Andrew Graybill: What's so Great about the Great Plains?
Historian Andrew Graybill traces one early effort to give the Great Plains its due. In his most important book, “The Great Plains” (1931), leading western historian Walter Prescott Webb (1888-1963) emphasized the significance of the environment as a historical actor in its own right. Yet the book is marred by several shortcomings, among them Webb’s wincing racism. In his talk highlighting the new 2022 edition of the book (University of Nebraska Press), Graybill explores the book’s considerable limitations while arguing for its enduring vitality.
Graybill is a professor of history and director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is the author or editor of four books, including “The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West” (Liveright, 2013). He taught at UNL from 2003-11 and is an Affiliate Fellow of the Center for Great Plains Studies.
This event is part of the Center for Great Plains Studies’ Paul A. Olson lecture series and is free and open to the public. This lecture is supported by UNL History Department, the University of Nebraska Press and the UNL Faculty Senate Convocations Committee.
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[00:00:00.000]...please. My name is Margaret Jacobs.
[00:00:01.470]I'm the director of the Center here,
[00:00:04.260]and the Center is part of the University of Nebraska,
[00:00:08.130]which is a Land Grant Institution with campuses and programs
[00:00:11.820]on the past, present, and future homelands of the Pawnee,
[00:00:15.702]Ponca, Otoe-Missouria, Omaha, Dakota, Lakota, Kaw, Cheyenne,
[00:00:21.240]and Arapaho peoples,
[00:00:23.280]as well as those of the relocated Ho-Chunk, Sac and Fox,
[00:00:26.850]and Iowa peoples.
[00:00:28.920]The land we currently call Nebraska has always been
[00:00:32.499]and will continue to be an indigenous homeland.
[00:00:37.170]Please take a moment to consider the legacies
[00:00:40.350]of more than 150 years of displacement,
[00:00:43.470]violence, settlement, and survival
[00:00:46.200]that bring us here today.
[00:00:48.660]This acknowledgement in a century of indigenous peoples
[00:00:51.170]is a start, as we move forward together.
[00:00:56.340]Today, this evening, we are delighted
[00:00:58.620]to have you join us for a Paul Olson seminar
[00:01:02.790]with Dr. Andrew Graybill, my dear colleague.
[00:01:09.180]Dr. Graybill is a Professor of History
[00:01:11.160]and the Director of the William P. Clements Center
[00:01:13.800]for Southwest Studies
[00:01:15.150]at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
[00:01:19.170]And he also was the Chair of the Department of History
[00:01:22.110]at SMU from 2014 to 2019.
[00:01:27.090]And he also taught History here at UNL
[00:01:30.600]from 2003 to 2011, where we were colleagues for many years.
[00:01:35.910]And he's an Affiliate Fellow
[00:01:37.620]here at the Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:01:40.770]Dr. Graybill specializes
[00:01:42.570]in the History of the North American West,
[00:01:44.880]with particular interest in continental expansion,
[00:01:48.180]borders, race, violence, and the environment.
[00:01:52.740]He is the author or editor of four different books,
[00:01:57.060]including his first book,
[00:01:58.447]"Policing the Great Plains:
[00:02:00.480]Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier"
[00:02:04.284]and "The Red and the White:
[00:02:06.420]A Family Saga of the American West,"
[00:02:09.180]which was a finalist for the
[00:02:10.860]Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize
[00:02:12.510]that we give each year,
[00:02:14.400]and the winner of the
[00:02:15.570]Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award.
[00:02:19.110]So, we're really delighted to have you back,
[00:02:21.579]Dr. Graybill, also known as Andy.
[00:02:25.200]And thank you so much for coming
[00:02:26.700]and thank all of you for coming.
[00:02:28.260]I know you're in for a real treat.
[00:02:39.226]So, you were very nice to sort of thank me for coming
[00:02:42.090]when I invited myself.
[00:02:44.611]And I have to say that it is truly a privilege
[00:02:47.340]to be back here.
[00:02:48.717]And it really is.
[00:02:49.680]I, as the kids say,
[00:02:51.523]I was "feeling all the feels" when I was driving down
[00:02:55.230]I-80 from Omaha.
[00:02:57.120]Because I absolutely loved living and teaching
[00:03:00.810]and working here.
[00:03:01.740]It was just...
[00:03:03.114]It's just a really, really, really wonderful place.
[00:03:04.740]So, I consider it a privilege.
[00:03:06.150]I don't think I've ever spoken at
[00:03:07.320]The Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:03:08.580]I presume that all of you know what a gem,
[00:03:10.740]what a resource this is.
[00:03:12.840]But wow, you know, to be able to be talking with you all
[00:03:15.660]about The Great Plains at sort of the heart,
[00:03:19.200]you know, the heart of the matter here
[00:03:21.000]at The Center for Great Plains Studies is a real privilege.
[00:03:23.100]But I have to be honest,
[00:03:25.020]I was hoping for blowing snow in sub-zero temperatures,
[00:03:29.909]You can ask my pal, Tim Borstelmann,
[00:03:31.079]with whom I sort of cooked up this plan.
[00:03:32.850]He said, when I said, "I'm inviting myself up 'cause
[00:03:35.910]I really want to come back to Lincoln",
[00:03:37.830]he said, "Well, when would you like to come,
[00:03:38.760]sometime in the Spring?"
[00:03:39.600]And I said, "I'm gonna aim for February,
[00:03:42.033](audience members laugh)
[00:03:42.945]which I think I'm likeliest to get snow
[00:03:43.778]and like, sub-zero temperatures."
[00:03:45.420]It's colder in Dallas than it is here right now.
[00:03:48.423]This is not what I expected.
[00:03:51.870]But I have to say that I've never quite gotten over
[00:03:54.780]leaving Lincoln because it was such a special place
[00:03:57.120]for me and for my family, and a wonderful place to work.
[00:04:00.840]And in fact, were I not from Texas, and felt the pull,
[00:04:04.590]because of my folks, who still live in the same house
[00:04:06.770]in which I grew up in San Antonio, my sister in Austin,
[00:04:09.851]I don't know,
[00:04:11.161]I don't think I would have left.
[00:04:13.440]I'm delighted that I still possess a 402 area code
[00:04:16.740]on my phone.
[00:04:18.960]And I love being, for most people,
[00:04:21.120]their only Nebraska area code when I call them.
[00:04:23.940]I said, you can add my name and number to your contacts.
[00:04:26.730]I'm gonna be the only Nebraska in your...
[00:04:28.590]That's usually true.
[00:04:30.030]Although, I had a like, is it...
[00:04:31.530]What's in Chadron? Is it 308?
[00:04:33.570]Yeah, that would be even better.
[00:04:35.951]But my next phone, I'll request that as an area code.
[00:04:38.940]Even if you didn't deliver on the weather,
[00:04:41.190]I'm hugely grateful to Tim Borstelmann
[00:04:43.380]for putting this together,
[00:04:44.610]and very much to Margaret Jacobs as well,
[00:04:46.793]and for the support of The Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:04:49.560]Again, it's just, it's a real thrill to be able
[00:04:51.570]to be up here talking with you all.
[00:04:53.400]Special shout out, I've seen her, there she is,
[00:04:55.260]to Bridget Barry,
[00:04:56.490]who was a student in my very first class here,
[00:05:00.360]two decades ago this fall.
[00:05:03.450]And then, a Master's student, whom I shared with Margaret,
[00:05:06.990]who wrote a wonderful Thesis on the open-pit mine
[00:05:10.470]in Butte, Montana.
[00:05:12.120]Bridget, let me talk. Stop talking... (indistinct)
[00:05:14.879]more things to say.
