- To Pass on a Good Earth: The Life and Work of Carl O. Sauer by Michael Williams, David Lowenthal, William M. Denevan
Enough time has passed – some four decades – and ample dust settled, since Carl O. Sauer took leave of American geography, that a clear biographical fix on his life and work should be possible. During the previous six decades, from his dissertation defense in 1915 until his death in 1975 he gained a stature that many feel was unequaled among his contemporaries. His New York Times obituary hailed him the “Dean of Geographers.” Environmental historical geographer Michael Williams, himself now deceased, began this project in 1978 and left it basically complete at the time of his death in 2009, thus three decades in preparation. Still, there were loose ends, the matter of arranging a publisher, and other details. David Lowenthal and William Denevan, both former students in Sauer’s Berkeley department (and school) were enlisted to put the manuscript into final shape. While their service was indispensible in seeing it through to publication, it is very much Michael Williams’ book. However, in assuring publication, the original manuscript had to be trimmed to half or less of its original length.
The broader contours of Sauer’s life and work have been the legible for some time now. As of 2007, Denevan had identified some 500 published commentaries on Sauer, his life and scholarship. It is probably safe to say no other North American geographer of the 20th century has received so much attention in print as Carl Sauer. Nor has this interest abated. His place in the history of American geography is assured. But some of this attention verges on the hagiographic, provoking Marvin Mikesell in one of the several edited volumes of essays on Sauer, to decry the tendency of the “Sauerologists” to project a larger-than-life and often distorted picture of the man based largely on a mix of Sauer’s programmatic statements and well circulated anecdotes or disciplinary lore. The more sober renderings have been for the most part just that – rather strait forward accounts or reminiscences of Sauer, whether at home or afield, at various points and moments in his career. For example Robert West, true to form, gave us two gems of Latin Americanist [End Page 165] geographic history in his 1979 monograph Carl Sauer’s Fieldwork in Latin America and his 1982 editing of Sauer’s letters from South America, Andean Reflections. Engaging reading as they are for Sauer devotees (and one would hope others too), they are more fragments than fully fleshed biographical pieces. Clearly what has been needed is an authoritative biography, building on this Sauerological scaffolding erected somewhat before the fact, and completed through intense excavation of the “facts” as uncovered in the primary sources, principally correspondence, both professional and personal. Fortunately, there is enough primary material, the bulk held in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, for a full biography to be constructed.
How well then, did Williams (and his posthumous collaborators) succeed? At what one might posit as a base level – a balanced account of Sauer’s life from start to finish with sufficient detail to put the reader at times into the mind of the subject and follow the body through its life trajectory – Williams easily succeeds. But at less than 200 pages, only cursory attention is given to various personal episodes and interpersonal relationships that were formative or turning points in Sauer’s life. And some not recounted at all. For example, in his “season of doubt” during graduate school when he considered quitting geography and becoming a journalist, the family letters record a trip south (on the sly?) to Louisiana to see about buying a small town newspaper. On the train down (writing frequent letters home) he is in all high hopes that a new life and career is around the corner. But once he gets to Alexandria...