The Western Paradox

The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader

Bernard DeVoto
Douglas Brinkley
Patricia Nelson Limerick
with a foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 592
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  • Book Info
    The Western Paradox
    Book Description:

    "This book is the fascinating record of DeVoto's crusade to save the West from itself. . . . His arguments, insights, and passion are as relevant and urgent today as they were when he first put them on paper."-Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., from the ForewordBernard DeVoto (1897-1955) was, according to the novelist Wallace Stegner, "a fighter for public causes, for conservation of our natural resources, for freedom of the press and freedom of thought." A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, DeVoto is best remembered for his trilogy,The Year of Decision: 1846, Across the Wide Missouri,andThe Course of Empire.He also wrote a column for Harper's Magazine, in which he fulminated about his many concerns, particularly the exploitation and destruction of the American West.This volume brings together ten of DeVoto's acerbic and still timely essays on Western conservation issues, along with his unfinished conservationist manifesto, Western Paradox, which has never before been published. The book also includes a foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who was a student of DeVoto's at Harvard University, and a substantial introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Limerick, both of which shed light on DeVoto's work and legacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13386-8
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

    I owe many things to Bernard DeVoto, but three in particular stand out in memory.

    He taught me how to write. In my second year at Harvard, I took his course in English composition. He read one’s sophomoric efforts with meticulous care, exposed pretentiousness and phoniness with pitiless eye, scrawled scathing but unanswerable comments on the margin, and goaded students to think through what they were trying to say and to say it plainly, concisely, and concretely. After three months I wrote in my undergraduate diary that he had “improved (or at least changed) my style by about 100 percent.”...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxx)
    Douglas Brinkley

    As the twenty-first century dawns, Bernard DeVoto, the iconoclastic Pulitzer Prize—winning historian, would be outraged to learn that his battle to preserve the American West has met numerous defeats in places like the Mojave Desert and Humboldt County, the Cascades and Alaska. In fact, his strident conservationist cause remains as timely as it was fifty years ago when he first wrote his fervid pleas. For DeVoto was no detached, dispassionate historian: he was a hard-nosed, full-bore conservationist who vigorously denounced the exploitation of the West, no matter whether the pillagers were private corporations, the federal government, or environmentally heedless...

  5. Select Harper’s Conservation Essays
    • The West: A Plundered Province
      (pp. 3-21)

      The Westerner remains a bewildering creature to the rest of the nation. Socially he has never fused with the energetic barbarian that for many decades symbolized the Middle Westerner to the appalled East. Politically, also, he has remained distinct from the Middle Westerner, to whom our cartoonists allot a more genial grin, a better-filled-out frame, and a neater suit of overalls. To cartoonists, the Middle Westerner is the Dirt Farmer and he lives in the Corn Belt and, except occasionally, he is admitted to be a person of some consequence. On the contrary, it is established that the Westerner is...

    • The Anxious West
      (pp. 22-44)

      The West is plains, mountains, and desert. Its landscape is dramatic, its climate violent. Its history is dramatic and paradoxical, and parts of it important to both East and West never happened. Its natural wealth is enormous and belongs mostly to the East and the national government. Its inhabitants, products of landscape, climate, and history, are a volatile, expansive people, energetic extroverts at the base of whose consciousness are tensions and conflicts. They are the fall guys of the United States and have been victimized by everybody, most disastrously by themselves. They have repeatedly scared the nation at large and...

    • The West Against Itself
      (pp. 45-73)

      In Harper’s for August 1934, I called the West “the plundered province.” This phrase has proved so useful to Western writers and orators that it has superseded various phrases which through two generations of Western resentment designated the same thing. We must realize that it does designate a thing; that whatever the phrases, there is a reality behind them. Economically the West has always been a province of the East and it has always been plundered.

      The first wealth produced in the West was furs, mainly beaver furs. It made a good many Easterners rich. Partnerships and corporations sent technical...