[00:05:18.030]Really, you know, to date,
[00:05:19.380]probably the best student that I ever worked with
[00:05:21.420]at any level.
[00:05:24.540]And I'm especially grateful to her
[00:05:26.190]because she worked with me, or I worked with her,
[00:05:29.262]however you want to put it,
[00:05:30.095]in putting together this new edition of "The Great Plains".
[00:05:34.913]Bridget was just a support from the very beginning
[00:05:36.897]and I'm extremely grateful.
[00:05:38.850]A quick caveat, a couple caveats.
[00:05:40.950]This is not my book.
[00:05:42.000]I need to make certain that's clear.
[00:05:43.080]Somebody said, "Are you gonna sign copies afterwards?"
[00:05:45.535]And I said, "I have to make it clear
[00:05:46.500]that I did not write this book.
[00:05:47.790]I wrote an introduction to it.
[00:05:49.233]I do not want to take any credit away from
[00:05:51.330]Walter Prescott Webb."
[00:05:53.580]But what I wanted to do with this
[00:05:55.440]was to introduce the book, hopefully,
[00:05:56.973]to a new generation of readers.
[00:05:58.860]I'm gonna tell you why that's both exciting and problematic
[00:06:02.040]in just a moment.
[00:06:02.873]But I'm really grateful for Bridget's support,
[00:06:04.830]although I also know that Bridget wanted
[00:06:07.680]this to be redesigned, because the old cover...
[00:06:10.620]This is a really pretty cover, I think we'll agree.
[00:06:12.780]The old cover was like, I don't know, sort of a,
[00:06:16.141]even when it was new,
[00:06:17.312]it was sort of a yellowing book cover with a combine,
[00:06:19.890]sort of back-lit by sort of the setting sun.
[00:06:22.140]And Bridget was like, "We gotta do something about that."
[00:06:25.573]So, I think that had something to do with her willingness
[00:06:27.540]to consider a sort of a reissue of this book.
[00:06:33.090]And now a second caveat,
[00:06:34.260]my PowerPoint guru is unavailable to help me.
[00:06:38.279]To be honest, I'm no huge fan of the medium, as it were.
[00:06:41.490]So I'm gonna illustrate with words,
[00:06:43.350]like Walter Prescott Webb.
[00:06:44.880]So, but if you were planning on
[00:06:46.470]a fancy PowerPoint presentation,
[00:06:48.420]I'm afraid that I'm a lot older
[00:06:49.950]than my 51 years would suggest.
[00:06:53.310]Tiny bit of background.
[00:06:55.260]Let me first ask, "How many of you are familiar
[00:06:56.700]with this book?"
[00:06:58.058]I suspect probably none.
[00:06:59.299]So, so, raise them.
[00:07:00.390]Don't be embarrassed, raise them up.
Cool, excellent. All right.
[00:07:02.730]So I can't totally lie
[00:07:05.398]about the things I'm gonna tell you.
[00:07:06.660]Tiny bit of background.
[00:07:07.560]While I was writing my dissertation,
[00:07:08.970]which became my first book,
[00:07:11.010]for which Bridget was the Editorial Assistant.
[00:07:12.810]Okay, enough of Bridget.
[00:07:15.036]So, on "The Great Plains".
[00:07:17.730]When I was working on it in this dissertation
[00:07:20.098]in its sort of embryonic form,
[00:07:21.900]my Dissertation Advisor told me, more or less, this,
[00:07:25.237]"Look. Like it or not, you are now a Historian
[00:07:28.760]of The Plains, but what do you have to add
[00:07:31.980]to what Walter Prescott Webb
[00:07:34.170]or Donald Worster or Elliott West
[00:07:37.350]has said about this region?"
[00:07:40.080]And that was a slight thrill to me at the moment,
[00:07:42.240]to be mentioned in such company,
[00:07:43.770]even if it was really more of a challenge than a compliment.
[00:07:46.588]But I kind of felt an affinity for Webb ever after,
[00:07:50.370]perhaps especially as a fellow Texan.
[00:07:52.961]But I've long wrestled with his legacy,
[00:07:55.800]which, as I'm gonna explain in a moment,
[00:07:57.270]is complex, and certainly a (indistinct).
[00:08:02.718]So, this talk that I'm going to give tonight
[00:08:04.170]is drawn from a retrospective that I wrote on this book
[00:08:08.280]and about Webb as a kind of a mini biography
[00:08:10.920]of the man himself,
[00:08:12.690]that serves also as an introduction to this new edition
[00:08:15.450]of his book, not mine, alas.
[00:08:17.940]I will never write anything that will have the endurance
[00:08:20.400]of this book, alas.
[00:08:21.570]I reconcile myself to that.
[00:08:23.400]It's another feature of middle age.
[00:08:26.850]But anyway, Bridget, again, was kind enough
[00:08:29.130]to conspire with me to make the introduction
[00:08:31.830]to this really wonderful new edition.
[00:08:34.530]And I'm happy to take your questions afterwards.
[00:08:36.120]I will not talk for too long, I promise.
[00:08:38.520]Okay, so "The Great Plains" was published
[00:08:40.860]to sweeping acclaim in 1931.
[00:08:43.200]The New York Times wrote a glowing assessment
[00:08:45.120]on the front page of what ultimately became
[00:08:47.497]"The New York Times Book Review".
[00:08:48.960]Hailing the volumes, quote,
[00:08:50.617]"One of the most original and significant contributions to
[00:08:53.430]the study of the American West."
[00:08:55.170]Scholars loved it too.
[00:08:56.880]Henry Steele Commager, who was on his way to becoming
[00:08:59.370]one of the most prominent historians of the United States
[00:09:01.980]in the mid-20th century, he wrote, quote,
[00:09:04.297]"Both its technique and its conclusion
[00:09:06.480]should find application to the whole field
[00:09:08.820]of American history."
[00:09:10.657]"The Great Plains" won the 1933 Lubac Prize,
[00:09:13.920]which has been discontinued,
[00:09:15.120]but at the time, it was presented every year,
[00:09:17.580]every five years, by Columbia University
[00:09:20.100]to the very best book in the Social Sciences,
[00:09:22.230]across fields, published during that span.
[00:09:26.190]And then in 1950, as US historians took stock
[00:09:29.550]of their field at mid-century,
[00:09:31.530]many listed "The Great Plains" as among a handful
[00:09:34.560]of the most important books published since 1900.
[00:09:38.790]All that said, it has not aged well in the academy.
[00:09:41.760]It's one of those books that's far more often cited
[00:09:44.190]than actually read.
[00:09:45.960]It's got significant...
[00:09:47.340]I think the reason for this is it's got significant
[00:09:49.260]conceptual and methodological limitations.
[00:09:51.480]But I think perhaps one of the biggest problems
[00:09:53.550]for many readers today is it's unvarnished racism,
[00:09:56.490]of which I've got much to say.
[00:09:58.740]But notwithstanding, those considerable drawbacks
[00:10:01.920]and caveats, I want to make a case
[00:10:03.390]for its continued relevance, maybe now more than ever
[00:10:06.120]as it closes in on its 100th birthday.
[00:10:10.860]So, the book has a very famous origin story,
[00:10:14.010]at least famous among those of us who care.
[00:10:18.083]But that's more than just a few,
[00:10:19.380]bigger than you might think.
[00:10:20.700]And it goes back to a cold, truly, a cold and rainy night,
[00:10:24.630]a dark and stormy night in February 1922,
[00:10:28.830]when Webb had what he called "a moment of synthesis"
[00:10:32.250]as the storm was pounding on the metal roof
[00:10:34.230]of this modest home that he shared with his wife
[00:10:37.170]while he was in an MA program
[00:10:39.690]at the University of Texas in Austin.
