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A Man for All Seasons

The Prescience of John Wesley Powell and the Meaning of His Legacy Today

A RIVER RUNNING WEST The Life of John Wesley Powell By Donald Worster; Oxford University Press: 720 pp., $35

July 22, 2001|PATRICIA LIMERICK | Patricia Limerick is the author of "Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West." She chairs the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado

Heroes have always been hard to persuade to hold still. Even when they seem thoroughly fastened to their pedestals, their human complexities are certain to loosen the bolts that were supposed to hold them upright.

In 1954, in what might prove to be the last successful installation of a Western American hero, Wallace Stegner published "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West." Celebrating Powell's heroism in his exploration of the Colorado River as well as in his reckoning with the limits of water in the western United States, Stegner wrote eloquently of a tough and wise man whose example offered a renewable source of inspiration to the conservationists of the mid-20th century.

In his recent book, "A River Running West," Donald Worster makes few direct references to Stegner, and he certainly declares no intention to debunk Stegner's admiration for Powell. But Worster's Powell is a complex fellow, as is the nation in which he put so much faith: "To discover the man behind the celebrity," Worster declares in his prologue, "with all his ambivalence and contradiction, is to discover a more complicated America."

The full delivery on this promise is what makes his book readable and thought-provoking. This is a man, after all, who suffered a maiming injury in the Civil War, led a party of men in descents of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871, explored the Colorado Plateau, studied Indian languages and ways of thinking, founded the federal Bureau of Ethnology, served as second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and offered a courageous plan for reckoning with the conditions of settlement in the arid West. His public activities, in the American West and in the mires of Washington, supply readers with an unusually interesting and instructive tale.

Moreover, Worster explicitly and effectively shows what a central role Powell played in the rise of federal bureaucracies, in particular, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology, with power over the West. Rather than Stegner's "Man of the West," Worster's Powell emerges as a Man of Washington, D.C., "above all, an intensely nationalistic American."

What were the motives for his explorations and for his public policies? Powell left abundant evidence in the public record, and Worster presents us with a compelling and instructive story of his public life. But when Powell's friend, Grove Karl Gilbert, "destroyed most of the personal papers [Powell] left behind," he left us with a correspondingly constricted story of Powell's interior life. Does that matter? Would knowledge of this person's private world deliver us to a better understanding of his public impact?

Do we need to know his private story? Did Powell truly surrender his parents' religious faith and replace it entirely with science? When he was beleaguered and besieged in his office-holding, where did he find his comfort? Did the site of his amputation hurt constantly or sporadically? How did he respond to the Powell family's apparent tensions, to the fact that his wife, Emma, seemed to grow distant during the course of their marriage or to the friction with his brother-in-law, Almon Harris Thompson, who shouldered the emotional and psychological burden of a number of Powell's expeditions and who felt considerably underappreciated?

Accepting the fact that these questions are beyond answer, Worster gives us everything we need to recognize and respect Powell's complexity as a public figure.

Perhaps the most conspicuous contrast between Stegner's Powell and Worster's Powell is the airing that Worster gives to the criticisms of Powell by his contemporaries. One member of the second Colorado River expedition complained that he was "getting heartily sick of this infernal fooling and the haphazard manner in which the expedition is run." Powell's brother-in-law did not hold back his frustration: "I do not think you have acted squarely or honorably," he declared in one letter to his kinsman and boss. According to Sen. William Stewart of Nevada, Powell knew "too well ... how to run geology in Washington. He knows too well the geology of the District; and he knows too little of the geology of the Earth ...."

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