    • Sacred Cows and Public Lands
      (pp. 74-102)

      The Constitution of the United States does not provide for Congressional blocs, pressure groups, and corporate lobbies but under our unwritten Constitution they have become organized in our government. They are instruments for applying political power in the solution of specific political problems and by now it would be impossible to govern a hundred and fifty million people without them. But their development has given journalism an additional political function, that of keeping their operations publicized.

      This article describes the application of political pressure to a specific problem of administration. It shows a committee of the House of Representatives acting...

    • Statesmen on the Lam
      (pp. 103-112)

      I want to treat at greater length several topics merely glanced at in my article about the hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Lands. The first of them is what Senator Robertson of Wyoming, at the Billings hearing, called “the biased and prejudiced articles which have been appearing in weekly papers and monthly magazines.” He and Congressman Barrett, at Billings and again at Rawlins, were referring to articles by Mr. Arthur H. Carhart, Mr. William S. Voight, Mr. Kenneth A. Reid, Mr. Lester Velie, and me. The articles of Mr. Reid and Mr. Voight have appeared mostly in publications of...

    • Two-Gun Desmond Is Back
      (pp. 113-122)

      The humble sheep-walker has come down from the rocks and the bronzed horseman rides again. They are after the national forests in thirteen Western states; they have been for years. They tried to steal them in 1947, together with all other public lands that could grow a little grass, but they got stopped. They decided that they had been trying to get away with too much at a time, so now they will settle temporarily for control of the forests, with some additional tricky stuff thrown in. Understanding that the methods they thought up for themselves in 1947 were too...

    • Billion Dollar Jackpot
      (pp. 123-132)

      Three weeks after the election the Denver Post ran an editorial pointing out the necessity of maintaining “the public’s right to protect its own land.” It did not know, the Post said, whether the incoming Administration would retain or replace a U.S. district attorney who had filed suit against two Colorado ranchers for grazing sheep on the public lands without a permit, but in either event the suit must be fought through. For its outcome might well determine whether the benefits received from nearly half a billion acres of publicly owned land “shall go to the people who own the...

    • The Sturdy Corporate Homesteader
      (pp. 133-142)

      In a happier time, so a U.S. Chamber of Commerce speaker tells us, the government used the public domain to “give every man a chance to earn land for himself through his own skill and hard work.” This is the sturdy homemaker sob with which the air will presently resound when this gentleman’s associates get to work on Congress. He may have been thinking of the California redwood forest. It was so attractive a part of the public domain that in this generation we have had to raise millions of dollars from rich men and school children to buy back...

    • Heading for the Last Roundup
      (pp. 143-152)

      The most effective disseminator of propaganda is the man who spreads it innocently. It is possible that some of my readers took part in the radio program which I proceed to describe. It is certain that almost everyone who took part in it spoke the lines provided for him in good faith, trusting the organization which had provided them. He would not voluntarily have used his position as a leader in his community to support a series of misrepresentations and misstatements. But that is exactly what the organization in question beguiled him into doing.

      That organization is the U.S. Chamber...

    • Conservation: Down and on the Way Out
      (pp. 153-174)

      An aphorism of the Chinese philosopher Mencius declares that the problem of government presents no difficulties: it is only necessary to avoid offending the influential families. In January 1953 the Business Administration in Washington took off from a related premise: that it was only necessary to get along with the trade associations. This article deals with public power and the public lands, other natural resources, and the national conservation policies which have been developing for threequarters of a century. In dealing with them the Administration had to convert into concrete measures the generalizations of the Republican platform and campaign promises....

  6. Western Paradox
    • Chapter One To the Traveler’s Eye
      (pp. 177-222)

      We may begin with what Lieutenant Zebulon Pike called “a small blue cloud.” It is seen in eastern Colorado, somewhere in the valley of the Arkansas River, which hereabout looks like a flat plain but isn’t. Just when it is seen and whether on the right hand or the left depend on what the weather has been like and on which particular hill or swell one has happened to ascend. I like it in the entry that appears in the journals of various travelers on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1840s. It is written two days or one day...