[00:10:41.940]And his insight was this,
[00:10:44.100]that it was the sixth year of the sixth gun,
[00:10:46.740]not the rifle, as previously thought,
[00:10:48.960]which he'd won in the west.
[00:10:51.276]And the reason for that, according to Webb,
[00:10:54.210]was that the sixth gun was a repeating weapon
[00:10:57.420]that could be fired much more nimbly from horseback
[00:11:00.000]than, you know, a rifle, or certainly some sort of
[00:11:02.700]a muzzle-loading weapon.
[00:11:04.590]Other realizations quickly followed,
[00:11:06.900]at least as he tells it, leading to the conclusion,
[00:11:10.020]his conclusion, that distinctive environmental conditions
[00:11:13.410]of The Great Plains, so different from those
[00:11:16.020]in the East, "have bent and molded Anglo-American life,
[00:11:21.480]have destroyed traditions,
[00:11:23.190]and have influenced institutions
[00:11:25.200]in a most singular manner."
[00:11:27.390]So, he was making an exceptionalist argument about the
[00:11:29.610]environment of The Plains.
[00:11:32.490]This is a great line.
[00:11:33.450]As he conceded in his memoir, quote,
[00:11:35.657]"I had no proof, but I knew I was right."
[00:11:39.967]"All the investigation remained to be done.
[00:11:43.020]But that was as nothing."
[00:11:45.300]To all grad students, "No."
[00:11:51.390]He went off to The University of Chicago,
[00:11:53.820]what he called his "year of academic outbreeding",
[00:11:56.730]where he was sort of sent to seek what he called,
[00:11:59.587]"the accursed PhD".
[00:12:01.620]But that was a total debacle,
[00:12:03.630]because he was so stubborn,
[00:12:05.670]as a later, very famous historian of the civil war
[00:12:09.000]named Avery Craven said later on,
[00:12:11.610]that was a friend of Webb's in Chicago,
[00:12:13.740]Craven stayed and got his PhD there,
[00:12:15.540]that Webb was just so stubborn that he basically refused
[00:12:18.480]to take any direction from his advisors, and so...
[00:12:22.050]Also, grad students, "No."
[00:12:24.855]And he failed his first year exams
[00:12:26.610]and he headed home to Texas, broke, and broken.
[00:12:30.240]About his only happy memory from that time in Chicago,
[00:12:32.970]this is a great story,
[00:12:34.710]was when he led the poet, Carl Sandburg,
[00:12:38.250]up to sort of his third floor, you know,
[00:12:40.440]sort of attic apartment.
[00:12:42.630]'Cause somehow Sandburg had learned of him
[00:12:45.150]and wanted to sort of plumb Webb's knowledge
[00:12:49.560]of cowboy and trail songs
[00:12:51.990]for what became Sandburg's American song book.
[00:12:55.920]That was like, he had three happy memories.
[00:12:57.900]That was one of them.
[00:12:58.733]The other two I think were considerably less.
[00:13:01.680]He said later that he learned to put one lesson
[00:13:03.870]in the Windy City, quote,
[00:13:05.707]"Don't take an original idea into a graduate school."
[00:13:10.315]So he said this in 1955, as he was the President
[00:13:13.650]of the American Historical Association,
[00:13:15.300]which is arguably, you know,
[00:13:17.190]certainly one of the highest heights to which you could
[00:13:19.140]aspire in the profession.
[00:13:21.000]My point is that he was still bitter
[00:13:24.079]about this over two decades later
[00:13:25.647]and he used valuable airtime
[00:13:28.795]at the AHA to complain about how awful
[00:13:31.080]graduate education was because of his very bad experience.
[00:13:34.890]A good friend of mine and another, you know,
[00:13:36.570]Historian of The Plains, Elliott West, has just said,
[00:13:39.388]"How did he not get over this?"
[00:13:40.320]given the sort of success of his career.
[00:13:43.350]Webb returned to the University of Texas
[00:13:45.180]where he would spend the rest of his career
[00:13:46.710]as a graduate student and as a professor.
[00:13:49.740]Back in Austin,
[00:13:50.700]this gives you some sense of his character
[00:13:52.440]and his personality,
[00:13:56.220]he resolved, "to write history as I saw it from Texas
[00:13:59.730]and not as it appeared in some distant center of learning."
[00:14:04.800]He finished a draft of the book in five months
[00:14:07.110]and he recalled that he wrote the book, quote,
[00:14:09.127]"In a state of suppressed emotions,"
[00:14:11.010]since his central actors, namely, white settlers,
[00:14:14.370]who were the heroes of his story, quote,
[00:14:15.296]"long been my people,
[00:14:16.129]and I sought to explain them to others."
[00:14:21.720]You remember, decades later, that, quote,
[00:14:23.213]"It was the happiest half-year of my life",
[00:14:26.460]to which I say, "Get a hobby."
[00:14:30.570]Texas awarded him the PhD in 1932,
[00:14:33.087]but the book was published in 1931.
[00:14:35.340]So, a little inside baseball
[00:14:36.870]for the sort of historians out there.
[00:14:38.873]It's a little bit like Bill Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis",
[00:14:41.520]which I believe he submitted to W.W. Norton,
[00:14:44.490]and went on to become one of the most important books,
[00:14:46.500]I think, ever written about Urban History
[00:14:48.270]or Environmental History.
[00:14:50.040]And then Yale gave him the PhD the year later.
[00:14:52.110]So, for Webb,
[00:14:53.220]he basically handed his book to the publisher
[00:14:55.290]and then Texas saw fit
[00:14:56.610]to give him the doctorate one year afterward.
[00:14:59.460]The argument of the book is simple and elegant,
[00:15:01.559]simple and elegant, namely the 98th meridian,
[00:15:05.460]which runs through Texas, conveniently, just east of Austin,
[00:15:09.450]is an institutional fault line
[00:15:11.370]and Anglo-Americans who settled there
[00:15:13.170]adapted through ingenious technological inventions.
[00:15:17.130]Three of them, particularly, according to Webb,
[00:15:18.810]the sixth gear, which I told you about, barbed wire,
[00:15:21.750]obviously, because of the treeless plains.
[00:15:23.610]How are you going to construct fences?
[00:15:25.470]Where you don't need a lot, you just need a fence post
[00:15:27.360]every 20, or I'm not sure how the ranchers do it,
[00:15:30.960]however many feet you need a fence post.
[00:15:32.370]You don't need a lot of wood for that.
[00:15:34.435]And then of course the third is the windmill.
[00:15:36.090]What are you gonna do in a dry place?
[00:15:37.980]Except for try to draw sort of sub-surface water
[00:15:40.710]up for farming.
[00:15:43.530]At times, the book reads like a love letter
[00:15:45.450]to his forebearers.
[00:15:48.210]Now, despite the lavish praise that he received
[00:15:51.660]at the time of publication,
[00:15:52.740]I told you we'll give you a little sampling
[00:15:54.690]both from the popular and academic side.
[00:15:57.151]Webb knew that he was in for some criticism,
[00:15:59.723]but wow, did he get it.
[00:16:01.860]Infamously, at a conference in Pennsylvania
[00:16:06.090]dedicated to the book,
[00:16:08.790]solely to the book,
[00:16:09.723]that was held in 1939.
[00:16:11.463]What I find fascinating is was the conference was held
[00:16:14.400]in mid-September of 1939, and then the proceedings,
[00:16:18.240]which are sort of, you know, recounted,
[00:16:20.760]I'm sure there's a copy of it in the library.
[00:16:23.160]Nobody talks at all about what's happening in Poland
[00:16:26.593]It's just incredible to me.
