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Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890-1990.

On the 100th anniversary of the supposed filling of the last vacant land," Gerald D. Nash had some tight-lipped rebukes for critics of Arnerica's frontier story. The late William Appleman Williams was, from the outset, "a young diplomatic historian with some affinity for Karl Marx" (p. 56). In The Return ofthe Vanishing American (1968), Leslie A. Fiedler "well reflected" the "negativism" and "the drug culture of the l960s" (pp.237,238). In Regeneration Through Violence (1973), Richard Slotkin "reflected the guilt feelings of many Americans in the l960s about alleged in justices they inflicted on minorities such as the Indians" (p. 239). But "perhaps the shrillest voice on the New Left with regard to western myth was that of Richard Drinnon, whose Facing West(i 980) also "reflected the intrusion of contemporary concerns" (p. 240).

In five chapters that were originally lectures at the University of New Mexico, Presidential Professor Nash shuttles back and forth between 1890 and 1990 to show that changing interpretations of the West stemmed mainly from the "Intrusion" of contemporary events-decades ago Avery Craven had succinctly summed up this commonplace: "The historian is the child of his age. But 1960s protesters disrupted what had been a sweetly modulated professional dialogue with strident one-sided indictments that "can serve the function destroying the very fabric of national identity" (p. 276). Hence arose Nash's gorge against writers who "reflected" that decade, the white males just mentioned and others such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, whose Legacy Of Conquest (1987) chronicles the "unmitigated suppression" of women and minorities" (p. 144); strident Chicanos such as Rudolfo Acuna, whose Occupied America (1987) belabors the reputed "racism of whites or colonialism" (pp. 149-50); and so on. Even Native Americans advocated "a more strident role in observing their traditions" (p. 151). And consider this howler: "Although Indians had not been neglected in Western history before 1960, historians had often presented them from a somewhat stereotyped perspective" (p. 150).

To Nash's dismay, some 1960s radicals now have tenure, seemingly threaten control of the profession and thc academy, and menace the very fabric of how white America has believed the west was won. Creating the West is thus his sagebrush entry in the Dinesh D'Souza Illiberal Education Sweepstakes more directly his counterattack on the "New Western History" founded by Patricia Limerick and others a decade or so ago. It is also his anniversary present to Frederick Jackson Turner, whose photograph adorns the cover, whose "Turner Thesis" receives reverential capitals as Holy Writ, and whose significance hovers over every page.

Nash explains that the young Turner "knew" Indians in Wisconsin (p. 6). In Frederick Jackson Turner (1973), his biographer Ray Allen Billington more accurately notes in an index entrythat Indians were "seen by FJT as boy, 16." And even that "seen" has to be understood figuratively. For a class at Harvard in 1915, Turner put "the occupation of the vacant spaces of the vast interior" first in his list of "dominant facts" about westering and therewith revealed, not for the first time, that he had never truly seen the indwellers of the vast unvacant spaces to the west of his hometown. Nash can claim to be the direct heir of this national way of not seeing real human beings, for the man he pays tribute to as "my mentor, John D. Hicks" had actually been one of Turner's students and had written his doctoral thesis under the master.

In 1990 another hundred-year anniversary coincided with the supposed closing of the frontier. That Nash still prefcrs to call the massacre of Big Foot and his band "the Battle of wounded Knee" reconfirms the seamless continuity of Indian-hating attitudes, from 1890, down past master and mentor to the author of this latest recreation of the white West.
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Author:Drinnon, Richard
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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