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A Panoramic View of the West

A sweeping new history examines many untold stories of the American West in the late nineteenth century.

In so many fascinating ways, West has implicitly undone the thrust behind the 1619 Project with its myopic southern-centric worldview. “What about Hispanics, Asians, European immigrants, and Native Americans?” Continental Reckoning cries from every page. None of this should lead to the conclusion that West is somehow ignorant of black or southern (“Southeastern,” as he puts it) history, but only that each must be understood in a broader context and not made into a politicized fetish.

And yet, one might ask, is West undoing the anti-Americanism of the 1619 Project, or is he simply extending it? That question doesn’t give a simple answer. West is certainly attentive to the hardships suffered by often marginalized groups, but his discussion is nuanced, and he seems genuinely interested in understanding the varied motivations of different parties.

None of this—my praise or my questioning—should suggest that West is somehow timid or tepid in his book. The language describing the rape of the Californian Indians by white settlers was so detailed as to make this reviewer somewhat physically sick. The same can be said of his account of how the US Army viciously murdered thousands of horses during its many and varied campaigns against the Plains Indians. Such is the irresistible power of West’s research and writing.

With mythic eyes, West imagines just how much and how quickly our knowledge of western land changed across the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. By the time Western explorers came along, such as John Wesley Powell, there was already a rich tradition of mapping and detailing the West. “Only seventy years earlier the West had been a land of almost pure speculation—a place where Thomas Jefferson, probably the most widely read American, could expect to find wooly mammoths and descendants of ancient Welsh immigrants,” the author explains. By the eve of the American Civil War, then, “much of the country west of the one-hundredth meridian had been roughly described.” As West so wisely and stoically notes, men such as Lewis and Clark or John Wesley Powell were not mere spectators, but were interpreters. “Discovery is a creative act,” West claims, and “to enter new country is always to invent it.”