[00:16:27.450]It's classic Academia, right?
[00:16:29.220]This is a really important book on the Great Plains,
[00:16:31.200]but the Nazi invasion of Poland,
[00:16:32.850]that can wait for another day.
[00:16:35.430]It just doesn't show up at all
[00:16:36.570]or else it was edited out.
[00:16:40.150]the Social Science Research Council chose Webb's book,
[00:16:42.330]the subject of a conference, featuring, as they put it,
[00:16:45.337]"a single highly influential, influential work".
[00:16:48.030]His was the third such book to get this treatment.
[00:16:50.790]And because of the way that it went down, it was the last.
[00:16:54.690]It was an August gathering.
[00:16:56.040]I mean, I wish that I had written down the names
[00:16:58.018]of some of the other people because,
[00:16:59.220]Julia McQuillan is here someplace,
[00:17:01.320]it's a very prominent Sociologist,
[00:17:02.670]whose name I can't conjure,
[00:17:04.140]who was there.
[00:17:05.280]But for the historians in the crowd,
[00:17:06.270]Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.
[00:17:07.497]was the guy who convened this gathering of the SSRC.
[00:17:11.790]Other luminaries from cognate fields,
[00:17:13.920]like Anthropology and Sociology,
[00:17:20.340]It turned into a legendary affair.
[00:17:22.680]The SSRC commissioned a review, as was done,
[00:17:25.710]for these books.
[00:17:27.240]And he asked a guy named Fred Shannon,
[00:17:29.850]Historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning Historian
[00:17:32.340]of the Civil War,
[00:17:34.110]who had a really interesting background, like Webb's,
[00:17:36.167]from a very, very, very modest, farming family.
[00:17:40.530]Webb's, you know,
[00:17:41.370]poverty is sort of written into his life story
[00:17:44.700]and it appears in one way or another
[00:17:46.890]in almost all of his writing.
[00:17:48.060]Well, Shannon had a very similar background,
[00:17:49.680]but that did nothing in terms of making them
[00:17:52.110]any more sympathetic to the book.
[00:17:54.360]Instead, Shannon delivered a blistering 109 page,
[00:18:00.030]109 page critique.
[00:18:03.540]It's an extraordinary read.
[00:18:05.280]And for those of us who, you know,
[00:18:06.720]are in the academic business, and you write a book review
[00:18:10.315]and you always find something nice to say
[00:18:11.580]and every review ends with,
[00:18:13.567]"This book should be on the shelf
[00:18:15.090]of every Western Historian."
[00:18:16.680]I've written a lot of reviews like that.
[00:18:18.270]There is nothing-
[00:18:19.379]This is a different world.
[00:18:21.030]The past is a different country.
[00:18:22.620]This review is just, it's just,
[00:18:24.030]it just stops you in your tracks to read it.
[00:18:26.190]We are soft by comparison,
[00:18:27.960]both in terms of what we will write
[00:18:29.725]and, you know, how we are willing to respond.
[00:18:33.750]It's probably all for the good, quite honestly.
[00:18:36.196]But I've never really read anything quite like this before.
[00:18:39.390]Webb was incensed.
[00:18:40.560]He got a handle of this,
[00:18:41.393]he got a hold of it beforehand,
[00:18:43.050]so he could prepare his response.
[00:18:44.565]He had to be, he threatened to pull out,
[00:18:46.315]but he had to be reeled back in by Schlesinger.
[00:18:48.510]But he declared at the conference, quote,
[00:18:50.617]"I would not prostitute The Great Plains
[00:18:53.280]by accepting the Shannon manuscript as an appraisal.
[00:18:58.410]But even honestly, a few things,
as you might imagine.
[00:19:01.680]And Fred Shannon's critique became a blueprint
[00:19:04.380]for later critics of the book.
[00:19:06.900]I'm gonna go through a few of them
[00:19:07.860]because they actually really do,
[00:19:09.289]despite all of the haggling over some small details
[00:19:12.840]and definition of the region, which is important,
[00:19:15.060]Shannon spends sort of lots of ink on that.
[00:19:18.210]He has, some of his key criticisms are really, you know,
[00:19:21.930]really do I think sort of point the way
[00:19:24.270]towards later criticisms of the book that hold up today.
[00:19:26.970]I think Shannon was onto something, in other words,
[00:19:29.152]but you have to cut through a lot
[00:19:30.480]in order to get to sort of the stuff
[00:19:32.280]that really kind of matters
[00:19:33.720]in terms of the shortcomings of the book.
[00:19:36.150]So, for one thing,
[00:19:36.983]Shannon insisted that "The Great Plains"
[00:19:39.030]was derivative of secondary sources
[00:19:40.800]and that Webb had neglected to consult much
[00:19:43.650]for any primary material himself,
[00:19:45.990]which, of course, is one of the things
[00:19:47.400]we're supposed to do as historians.
[00:19:48.990]Certainly, for writing sort of groundbreaking,
[00:19:53.010]Webb answered that he had indeed skimped
[00:19:55.830]on the scholarly apparatus so as not to, quote,
[00:19:58.957]"clutter up the text".
[00:20:01.890]Again, my graduate student friends.
[00:20:05.039]That's not, that's, that's, that's not good.
[00:20:06.690]That's not good practice.
[00:20:08.460]More than that,
[00:20:09.953]Shannon hated the sweeping generalizations that Webb made
[00:20:12.720]based on intuition and experience,
[00:20:14.880]which makes the book wonderful to read,
[00:20:16.890]but also very suspect.
[00:20:18.420]A lot of it is sort of anecdotal,
[00:20:20.490]sort of, you know, feeling around my inference
[00:20:22.940]and experience rather than arguing from, you know,
[00:20:27.270]from a sort of a base of evidence, an evidentiary base.
[00:20:32.310]Webb's answer to that criticism was coy.
[00:20:35.587]"I have never asserted that The Great Plains is history.
[00:20:38.910]To me it is a work of art."
[00:20:43.980]Webb's close friend and UT colleague,
[00:20:46.380]the folklorist J. Frank Dobie, put it another way.
[00:20:49.304]I love this quote.
[00:20:50.287]"Old Webb sure doesn't let the facts
[00:20:52.140]get in the way of truth."
[00:20:55.320]Years later, insulated by all sorts of professional honors,
[00:20:59.490]two visits to the United Kingdom
[00:21:01.200]for visiting Professorships, two Guggenheims.
[00:21:04.020]I didn't know they gave more than one.
[00:21:06.450]He got two of them.
[00:21:07.620]Webb confessed, after all this time,
[00:21:10.320]that he thought of the book as quote,
[00:21:12.487]"An extension and explanation
[00:21:14.700]of what I had known firsthand in miniature.
[00:21:17.310]In a sense, an autobiography with scholarly trimmings."
[00:21:21.840]I mean, what a guy.
[00:21:24.960]So, that's sort of one kind of bucket of critiques.
[00:21:27.540]The second major critique from Fred Shannon
[00:21:30.390]in this 109-page blistering document
[00:21:34.020]is what the noted environmental historian Richard White
[00:21:37.957]"Webb's crude environmental determinants".
[00:21:41.413]In other words,
[00:21:42.540]there is no room in his book for culture or for contingency.
[00:21:47.250]In some ways, and I don't mean this to sound, you know,
[00:21:49.230]'cause I actually really enjoyed reading his stuff.
[00:21:50.760]It's a little bit like Jared Diamond,
[00:21:52.260]if you've read some of this stuff.
[00:21:53.310]That sort of take an environment
[00:21:55.230]and basically sort of put human actors in there
[00:21:57.507]and the environment is, basically,
[00:21:58.680]gonna determine a lot of the outcomes.
