- Hell of a Vision: Regionalism and the Modern American West by Robert L. Dorman
This well-written book surveys the idea of western regionalism—the area’s self-identification—since the late nineteenth century. In many ways, this is a cultural history of the West, divided into six topics, ranging from the Great Depression to the advent of modern environmentalism to the Cold War. Historian Robert Dorman includes all of the important characters who have tried to understand or explain the West, from John Wesley Powell and Ed Abbey to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mary Austin. He details the contributions of artists, historians, and writers to the history of the West, focusing on the twentieth century. This is a useful introduction to the power of place and its role in the West.
Dorman employs a wide range of sources in his story, including literature, history, art, movies, and government reports such as Powell’s famous Report on the Arid Lands. He begins his book with Powell, known for his explorations of the Grand Canyon, who helped define the wilderness West, the natural wonderland that we think of today. Powell also helped to explain the Native American West, aided by artists such as George Catlin. Other historical regions that Dorman discusses [End Page 111] include the Old West, a supposed place of greater freedom and opportunity, and the urban West, where most westerners live today.
A number of individuals who would help shape our vision of the region lived on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. These included Laura Ingalls Wilder, the artist Frederick Remington, and Theodore Roosevelt. All three helped create the modern myth of the American West. The depression and drought of the 1880s and 1890s, as well as the Populist revolt, did not interfere with the popularization of western mythology though. Writers such as Owen Wister, responsible for one of the first western novels, The Virginian, added to the mystique of the West. Historians such as Walter Prescott Webb and Herbert Bolton also helped give western studies legitimacy in the early twentieth century.
Over time our understanding of the West has changed. As the frontier closed, artists and writers recorded the West’s exotic cultural landscapes. The Native West and the Hispanic West of New Mexico became important cultural icons. Railroads and tourism took Americans to these places and to the glamorized urban West of places like Los Angeles. The Great Depression challenged the dominant ideology of triumphalism. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Carey McWilliams’s Factories in the Fields helped redefine the region by focusing on injustice and environmental degradation. World War II and the Cold War radically reshaped the West, as government spending helped lead to spectacular economic growth. But such expansion had its drawbacks and spurred environmental ruin. Writers like Ed Abbey and Vine Deloria Jr., as well as historians such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, helped undermine western mythology in the late twentieth century by highlighting imperial power, violence, and inequality.
Hell of a Vision is a fine summary of a complex topic and would be very useful for undergraduate surveys of the region. This book will be more useful to students and scholars than a general audience, however. While it includes no new interpretation, Dorman includes virtually every important source that would be needed for such a survey. It is a clear and concise review of more than a century of writing and thinking about the American West.