Book review: Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson

J.D. Borthwick, “Monte in the Mines” (c. 1851)
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Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush by Susan Lee Johnson is an extraordinary contribution to scholarship on the California Gold Rush.  The title of the book is a play on the title of the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte and is intended to evoke ideas of the myths tied to the Gold Rush. However, the book is anything but playful: it is an account of a period that was so full of potential for redefining ideas of class, gender, and cultural tolerance, yet the opportunity was lost. The Northern Mines of California are the site of more widely acknowledged Gold Rush narratives; Johnson, however, focuses on the Southern Mines, which were a site of conflicted gender roles due to the mixing of multiple ethnicities and glasses and are comparatively outside of the major history of the Gold Rush. A highly deserving winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize, Johnson utilizes her position as a New Western historian to persuasively coerce the reader to rethink not only what is acknowledged about the Gold Rush, but also how ethnicity, class and gender influenced notions of social roles even before the advent of postmodernism.  Continue reading

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Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

A mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype of Native American lodges.
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Print the Legend is an impressive contribution on multiple planes, for Martha Sandweiss not only recounts the complex history of the use of photography in the American West between 1840 and 1890, she also guides both the general reader and historian alike in the process of rethinking how we interpret and utilize photography. She posits two ways to think of how we interpret and use photographs as primary source documents: in history, which requires knowledge “about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the image, the ways in which it was received and understood by contemporary audiences” (p. 9) and through history, in which “we must give attention to the shifting fate of the image—the ways in which it might have moved into archives or attics, museums or scrapbooks, and the ways in which it has been reinterpreted over time” (p. 9). The title of the book is a reference to a quote from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, in which the newspaper editor states: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend” (p. 324). This highlights Sandweiss’s encompassing theme of the difficulty of promoting photography in the face of more mythologized media such as painting and printmaking. Print the Legend is highly marketable to a wide variety of audiences: her prose is eloquent and easy to read, and the book itself, which is printed on high-quality glossy paper, is aesthetically pleasing and can be distributed in multiple types of settings, such as major bookstores and museums. Sandweiss is currently a history professor at Princeton University, but her background as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and as a professor of American Studies allows her to tackle her subject matter with a fresh and unique perspective than she in turn is able to effectively communicate to multiple types of readers.  Continue reading

Book review: Devil’s Bargains by Hal K. Rothman

Historic photo of a Colorado ski resort
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Tourism in the American West has been a subject that has been ignored for far too long. Indeed, its last major scholarly treatment occurred in 1957 with Earl Pomeroy’s In Search of the Golden West, and historians since then have been distinctly reticent to tackle the subject for fear of mockery. However, Devil’s Bargains by the late Hal K. Rothman revitalizes the subject in a powerfully written and historically relevant manner. He expands beyond Pomeroy’s look at California and instead looks at much of the trans-Mississippi West, narrowing down his narrative to regions and specific time frames. Rothman argues that tourism is not a passive act that is simply rooted in the desire to take a break from everyday life, but rather a colonial act that transforms the locals who accommodate the tourists as well as the landscape itself. However, in many ways, tourism was and is a necessity for many towns and regions: ascribing these places to a touristic economy is, in essence, a devil’s bargain. Continue reading

Book review: The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

Comanche portraits
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The Comanches are usually portrayed in the existing literature as a formidable equestrian power that erected a daunting barrier of violence to colonial expansion. Along with the Iroquois and Lakotas, they have been embedded in collective American memory as one of the few Native societies able to pose a significant challenge to the Euro-American conquest of North America. But the idea of a Comanche barrier leaves out at least half of the story. (Introduction)

In this masterful account of the history of the Comanche people, Hämäläinen demonstrates that the Comanches were far from disorganized bands of violent Indians as they have previously been portrayed to be, most notably in the work of T.R. Fehrenback and Walter Prescott Webb. Through his meticulous research, extraordinary detail, and superb prose, Hämäläinen instead shows that the Comanches represented something closer to an empire. This is evidenced in their calculated military prowess, strategies of diplomacy, innovations in culture and technology, and economic growth. He further argues that the Comanche empire changed the course of American expansion, particularly in what is now New Mexico and Texas, through their dominant presence in the Southwest.  Continue reading

Book summary: Native Seattle by Coll Thrush

A white woman buying a basket from a Native basket vendor, likely Makah or Nuu-chah-nulth (1911)
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The idea that Indians and cities are mutually exclusive– or, more to the point, that Native people do not ‘belong’ in urban places– is, in addition to being an outgrowth of broader American ideas about progress, also a result of the simple fact that Indian people can be very hard to find in cities. (Introduction)

Note: Now that I am back in school, I am finding that I have pretty much no time to blog anymore. I wanted to try to post the occasional book review of whatever I am currently reading for comps, but I don’t even have time for that, really. However, it’s not like I have a shortage of stuff that I am writing; because this blog is my study tool and a place of learning (or so I would like to think), I am going to go ahead and post rough drafts of things that I am writing for class. Therefore, here is where I have to include a disclaimer: While I am more than happy to share my thoughts on whatever scholarship I may be reading, these are my thoughts. Therefore, I highly recommend that you use these reviews/summaries/whatever as a starting point for deeper research, and do not copy what I am posting. That is plagiarism, and plagiarism is very frowned upon in academia.

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between American Indians and white settlers/inhabitants in Seattle since the landing of the first settlers, the Denny Party, in 1851 to the present. Thrush seeks to dispel the widely-accepted assumption that is particularly pervasive in Seattle itself of the “Myth of the Vanishing Race,” a complex (yet false) belief that Native Americans—frequently represented as the “noble savage” or the angry warrior—disappeared after the arrival of white settlers. His main argument is that the many tribes that comprise(d) what is now known as Seattle were crucial and integral participants in the development of the modern city, moving well beyond the 1930’s, which is when history begins to essentially exclude them due to pervasive stereotypes and discrimination.  Continue reading

Book review: Regionalism and the Humanities, eds. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz

Grant Wood, “American Gothic” (1930)
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[Regionalism] has been a revolt against cultural nationalism– that is, the tendency of artists to ignore or deny the fact that there are important differences, psychologically and otherwise, between the different regions of America. But this does not mean that Regionalism, in turn, advocates a concentration on local peculiarities; such an approach results in anecdotalism and local color. -Grant Wood (177)

Regionalism and the Humanities is (yet another) anthology of essays, which was compiled from papers selected after a 2003 national conference of the Consortium of Regional Humanities Centers. The conference– and subsequently this book– confronted a big issue: in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenized and standardized by globalization, regionalism is simultaneously experiencing a resurgence of interest and risking decline due to (literally) larger postmodern issues and the ever-shrinking nature of diversity due to phenomena such as the internet. It is acknowledged that this simultaneous decline and revival seems paradoxical, and it is stressed that one needs to think about its different political, social, economic, and aesthetic purposes. Different terms are thrown about and defined in the introduction– place, landscape, regionalism/regionalist, local/localism, regional identity– which help illuminate the various aspects of regionalism and reveal it to be more complex than often regarded. Regionalism was once viewed as a reaction against modern forces, but it is now seen as a more aggressive endeavor to make a claim for the importance of place and space (as opposed to other postmodern issues: gender, race, ethnicity, class, demography, and other cultural and physical distinctions). Place and space are more humanist and individualist, seeking to help us understand ourselves and the human experience. This is not to say that postmodernism cannot acknowledge regionalism at all– although it should be noted that there is no formal redefinition– and if we look at regions as fluid and ever-changing, regionalism can fit into the postmodern discussion. Continue reading

Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
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The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for. Continue reading