- The American West and the World: Transnational and comparative perspectives by Janne Lahti
By Janne Lahti. New York; London: Routledge, 2019.
In October 2000 at the Western History Association annual conference, then-president Patricia Limerick spoke on the connections between the American West and global history. Limerick described the deep tradition of finding commonalities in pasts of empire, colonialism and environmentalism. “One can… begin as a western American historian,” she said, “and end up attending closely to global processes, from international patterns of colonialism to planetary implications of climate change. The American West affords the historian a key of admission to some of the best and most thought-provoking conversations going on in the world today.”1
This was nothing new for an organization—and a broader network of scholars—who had been comparing American expansion to other European and Indigenous histories in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s; a comparative thrust had linked the West often to locations affected by the British Empire, and if the general public was not yet versed in this American un-exceptionalism, scholars sure were. Since then, a robust and growing field of transnational works has arisen, one that connects the history of the American West with other trans-imperial regions. Readers of this journal and others with an international view of colonialism will be very familiar with this corpus, which has made inroads with scholars of the American West most forcefully over the past twenty years.
In The American West and the World, Janne Lahti gives shape and structure to this expansive yet inchoate field, offering a narrative synthesis on the West’s shared history with the world. He draws connections between older comparative work and newer transnational ties. “In some ways,” he writes in the introduction, “transnational history stands as the newest manifestation of an approach that has successively been branded as international, world, or, simply, comparative history. What all these conceptualizations share are attempts of interpretative and methodological realignments contradicting insular narratives” (6).
Through examples drawn from previous studies, and through historiographical categorization, Lahti’s work admirably defines a sprawling field. What follows the introduction is a synthesis of secondary works, finding a pattern among the myriad contributions spread across global geographies. Five chapters organize the historiography by chronology and theme, each followed by a full bibliography. “Shared Worlds” (Chapter 1) begins with a story of the Makahs, relying upon Joshua Reid’s The Sea Is My Country, to present a globally entangled world, sustained and caught by imperial and Indigenous interests from Europe to the Americas and Asia, from contact to the early nineteenth century. This “early West,” the author writes, was “international before it became national, and it became known and placed in a global context of empires, markets, epidemics, and knowledge before it was claimed by the United States and its brand of settler colonialism” (17). “Settler Revolutions” (Chapter 2) invokes the paradigm of James Belich to characterize the United States from 1830 to 1900 and beyond, with strong parallels discussed in Indigenous, British, French, Russian, and Spanish imperial lands. The remaining chapters—“Violence,” “Intimacies of Empires” and “Imperial Eyes”—arrange a conversation among scholars of diverse specialties, framed by foundational texts in American transnationalism. This all results in a field-shaping work on the global West and its borderlands.
The handling of the historiography is deft and thorough, and this study will be cited often for its ability to articulate the contours of a field still forming in many minds. Scholars of settler colonialism, empire, Indigenous societies, conquest/resistance and postcolonialism will likely nod in agreement in several sections while being pleasantly surprised by unfamiliar connections in others.
One simply cannot set down this book and retain any sense of American parochialism, much less triumphalism. Lahti is at his best when attacking exceptionalism by discussing transnational circuits and shared actors along multinational frontiers and borderlands. By virtue of its successes, then, The American West and the World implicitly raises one question (among many) pertaining to comparative and transnational modes of analysis: have previous comparative studies, by allowing for national differences, unwittingly run the...