[00:22:00.450]Well, it doesn't necessarily,
[00:22:02.182]and that's probably not a totally fair characterization
[00:22:03.990]of Jared Diamond's book,
[00:22:05.400]but it, I think, it's not totally off the mark.
[00:22:07.890]Webb is probably much guiltier of that,
[00:22:11.250]but he really doesn't admit for any other sort of things
[00:22:14.114]that could have actually shaped the plains.
[00:22:16.710]It's really about sort of the environment
[00:22:18.630]determining the human societies that developed there.
[00:22:22.650]The stiffest challenge in some ways is lying in plain sight.
[00:22:25.890]And that is the innovations that allowed Anglo-Americans,
[00:22:29.190]the heroes of Webb's story,
[00:22:31.290]to conquer the nation's mid-section.
[00:22:33.690]They were all pioneered elsewhere.
[00:22:36.960]The six shooter was, as sure many of you know,
[00:22:40.860]invented by Samuel Colt at sea.
[00:22:45.000]He was seriously on a boat when he was working,
[00:22:47.285]when he was dreaming up the idea for the six shooter.
[00:22:48.990]The windmill was developed in Antebellum, Connecticut.
[00:22:53.310]Barbed wire, the closest invention to the Great Plains,
[00:22:56.430]was still patented by Joseph Glidden.
[00:22:59.520]He was 10 degrees east of this 98th parallel fault line.
[00:23:05.430]So, these are some of the problems with the book.
[00:23:08.218]And I don't mean to throw the old baby out
[00:23:09.690]with the bath water.
[00:23:10.523]I clearly have a fondness for this,
[00:23:11.970]but I also have to sort of rec-
[00:23:13.350]As we do with our children,
[00:23:14.280]recognize it's false.
[00:23:17.280]Shannon had a lot less to say about the matter
[00:23:21.240]that is probably most distressing to the modern reader,
[00:23:24.090]and that is what can only be described
[00:23:25.800]as Webb's kind of, you know,
[00:23:28.350]just unvarnished, at times even relentless, racism.
[00:23:33.060]Although he described native peoples
[00:23:34.620]of the Plains as, quote,
[00:23:36.547]"By nature, more ferocious, implacable and cruel
[00:23:39.960]than other tribes",
[00:23:41.250]embedded within that assessment
[00:23:43.140]was actually kind of a grudging admiration
[00:23:45.360]for groups like the Comanche.
[00:23:47.130]So, as he once, sort of, told his wife in a letter
[00:23:51.840]that a friend pointed me towards,
[00:23:53.130]he was very,
[00:23:56.215]he loved the Great Plains.
[00:23:57.048]He was fascinated by the cultures of indigenous peoples
[00:24:00.590]of the Plains.
[00:24:01.650]So, even as he was talking about,
[00:24:03.210]in these sort of really horrible stereotypical terms,
[00:24:05.587]"implacable", "cruel", "ferocious",
[00:24:07.080]embedded in that was a compliment
[00:24:08.670]and they were actually a foil,
[00:24:11.940]a wet stone, as I put it,
[00:24:14.100]against which Anglo civilization
[00:24:15.570]could kind of sharpen itself.
[00:24:16.710]He had some admiration, more than some admiration,
[00:24:19.860]even if it's expressed in sort of a kind of repugnant,
[00:24:22.620]hand-fisted sort of way.
[00:24:24.300]He had a lot less respect for other native groups.
[00:24:27.120]In the book's most notorious passage,
[00:24:29.610]which, as one scholar has said,
[00:24:32.155]and as pretty much all Mexican-American
[00:24:33.570]historians in the West can repeat, chapter and verse,
[00:24:36.780]Webb, noting the Pueblo Indian origins
[00:24:39.543]of the Mestizo population of the modern Southwest,
[00:24:42.840]writes that their blood, quote,
[00:24:45.070]"when compared with that of the Plains Indians
[00:24:47.880]was as ditch water".
[00:24:51.390]Takes your breath away, even now.
[00:24:53.670]Now, Apologists point to his upbringing in Texas,
[00:24:56.850]by parents who had fled the Reconstruction Era
[00:25:00.810]And that is true.
[00:25:02.940]but even some of his friends conceded the point
[00:25:05.940]that Webb was not enlightened on such matters.
[00:25:09.780]One associate explained his anti-Mexican bigotry this way,
[00:25:13.950]quote, "Subconsciously, Webb still had that Alamo,
[00:25:18.270]Texas Ranger myth deeply engraved."
[00:25:21.150]And this shows up in, you know, most vividly,
[00:25:24.291]in Webb's 1935 study of the Texas Rangers,
[00:25:27.840]which is even today,
[00:25:29.190]despite an outpouring avalanche of scholarship
[00:25:32.340]about the Rangers,
[00:25:33.173]of which my book is a tiny little slice
[00:25:35.370]and not nearly as impactful as many others,
[00:25:37.950]still haven't made a dent in the book sales.
[00:25:39.870]That book continues to make money
[00:25:41.790]for the University of Texas Press,
[00:25:43.830]even though Webb himself dismissed it as, quote,
[00:25:46.897]"a competent journeyman's job".
[00:25:49.170]And that's because, I think, he even understood
[00:25:52.140]that, basically, it's all almost verbatim stories
[00:25:55.860]that Anglo Texan Rangers,
[00:25:57.990]which there was only one kind of Rangers at the time,
[00:26:00.360]told him about their fights with native peoples
[00:26:02.940]and Mexicans, and it's just a hopelessly one-sided book.
[00:26:06.870]Supposedly, at the time of his death,
[00:26:08.790]he died in a one-car rollover traffic accident
[00:26:13.350]on the highway between San Antonio and Austin.
[00:26:15.600]Supposedly, he died in 1963.
[00:26:18.510]Supposedly, he was going to revisit the book
[00:26:21.660]and try to bring a more balanced perspective.
[00:26:23.550]It's hard to know if that ever would've happened.
[00:26:25.590]I like to think that it would have,
[00:26:27.507]but there wasn't a lot of evidence that,
[00:26:29.460]that he made a lot of progress on that front
[00:26:32.970]when he died at the age of 75.
[00:26:39.030]Webb's own protege, Joe B. Frantz, put it most damningly,
[00:26:44.292]and that is, according to Frantz, quote,
[00:26:46.117]"Webb showed strong nativist tendencies
[00:26:48.960]and his views on racial matters
[00:26:50.640]were not exactly progressive.
[00:26:52.680]Frankly, were even a bit barbaric."
[00:26:55.890]Maybe one last bit of evidence,
[00:26:57.210]which I found pretty persuasive when I read a piece
[00:27:00.690]by a Mexico-American scholar who was trying
[00:27:04.194]to recover this moment
[00:27:05.027]in the University of Texas in the 1930s, forties,
[00:27:08.723]because they had these three really prominent scholars
[00:27:10.710]who are still celebrated to this day.
[00:27:13.020]Rightfully, in some ways, because of their work,
[00:27:15.420]but they do represent a pretty problematic era.
[00:27:18.270]Webb, his pal, J. Frank Dobie,
[00:27:21.300]and then the Naturalist, Roy Bedichek.
[00:27:22.860]In fact, anybody here ever swim in Martin Springs?
[00:27:26.970]There's a statue of those "three great men"
[00:27:29.700]sort of in conversation.
[00:27:31.530]The University of Texas continues to celebrate them,
[00:27:33.930]although I think there's increasingly a bit of reckoning
[00:27:37.740]with their legacy.
