- The Great Valley Road of Virginia: Shenandoah Landscapes from Prehistory to the Present
This is an ambitious book. It offers a roughly 180-mile stretch of the Great Valley Road in Virginia as “a metaphorical route into the history of the Shenandoah Valley and the forces of historic change that give its landscape structure, meaning, and significance” (10). While it doesn’t achieve a grand synthesis, it nevertheless offers deeply insightful commentary, and in general, the essays are first-rate.
The Great Valley Road of Virginia’s eight chapters originated as papers delivered at Shenandoah University in 2004. The two-day meeting, entitled “The Valley Road of Virginia: History and Landscape,” brought professionals and lay people into conversation. Scholars tried to make sense of histories and interpretations. Government and cultural resource management personnel negotiated what was ideal and what was feasible. There were people who attended out of general interest, and others with particular agendas.
It is important to consider the origins of a book like this one. The conference represented decades of engagement with the Shenandoah Valley, its roles as a place of transit and settlement, and the ways we might approach “place” and “landscape” at practical and abstract levels. And like the conference [End Page 110] from which it derives, this book rewards those who actively participate. Don’t expect a single narrative, the synthesis of a monograph, or a comprehensive overview. Expect to join a sophisticated conversation, and do not be surprised if a certain level of familiarity or expertise is expected of the reader.
One of the most vexing challenges of a project like this is determining how it should convey the kinds of natural familiarity and detailed local knowledge brought to the conference by participants. More broadly, authors must ask what kinds of context and location a book like this owes readers who lack expert local native understanding. These are not trivial points. After all, the physical complexity and characteristics of the Valley bedeviled the Union Army during the Civil War even though it had the benefit of scouts and cartographers. While this book features many images and some maps, the relative insufficiency of effective visual and contextual aids makes it a somewhat tougher go than it might otherwise have been.
The premise of the original conference (and of the book) is straightforward: The Great Valley Road of Virginia was, and continues to be, the trunk of a major Eastern thoroughfare linking the Atlantic Seaboard at Philadelphia and Baltimore with a series of gateways to the Ohio Valley and the Upper South. The Great Valley is a natural highway and has long been the site of evolving negotiations between the people who use the valley, those who understand its larger strategic implications, and those who settle it.
The book’s primary challenge in approaching the Valley Road from a variety of critical perspectives is to make the Shenandoah Valley coherent, or at least effective, as a region of study and analysis. The road becomes the organizing principle for understanding the valley, its landscapes, and its cultural resources. Ultimately, the authors can’t quite settle on uniform definitions of the valley, the road, or what it is that holds everything together. Landscape, as a central organizing principle, is somewhat unevenly observed.
The book presents the Great Valley Road as part of a larger network of paths, roads, canals, railroads, trade, and population shifts unfolding over several centuries. Yet the railroad is usually dismissed as a disruptive, almost alien intrusion; in point of fact the people traversing and living in the valley regarded it as merely another—and often, superior—kind of Valley Road. One might argue that the railroad offered a distinctive form of industrial landscape and a more useful counterpoint to the Valley Road than the authors considered. Thus the book would have benefitted from more care in setting...