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True West

AN EMPIRE WILDERNESS: Travels into America's Future.\o7 By Robert D. Kaplan (Random House: 398 pp., $27.50)\f7 ; EYEWITNESS TO THE AMERICAN WEST: From the First Frontier to the New Age Seekers in the Words of Those Who Saw It Happen. \o7 Edited by David Colbert (Viking: 466 pp., $26.95)\f7 ; LASSO THE WIND: Away to the New West.\o7 By Timothy Egan (Alfred A. Knopf: 272 pp., $25)\f7 ; THE NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN WEST.\o7 Edited by Howard R. Lamar (Yale University Press: 1,320 pp., $60)\f7 ; MARKING THE SPARROW'S FALL: Wallace Stegner's American West.\o7 Edited by Page Stegner (A John Macrae Book / Henry Holt: 360 pp., $25)\f7

October 04, 1998|CAROLINE FRASER | Caroline Fraser is the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church," forthcoming next fall from Metropolitan Books

Nobody calls the West wild anymore, but it's still a place where you can die of exposure while walking your dog. Last spring a Santa Fe woman did just that, taking a wrong turn on a mountain path outside the city limits. Her dogs guarded her body for two weeks before she was found. In 1995, an RV salesman took a scenic route through the mountains of Southern Oregon, lost his way in the snow and starved to death. In 1994, a woman jogging near Sacramento was killed and partially eaten by a mountain lion. Step outside the sanctuary of the cities--the increasingly Easternized coastal corridor of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles--and the West is still a large and indifferent place. By virtue of the impersonal power of its vast spaces and violent weather, the American West--however fragmented, developed, subdivided and grazed over--is still a place of terrifying extremities. The West, as Larry McMurtry has written, "has always been and remains in many ways just Too Much."

The Too Muchness of it all--the promise and the peril of the West--has been working in the minds of Americans for generations. "For more than a century," writes Richard White in his "new history" of the American West, " 'It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own,' " the West "has been the most strongly imagined section of the United States." Revisionist histories, such as White's and those of Patricia Nelson Limerick, are the latest imaginings. The West has stood for both the escape from civilization and the imposition of it; the contradictions are entrenched in our language: How the West Was Won, How the West Was Lost, Manifest Destiny, the "opening" of the "frontier," the "settling," the "closing," the "conquest" of the West, Custer's Last Stand, "Don't Fence Me In."

Westerners themselves generated their own individual mythologies, appropriating the fictitious lore of Billy the Kid and other Indian fighters into their own heroic personal histories, but the larger myths were built up by newspapers and dime novels, filmmakers, artists and writers who stocked the public imagination with Western characters and images. The period of the great imaginative writers of 19th century Eastern America (Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson) was succeeded by a 20th century so dominated by Western writers and Western subjects--Mark Twain, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Joan Didion, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Barbara Kingsolver, Norman Mailer's "Executioner's Song"--that such writing seems no longer regional but simply American. In Sam Shepard's "True West," one of the play's two crazed brothers yells, "There's no such thing as the West anymore! It's a dead issue!" The West he mourns is the imagined West of freedom, land and opportunity, a West that has always existed only in the mind, set against a harsh reality of land with little water and less opportunity. But if there is no True West, there are many true Wests.

The strongest images of the West have derived from the manic salesmanship of their creators and the needs of their audiences: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show created an exotic, static vision of the American Indian for a fearful public; newspapers and biographies shaped Custer into a national hero; Hollywood westerns elaborated, through the cowboy and the lawman, the image of the American male. Purveyors of modern visions of the West, as represented by several new books discussed here, are more muted, less melodramatic, prone to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the subject. As always in the West, as many fail as succeed.

Robert D. Kaplan's "An Empire Wilderness" is a new fantasy for a public afflicted with millennial jitters of an aggressive and technocratically futuristic West. He imagines the West transformed into a 21st century polyglot economic powerhouse whose dynamism will all but erase the artificial borders between Canada, the United States and Mexico and render the federal government largely irrelevant, except as a global police force. As a fantasy, it seems designed to flatter Americans with a version of Manifest Destiny that subsumes countries to the north and south. As a cautionary moral tale, it is disapproving; Kaplan is offended by the American appetites for drugs and food, noting that the poor, particularly, are overweight, "some grossly." As a prediction of the end of American civilization as we know it, it is science fiction unsupported by fact. Gazing into his crystal ball, Kaplan concludes that "the next passage will be our most difficult as a nation, and it will be our last."

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