    • Chapter Two Damnedest Country Under the Sun
      (pp. 223-265)

      We must now make a more precise determination but can get no help with it out west. For the West has come to think of itself as a small blue cloud.

      You can buy the whole cloud for five cents at any drugstore, cigar counter, or newsstand in the West. Where does the West begin? Out where the skies are a trifle bluer. The sun is a little brighter there, the snows a trifle whiter, the breeze fresher. These meteorological observations, which correspond more or less to the facts, are less specific, however, than the poem’s sentiments. The West begins,...

    • Chapter Three Emptiness Can Affect the Unwary
      (pp. 266-308)

      The Spanish reached the Rio Grande Valley in the sixteenth century. They found the Pueblos there, and elsewhere in New Mexico they found other sedentary tribes—in valleys. They made no effort to occupy the plains beyond; they lacked wealth, military power, and most of all technology. They had large numbers of cattle and far larger numbers of sheep when the American conquest reached New Mexico in 1846. But their herds grazed on valley, foothill, and upland ranges. By the Americans’ second generation technology had advanced sufficiently for them to spread a grazing economy across the plains, great areas of...

    • Chapter Four Unregarded Inheritance from the Frontier
      (pp. 309-358)

      The longest narrative in American history is the one covered in the texts by a chapter called “the Westward Movement.” The local library has a lot of books—I myself have written four of them—explaining what it was. Here it is accepted as given. I will merely allude to the portions of it that scan “the West” in popular thinking, and to them only by way of certain symbolic images or emblems that stand for them. Such images as: the Mountain Man, the Covered Wagon, the Gold Rush (to California, and hence also the Forty-Niner, but by extension to...

    • Chapter Five The Eighth City of Cibola
      (pp. 359-400)

      There are two visions of the West which can be neither fused nor fully differentiated. Both are creations of longing and desire.

      I have mentioned the vision of illimitable fertility, the everlasting Eden, in Mr. Henry Nash Smith’s phrase the Garden of the World. Out yonder is nature’s treasure house and we’ll do better in a new country where a man can stand on his own two feet. On the far side of the hill the soil is deeper than it is on these familiar acres, the crops more bountiful, the wind gentler, the winter shorter and less severe. Much...

    • Chapter Six A Certain Mentality
      (pp. 401-439)

      The government of New Mexico never belonged exclusively to cattlemen. There were too important interests in sheep and minerals and too obedient a vassalage whom the ricos could maneuver, fight, and if necessary even vote as they might see fit. The best that the cattle kings could get was a share in an unstable coalition. So that our sole experiment in dictatorship by cowmen was made in Wyoming. It lasted about thirty years and the state has not yet recovered from it.

      There was some quickly exhausted gold in the vicinity of South Pass but no other minerals worth talking...

    • Chapter Seven Nemesis
      (pp. 440-466)

      August 1923. President Harding died at San Francisco on the 2d; in the earliest morning hours of the 3d Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office in his father’s farmhouse at Plymouth, Vermont. On the 18th a seventeen-year-old girl named Helen Wills ended the long tennis championship of Molla Mallory. On the 21st the first transcontinental airmail flight reached San Francisco, flying time was twenty-six hours. Leafing through a file of the month’s newspapers, one notices two serial stories: Ku Klux Klan riots were occurring widely, and on September 14 Jack Dempsey and Angel Firpo were going to fight for...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 467-472)
    Mark DeVoto

    For all the success of his encyclopedic understanding of an American West that had passed, my father, Bernard DeVoto, knew that the tides and tribulations of civilization would continue to dominate and eventually threaten the future of the lands that he loved and that belong to all Americans. In 1946 he began to publish the articles on conservation and the public lands that came to be the principal focus of his last years’ work. It is not generally realized today that for a long time my father’s was the only passionate voice raised in defense of America’s natural resources, and...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 473-483)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 484-528)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 529-534)
  11. Index
    (pp. 535-552)