- First Impressions: A Reader’s Journey to Iconic Places of the American Southwest by David J. Weber, William deBuys
Southwestern places such as Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, the Pueblos of Ácoma and Zuni, and Santa Fe are today the subjects of deep fascination for people across the United States and beyond. The Church of St. Francis de Asís in Ranchos de Taos, for example, may have been portrayed more often by painters and photographers than any other church in the country or even the world (242). [End Page 109]
This evocative and handsomely illustrated book tells the story of how fifteen iconic sites of the Southwest became known to the non-indigenous world. The backstory to this project is as distinctive as the book itself. David J. Weber, the most distinguished scholar of the Southwest of his generation, conceived of the premise in late 2004 or early 2005 and began writing chapters shortly thereafter. By the time of this death in 2010, he had selected the sites and drafted numerous chapters, leaving notes and books for others on his desk in his New Mexico home. Wanting to see this work completed, Weber’s wife, Carol, approached William deBuys, a historian of similar sensibilities whose writings on southwestern environmental history are widely acclaimed in both scholarly and popular circles, with the idea of finishing the book. The result, as deBuys writes in his preface, “is a book by two authors, who worked on the project not together but sequentially and who were friends of long standing” (xi).
DeBuys predicts that attentive readers might find stylistic differences reflecting the sequential authorship. This reviewer, very familiar with both writers’ works, could not. The selection of fifteen places leans to the indigenous and Spanish colonial pasts, thus reflecting Weber’s abiding interests more than those of deBuys. The chapters on Rainbow Bridge and Carlsbad Caverns, however, center on encounters in the early twentieth century, and the chapter on Tucson discusses visitors impressed by the town’s urban modernity as much as by its Spanish past. The addition of chapters on Los Alamos and Phoenix would have allowed for more discussion of the region’s modern history by way of such themes as the atomic age and urban sprawl, but the authors are, throughout the book, conscious of the modern cultural forces that make their sites so compelling to this day and of the recent disputes that these forces sometimes create (as over access to Rainbow Bridge, a sacred site to many Navajo).
First Impressions is hard to categorize. Its lack of a central thesis or argument means that it is not a conventional academic book. What links its chapters is instead a sensibility of deep fascination and love for the places and peoples described. The book’s tone and the cumulative impact of the unfolding accounts (many quoted at considerable length) convey this sensibility, though at times it becomes more explicit, as when the authors quote a German artist who visited El Morro/Inscription Rock: “There is a strange and even solemn feeling in standing thus before these mouldering and half-illegible, but still venerable, relics of past time” (105). At the same time, Weber and deBuys never let their readers forget that the Southwest is living as well as ancient, still inhabited by the peoples who made many of the places they describe. The authors sometimes speculate about the meanings of these places to indigenous peoples but also acknowledge the “one-sidedness of the historical record” (113). And they showcase their academic strengths in the meticulous and sometimes fascinating work of tracing how early Spanish accounts of encounter were [End Page 110] adapted and sometimes lost. General readers and academics alike will find this to be an engaging and powerful book.