- Out Where the West Begins, Volume 2: Creating and Civilizing the American West by Philip F. Anschutz
By Philip F. Anschutz. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. 381 pp. Illustrations, afterword, bibliography, index. $34.95 cloth.
When the word “civilizing” appears unironically in the subhead of a book about the West, alarms sound. The experience of reading Philip F. Anschutz’s Out Where the West Begins, Volume 2, feels like a ride in a time machine, not to the distant past but instead to a time before the New West historiography had encouraged a more thorough, complicated telling of the region’s stories.
This laundry list of brief biographies is about as old school as possible, offering few fresh insights and interpreting in the vein of Frederick Jackson Turner and Ray Allen Billington, who receive special praise from the author. The individuals whose tales he recounts “illustrate the many processes by which Americans imagined, explored, acquired, governed, and civilized their western wilderness” (13). The book builds on his industrialist-centered first volume (2015) with a collection of political, religious, cultural, military, and scientific figures, although Anschutz neglects to explain how he selected [End Page 214] his cast. For example, American presidents of western consequence are limited to Jefferson, J. Q. Adams, Polk, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Jackson’s absence in particular from that list is mystifying.
Anschutz includes few non-white-male entries, often grouping such individuals to dispatch their contributions. Astonishingly, he claims that “[i]n 1800, almost nothing was known about almost anything by almost anyone” in the trans-Mississippi West (13). One eleven-page chapter covers five American Indian leaders, the only Native people worthy of his focus in nearly 350 pages. Women and ethnic minorities alike are generally segregated, as the book remains focused upon the achievements of grand old male White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs).
Prominent people of the Great Plains merit two entries, one on regional authors Willa Cather and Hamlin Garland, and another on innovators who affected the prairies, including John Deere, Joseph Glidden, and Daniel Halladay. Anschutz offers condensed presentations of each individual, their tie-in being their role on remaking or narrating the Plains. The Great Plains, notably, is the only western region to merit such special attention in the book.
Out Where the West Begins, Volume 2, is readable, even enjoyably written, aided by the larger-than-standard font size, perhaps for the benefit of an older audience that yearns for western history as John Ford would present it. Ultimately, though, the experience feels like a stroll over a dry, overplowed field. For a more nuanced interpretation of the West, practically any book written since, and influenced by, the New West historiography will do.
Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado State University