Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: The Legacy of Conquest

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).

As her title indicates, Limerick is uninterested in telling a tidy narrative with a beginning and an end. Her theme is the continuity of the American West. As such, she challenges Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis and argues that the West must be rethought of as a place rather than a process. If Western history is merely the story of white settlers conquering the wilderness, then perhaps Turner’s thesis, as arbitrary as it is, can suffice. But if the history of the West is the story of a place, it opens up the narrative and allows us to see previously overlooked continuities. Limerick contends that the ideas and economic forces that animated the nineteenth-century West are far less exotic and foreign to the present day than we may like to believe. The battles fought then – over property rights, land use, ethnic conflict, immigration and more – parallel those of today.

Limerick also aims to recapture the reality of conquest. Despite the brutal truth of it, she notes that the conquest of the West has been turned into an adventure story and a venue for mass entertainment in a way that other aspects of American history have not. “Children happily played ‘cowboys and Indians,’” she writes, “but stopped short of ‘masters and slaves.’” Throughout, Limerick is determined to upend popular perceptions of what the West was (and is) like. She portrays the West not as a place of boundless fulfillment of the American Dream, but as the place where American myths came to die. Here, the rugged white individuals conquering the wilderness are nowhere to be found. In their place are normal people relying on a healthy dose of Federal government support and more than their share of a sense of victimization. It was the place, too, where the American faith in the inevitable reward for hard work was strained to the breaking point. On the farms of the plains and in the mining boom towns, toil and success, those supposed sisters, were all too often decoupled.

Of course, white Americans were not alone in the West. In Limerick’s telling, rather than encountering an empty wilderness, white settlers battle with Indians, Hispanics, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and nature itself. By bringing in the story of disparate groups, Limerick complicates traditional Western narratives, challenging a Eurocentric perspective. We can think of Western history, she says, as a subway system, with each station representing a different group of people. There is no center, but each station is connected to the others, and the view looks different depending on the station one is at. Despite this useful analogy, Limerick fails to fully overcome a basic conceptual problem in the structure of her book. Her study is organized almost entirely around the ideas, goals, and activities of white people. The book comes in two sections: “The Conquerors,” and “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.” Thus in its most basic formatting decision, it affirms a sort of simplistic duality in which, again, white people are at the center and have more agency. Given the realities of the subjugation that did occur, it could be argued this is unavoidable, but it seems to be at odds with what Limerick is attempting to accomplish.

Limerick is an astonishingly fluid writer. Always entertaining, frequently humorous, The Legacy of Conquest is filled with perceptive insights and combative judgments. Yet Limerick’s wide-ranging and free-flowing style can sometimes get the better of her, as her conclusions and use of humor can come off as flippant. For example, she admirably portrays the West as a polyglot place inhabited by numerous and varied groups of people. Yet in discussing white settlers’ reaction to this complexity, she writes, “Western diversity forced racists to think – an unaccustomed activity.” This is humorous, no doubt, but it perpetuates a self-serving myth that elsewhere she seems ready to take down – namely, that racists were just stupid brutes without any rational economic or social motivations, and we modern Americans have moved on from such primitive times. Despite these occasional stumbles, The Legacy of Conquest remains a provocative read a quarter century after its publication.

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