[00:27:39.600]as a scholar of the University of Texas at that time
[00:27:43.401]recently wrote about it,
[00:27:45.750]that the prominent Mexican-American folklorist
[00:27:49.230]of the University of Texas,
[00:27:50.872]Americo Paredes, who's known by many,
[00:27:53.070]I see James nodding his head.
[00:27:55.200]A hero to many as a scholar, a folklorist, and activist.
[00:27:58.920]He eventually made his peace with Frank Dobie,
[00:28:01.740]but he never made any time for Walter Prescott Webb.
[00:28:04.500]And understandably, I think.
[00:28:07.980]So, can this book be saved?
[00:28:12.411]Or, as a friend, who read an early draft of this essay,
[00:28:14.370]said to me, "Why would you even bother?"
[00:28:19.020]In brief, yes, I think that this book can be redeemed,
[00:28:23.010]although I am willing to concede the point
[00:28:25.230]that surely there are some who might disagree.
[00:28:27.420]And certainly, I think it's the kind of thing
[00:28:28.920]that if you were to assign it in a class,
[00:28:30.677]particularly if it was an undergraduate class,
[00:28:33.150]and a piece of it,
[00:28:34.020]you'd really want to prepare students
[00:28:35.460]for understanding the context
[00:28:37.920]and for being able to kind of,
[00:28:40.020]not simply to wash your hands and say,
[00:28:41.587]"oh wow, well it was a product of the early 20th century."
[00:28:44.100]No, because there were contemporaries
[00:28:45.990]who did not share Webb's opinions and ideas.
[00:28:50.070]But if you were ever to bring it into the classroom,
[00:28:53.370]I think you'd probably want to offer some context for it.
[00:28:55.197]And I think there are some reasons why
[00:28:57.390]it deserves to be talked about today.
[00:28:59.690]And there are three key attributes that underpin the
[00:29:01.830]book's enduring reputation,
[00:29:03.720]starting with its sheer ambition.
[00:29:06.600]So, as remembered by the Editor-in-Chief
[00:29:08.970]of Harper's Magazine, who commissioned a whole bunch
[00:29:11.910]of pieces from Webb,
[00:29:12.780]this is what Webb spent a lot
[00:29:14.090]of the backend of his career doing, was writing for,
[00:29:16.243]and he was a beautiful writer,
[00:29:18.780]writing for a more popular crossover audience.
[00:29:22.170]This is what the Editor-in-Chief of Harper said, quote,
[00:29:24.427]"Webb wasn't afraid to tackle big subjects.
[00:29:27.330]Now and then, he would talk with a mix of sorrow,
[00:29:30.575]amusement, and contempt about fledgling historians
[00:29:34.530]who would devote years of labor to some safe,
[00:29:37.020]respectable little theme.
[00:29:39.120]Dr. Webb preferred subjects that offered plenty
[00:29:41.430]of elbow room."
[00:29:44.472]The story of the Great Plains
[00:29:45.305]and their absorption to the United States was spacious,
[00:29:48.480]indeed, I think we can agree,
[00:29:50.070]and even if he generalized, which he most assuredly did,
[00:29:54.000]such is the cost of a painting on so large a canvas.
[00:29:58.891]I think of him, I had a grad school professor who,
[00:30:02.760]not my favorite, who would,
[00:30:05.970]but I've always remembered this,
[00:30:07.350]that you divide historians into two camps.
[00:30:09.960]Big ideas historians, which he clearly fancied himself,
[00:30:13.200]and nuts and bolts historians.
[00:30:16.740]I'm sure Webb would've said,
[00:30:17.573]was a "nuts and bolts" historian,
[00:30:18.930]the guy who wrote the blistering
[00:30:20.220]hundred-and-nine page critique.
[00:30:21.810]Walter Prescott Webb was a big ideas historian.
[00:30:26.610]Although that nuts and bolts approach
[00:30:28.350]did win Fred Shannon the Pulitzer Prize.
[00:30:31.463]So, let's hear something for that in its favor. Okay.
[00:30:33.840]The book is truly interdisciplinary.
[00:30:35.610]It's something that I really admire
[00:30:38.070]and Webb read widely across multiple fields,
[00:30:41.610]chiefly anthropology and geography,
[00:30:44.280]but also in the hard sciences,
[00:30:45.930]including biology and geology.
[00:30:47.550]We become historians so we don't have to read these things.
[00:30:51.178]Webb, on the other hand,
[00:30:52.011]immersed himself deeply in all of them.
[00:30:53.820]And in fact,
[00:30:55.119]the beginning of the book is a really, it stands out,
[00:30:56.690]is a really smart and crisply written sort of, you know,
[00:31:01.350]deep geologic history of the Plains
[00:31:04.830]explaining how the environment developed here, you know,
[00:31:07.470]why it looks the way that it does,
[00:31:08.910]how it came to offer the opportunities,
[00:31:10.920]impose the limitations that it did.
[00:31:14.067]But you might expect in such a book,
[00:31:17.010]lengthy, capacious, erudite would be off-putting
[00:31:20.280]to the lay reader.
[00:31:21.540]But Webb wrote with just such an audience in mind.
[00:31:24.570]It's another reason I'm a big fan of his.
[00:31:26.280]Life is too short to read things that aren't well written.
[00:31:30.259]And you know, Webb is nothing
[00:31:31.380]but a really wonderful stylist.
[00:31:33.060]Some prominent historian, he may even, was it Milton,
[00:31:36.180]some prominent historian said that he could forgive Webb
[00:31:38.970]any, any sins.
[00:31:40.560]I'm not sure I would go that far,
[00:31:42.420]because of the quality of his prose,
[00:31:44.190]but there's something to be said for that.
[00:31:47.150]As a colleague explained,
[00:31:48.600]Webb wrote primarily for one person in mind, quote,
[00:31:52.897]"An imaginary Bostonian who is not a professional historian
[00:31:57.180]or writer or critic, but a man of wide"-
[00:32:00.210]always a man,
[00:32:01.207]"but a man of wide culture who could be interested
[00:32:04.320]in a slice of non-Bostonian history."
[00:32:08.190]Now, Webb had always dreamed of being a writer
[00:32:11.610]and in fact the story of the sort of genesis of the book
[00:32:15.120]is it's probably one of two that are really well-known
[00:32:17.250]to people who spent any time with Webb.
[00:32:18.777]The other is, I think,
[00:32:20.760]a much more moving story.
[00:32:23.010]And so, he grew up really in pretty grinding poverty.
[00:32:25.890]One of his colleagues,
[00:32:26.730]I think it was Dobie, maybe it was Bedichek,
[00:32:28.620]said that not many people that he knew
[00:32:31.080]who had succeeded in the profession
[00:32:32.760]had grown up under such straightened circumstances
[00:32:35.130]as Webb had.
[00:32:36.120]And I don't think Bedichek and Dobie
[00:32:37.800]were to the manner born,
[00:32:39.150]but Webb had really known privation.
[00:32:42.120]And in 1904, when he was 16,
[00:32:46.880]he wrote a letter to the editor of a sort
[00:32:50.913]of a southern literary magazine called "The Sunny South",
[00:32:56.790]in which he sort of despaired of living
[00:33:02.296]in sort of the barren Cross Timbers region of Texas
[00:33:06.029]and, you know, wondering how it was that a boy like him
[00:33:07.932]who had never been educated,
[00:33:08.765]would ever have the chance to become a writer.
[00:33:11.130]And in this amazing, I mean it just, it's really,
[00:33:13.890]it is, you know, a beautiful story.
[00:33:16.082]A toy manufacturer in Brooklyn named William Ellery Hinds
[00:33:19.950]spotted this plaintive letter in "The Sunny South"
[00:33:24.270]and the story of how it reached Webb,
[00:33:26.730]it's just unbelievable how this all came to be.
