relate to the new western revisionism?

Robbins’s work lends itself a little more easily to categorization. Thanking Patricia Nelson Limerick “for failing to list the words ‘Canada’ or ‘capitalism’ in the index to Legacy [of Conquest]” (1979) (p. xv), Robbins places himself squarely in the tradition of recent revisionist work. In the book’s first part, “Western Myth, Western Reality,” he challenges readers to “turn from the easy and comfortable designs of triumphalism and success and look more closely at alternative approaches . . . especially examining the structural role of capitalism in our national culture.” Robbins further contends “that capitalism is the common factor essential to understanding power, influence, and change in the American West from the onset of the fur trade to the present” (p. 7).

In doing this much, Colony and Empire serves as far more than an index appendage to Limerick’s seminal work. Indeed, in providing fairly comprehensive coverage of capitalism’s impact on the West, it makes a major contribution. Capitalism was also the primary focus of Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl (1979), and the tone of Robbins’s book most closely approximates this work. Worster focused on a defined western region—the Southern Plains—over the course of a single decade—the 1930s. Robbins’s analysis stretches [End Page 258] from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, and takes on the whole West, “from the ninety-eighth meridian . . . west, to the Pacific, exclusive of Alaska and Hawaii,” but inclusive of the Mexican and Canadian borderland areas (p. x). Robbins acknowledges the influence of Dust Bowl on his work and reiterates Worster’s warning to scholars to not avoid using the word “capitalism.”

Robbins provides an interesting analysis of the uneven relationship between U.S. capitalism and one of its targets of exploitation, Mexico, in the period since the Mexican-American War. He argues that the Mexican Revolution can be linked to the incorporation of Mexico into the U.S. capitalist sphere, an approach which, while compelling, seems to exonerate the Mexican elites, and the brutal dictator, Porfirio Diaz, from any blame in creating the horrible economic injustices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The author’s comparative analysis of the Canadian and American Wests centers less on the exploitation of the former by the latter (as is the case in his analysis of Mexico and the United States), than on the lessons that can be learned from the United States northern neighbor. Canadian literature, Robbins notes, does not glorify the frontiersman; Canadian historical writing has not been straightjacketed by grand, exceptionalist myths “centered on conquest, domination, and progress” (p. 56); and Canada’s past has not been marred, like the United States’, by policies of genocide directed at indigenous populations. He further contends that “[i]n some respects American academics have been as imperial as their nation-state” (p. 57). The irony in Robbins’s comparative analysis, perhaps, is that its intended purpose is to de-emphasize American exceptionalism, yet he highlights those aspects of the American past, and past scholarship, that he deems exceptionally negative.

The book’s second part, “Forces of Transformation” constitutes the heart of the analysis. Robbins examines the economic motivation behind the various western surveys and explorations of the nineteenth century in the chapter “In Pursuit of Private Gain.” In “The Industrial West: The Paradox of the Machine in...

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