[00:33:31.113]It's almost too good to be true,
[00:33:32.970]but I absolutely believe that it is true
[00:33:35.310]that Hinds writes Webb a letter that finds him
[00:33:38.210]in this barren region,
[00:33:39.510]West of the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex
[00:33:43.320]in the Cross Timbers,
[00:33:44.153]which is a really barren, hard scrabble country,
[00:33:46.500]where his father was eeking out a living as a dirt farmer
[00:33:49.020]and a sometimes school teacher,
[00:33:51.165]offering web encouragement, saying that,
[00:33:54.547]"failure is not a word in the lexicon of boyhood"
[00:33:58.890]I think is how Hinds put it.
[00:34:01.080]But then, more significantly, sending him some books.
[00:34:03.930]And then even more significantly than that,
[00:34:05.490]underwriting his undergraduate education
[00:34:07.380]at the University of Texas.
[00:34:09.331]Web dedicated "The Texas Rangers" to him.
[00:34:12.630]Hinds, who was not alive for that,
[00:34:15.390]might have preferred
[00:34:16.223]that Webb chose a different book, but...
[00:34:19.800]And Webb never met him.
[00:34:21.060]In fact, one of the pieces that Webb wrote for Harpers
[00:34:23.220]that meant the most to him was an article that he called,
[00:34:25.950]I think it's "The search for William Ellory Hinds".
[00:34:28.140]He wasn't actually looking for him
[00:34:29.280]because Hinds had died in 1910.
[00:34:31.334]He knew that,
[00:34:32.226]but he wanted to know more about him
[00:34:33.750]and he couldn't find a lot,
[00:34:35.400]but he tracked down a few relatives.
[00:34:38.340]But Webb described what Hinds had done
[00:34:42.390]and Webb was not a religious man,
[00:34:46.710]but he described it as the closest,
[00:34:48.660]the sort of the greatest act of Christian charity
[00:34:52.170]that he had ever known
[00:34:54.030]was Hinds making his life possible, basically.
[00:34:57.450]Webb had a lot to say about writing, again,
[00:35:00.600]the career that he aspired to from the time
[00:35:02.190]that he was young.
[00:35:03.350]In a piece for Harpers,
[00:35:04.560]he lamented the rise of what he called, quote,
[00:35:06.547]"scientific history" out of which, quote,
[00:35:09.337]"arose the idea that a great gulf exists
[00:35:12.240]between truth and beauty,
[00:35:14.280]such that the real scholar must choose truth
[00:35:17.820]and somehow it is better if it is made so ugly
[00:35:20.790]that nobody could doubt it's virginity."
[00:35:23.780]That wasn't published by Harpers.
[00:35:26.742]They decided to pass on that one.
[00:35:28.620]Webb divided University-based historians into two camps,
[00:35:31.710]quote, "Those who can't write and those who can, but don't."
[00:35:35.880]Webb, of course, put himself in a third group,
[00:35:38.947]"Those who do" and who consider writing an art,
[00:35:42.450]which he absolutely did.
[00:35:45.030]And "The Great Plains", to encounter it today, I think, is,
[00:35:49.216]he really thought it,
[00:35:50.578]he said that he considered it a work of art
[00:35:52.786]and I think it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek
[00:35:53.760]for the purposes of that conference,
[00:35:55.230]but I think he absolutely thought of it as literature,
[00:35:57.390]which I guess is art in its own right.
[00:36:00.090]And the book is replete with sentences like these,
[00:36:04.167]some of you probably know, if you've read the book, quote,
[00:36:06.847]"East of the Mississippi, civilizations stood on three legs,
[00:36:10.530]land, water, and timber.
[00:36:12.780]West of the Mississippi, not one but two of those legs
[00:36:16.170]were withdrawn, water and timber,
[00:36:18.360]and civilization was left on one leg, land.
[00:36:22.260]Small wonder that it toppled over in temporary failure."
[00:36:26.250]Now I should say this.
[00:36:27.570]Webb wrote those lines, but the idea,
[00:36:29.927]as he confessed it much later in his autobiography
[00:36:32.850]just recently published,
[00:36:34.770]was that that sort of a metaphor
[00:36:37.650]had been sort of introduced to him
[00:36:40.200]by an undergraduate student at the University of Texas.
[00:36:43.530]But Webb took the idea
[00:36:44.730]and he put it into really sort of vivid prose.
[00:36:48.000]The most important thing that Webb did with this book
[00:36:50.760]was to define the West in terms of its viridity.
[00:36:54.519]And he settled on the 98th meridian
[00:36:55.950]as the eastern edge of the region.
[00:36:58.860]This precision, and this will probably sort of, you know,
[00:37:02.190]Margaret will have flashbacks of the 1980s and 1990s.
[00:37:05.230]This precision is a contrast to Frederick Jackson Turner,
[00:37:08.280]who had defined the west in 1893 as "a process".
[00:37:11.730]The west was a frontier, a western process,
[00:37:14.820]a frontier that slowly moved across the continent
[00:37:17.400]inexorably from east to west.
[00:37:20.079]There have been a series of Wests.
[00:37:21.690]The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts were once the West,
[00:37:25.440]the Appalachians in the Ohio Valley and-
[00:37:27.177]But Webb said,
[00:37:28.010]no, the West is actually a place
[00:37:29.910]that can be very easily defined
[00:37:31.410]by where the water gets scarce, basically.
[00:37:34.920]20 inches of rain or less passed the 98th meridian.
[00:37:39.208]He made a point more finally in Harper's
[00:37:41.340]in a 1957 article called,
[00:37:43.447]"The American West Perpetual Mirage",
[00:37:46.290]which was loathed by Westerners who took offense at,
[00:37:49.950]he described the West in terms of its deficiency.
[00:37:51.960]Not only water, but a whole bunch of other things that,
[00:37:55.110]pardon the metaphor, kind of flowed from that absence.
[00:37:57.570]I'm gonna read you, just quickly, 'cause I love this.
[00:38:01.920]He got so much hate mail about that
[00:38:07.080]and somebody wrote him and said,
[00:38:10.500]after he published this piece.
[00:38:14.280]The Denver Post ran a full page editorial
[00:38:16.380]condemning the article, which began this way, quote,
[00:38:20.077]"Listen, Dr. Walter Prescott Webb,
[00:38:22.590]you better take off your glasses and your PhD.
[00:38:24.960]You've picked a fight."
[00:38:27.281]Friends had warned Webb about the inevitable blowback,
[00:38:29.550]but he insisted,
[00:38:30.457]"I can't help it. I'll have to publish it."
[00:38:33.570]What he wanted to do, as he says,
[00:38:34.807]he wanted to teach people in the region about themselves
[00:38:38.340]and their history
[00:38:39.330]and that even if that had some ugly sides,
[00:38:41.190]he felt bound to sort of present that.
[00:38:45.270]So, what's the verdict?
[00:38:47.513]Well, I will tell you that I wrote this originally,
[00:38:50.370]it would've ended up here thanks to Bridget,
[00:38:52.770]but I actually wrote this for, I would say,
[00:38:56.610]only the leading historical journal in our field.
[00:38:59.820]It runs periodic retrospectives on books that,
[00:39:04.570]that continue to speak to us today,
[00:39:05.670]but that are not forgotten,
[00:39:07.230]but maybe, again, were usually cited than actually read.
[00:39:11.310]And although they commissioned it, they rejected it
[00:39:14.160]and I saw reader reports that it wasn't because...
[00:39:18.408]Maybe they were being nice.
[00:39:19.241]I don't think it was because of-
[00:39:20.610]I think it was the idea of rehabilitating Webb,
[00:39:23.760]even in part, was a bridge too far.
[00:39:27.900]Given some of the stuff that had gone down at this journal,
[00:39:30.780]my timing was probably particularly bad.
[00:39:33.750]This is really of no consequence
[00:39:35.520]except to say that I think Webb does remain radioactive
[00:39:38.310]for some and it found a very nice hum.
[00:39:41.190]I'm grateful to Bridget again.
[00:39:43.950]In the end, I came to see it as a deeply flawed masterpiece,
[00:39:47.340]which I think is pretty rare these days.
[00:39:49.770]And I wrote down,
[00:39:50.939]and I can't read my handwriting,
[00:39:51.772]I had a book that I was going to liken it to,
[00:39:54.630]in terms of a flawed-
[00:39:55.463]I'm sure we can all think of flawed masterpieces.
[00:39:57.240]I can't come up with this one
[00:39:58.742]'cause I can't read my own damn handwriting.
[00:40:02.010]But I'm helped in thinking about its significance
[00:40:07.020]by Historian Donald Worster,
[00:40:09.691]who is probably Webb's chief intellectual descendant.
[00:40:13.706]Worster's a son of the Plains.
[00:40:14.970]He grew, he was born in Kansas
[00:40:17.535]and raised in California by a family who fled the Dust Bowl
[00:40:21.240]and then came back and spent a lot of his career
[00:40:23.430]at the University of Kansas.
[00:40:25.080]And is, you know,
[00:40:26.060]an extraordinary historian,
[00:40:28.055]and one of the leading thinkers about water in the West.
[00:40:30.840]And this is what he said,
[00:40:31.800]if it's good enough for Don Worster it's good enough for me.
[00:40:34.170]Quote, "I know in my bones,
[00:40:37.020]if not always through my education,
[00:40:39.210]that Webb was right."
[00:40:40.500]Meaning about defining the West
[00:40:41.970]in terms of the absence of water.
[00:40:44.670]But there are others, Jacque Barzun, the Cultural Historian,
[00:40:47.370]William S. McNeill, the, you know,
[00:40:49.560]luminous historian of almost all things.
[00:40:52.110]They both expressed deep, abiding admiration for the book.
[00:40:56.056]I'm not sure, Bridget, if I got the sales figures right,
[00:40:58.710]but I think he told me once
[00:40:59.760]that it averages maybe 500 copies a year,
[00:41:02.670]which is extraordinary
[00:41:03.930]for a book that was published almost a hundred years ago.
[00:41:08.250]I mean that was just an average over a long stretch of time.
[00:41:12.690]My books don't sell 500 copies a year.
[00:41:15.948]My books don't sell 500 copies in a lifetime,
[00:41:17.640]but that is all right.
[00:41:18.480]I'm gainfully employed.
[00:41:20.582]That's good enough.
[00:41:21.415]Maybe it'll sell more with a new cover
[00:41:23.130]and new introduction.
[00:41:25.860]But what I really want to say about it
[00:41:28.343]is that it speaks to the present.
[00:41:29.700]I think it really does
[00:41:31.231]in a way that is prescient.
[00:41:34.920]Webb wrote against the backdrop of the
[00:41:37.320]wheat bonanza of the 1920s.
[00:41:38.700]He's writing this book in late 1920s.
[00:41:40.648]This is before things went bad.
[00:41:42.420]He doesn't write about the Dust Bowl
[00:41:43.906]'cause the Dust Bowl hadn't happened
[00:41:44.739]as Webb was writing this book.
[00:41:46.740]But even though things seemed to be pretty good,
[00:41:50.640]these were boom times on the Plains in the twenties,
[00:41:53.160]certainly before, you know,
[00:41:54.918]the year the stock market crashed and before the Dust Bowl.
[00:41:57.330]But he grasped that, even then,
[00:41:59.487]that at the American approach to the region spelled trouble,
[00:42:02.130]and at the end of the book,
[00:42:03.060]he predicts that one of the battles that will take place
[00:42:05.760]on the Great Plains will be conflict over water.
[00:42:10.020]This is probably not quite as true here,
[00:42:12.510]although it is certainly true here, as it is,
[00:42:14.640]if you've been reading any of the newspaper stories
[00:42:16.320]about the Colorado River.
[00:42:19.020]as a friend of mine, who's an environmental historian says,
[00:42:20.977]"You want a job that'll pay in the 21st century?
[00:42:23.820]Be a water lawyer in the southwest."
[00:42:26.128]Webb saw this and he understood that the environment,
[00:42:30.090]even as it presented opportunity,
[00:42:32.400]it also imposed very strict limitations.
[00:42:35.157]And that, I think, is just unbelievably, undeniably true
[00:42:39.510]in the anthropocene.
[00:42:41.580]So, thank you very much.
[00:42:43.350]I'd be happy to take your questions.
[00:42:52.858]Do you have any questions for me?
[00:42:58.260]Come on. I'm here in the heart of the Great Plains.
[00:43:00.030]Surely, somebody wants to pick a fight?
[00:43:07.440]Well, I mean Webb is very interesting,
[00:43:10.620]but so is Graybill.
[00:43:11.981]So, there will be more coming out of Graybill.
[00:43:15.630]What will those books be? What is ahead?
[00:43:17.790]Oh, I don't know.
[00:43:19.350]You know, I, it's, I...
[00:43:22.020]There's a part of me that sort of thinks
[00:43:23.640]about doing other things now and then, but I,
[00:43:25.860]my Dissertation Advisor was really right.
[00:43:28.006]I am a historian of the Great Plains.
[00:43:29.310]I find this region absolutely fascinating
[00:43:31.830]and I, you know, chafe,
[00:43:33.090]whenever I hear people talk about it as "flyover country"
[00:43:36.300]or, you know, don't understand the beauty of the place
[00:43:40.590]and its rich historical significance and traditions.
[00:43:45.240]So, but, you know,
[00:43:49.170]cowboys, I think, that are also very hard,
[00:43:52.627]if you live in Texas, to get away from,
[00:43:54.450]maybe, maybe something on the history of Texas
[00:43:57.300]told through the species of its most iconic species
[00:44:01.440]I thought about doing something like that,
[00:44:02.820]which is absolutely a Great Plains history.
[00:44:05.160]So I'm kind of kicking that around.
[00:44:06.660]But I've got this administrative job
[00:44:08.280]that keeps me pretty busy.
[00:44:10.496]I'm sure Margaret can commiserate
[00:44:12.390]that that's standing in the way of spending
[00:44:15.870]all this time in the archives.
[00:44:18.285]But I think I might try to capitalize
[00:44:20.100]on the Yellowstone moments.
[00:44:22.563]Although maybe a little late for that.
[00:44:24.900]Although Taylor shared it seems to keep churning them out.
[00:44:27.090]Why not? So, we'll see.
[00:44:31.506][Lecture Attendee] What does Annette Gordon-Reed...
[00:44:33.433]Does she have anything to say about this book?
[00:44:37.507]That's a good question.
[00:44:38.340]No, she has not.
[00:44:39.630]And my guess,
[00:44:40.992]Annette Gordon-Reed is a,
[00:44:42.320]is really a wonderful historian
[00:44:45.540]who has written a number of books
[00:44:47.940]but her most famous one is called
[00:44:48.937]"The Hemingses of Monticello",
[00:44:50.460]which is sort of really recover-
[00:44:52.140]It answers, once and for all, the matter
[00:44:55.050]of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings
[00:44:57.690]and the fact that he fathered many children with her
[00:45:00.480]whom he then enslaved.
[00:45:02.160]Some of them, at least.
[00:45:03.960]And I think that Annette
[00:45:04.890]would probably be less interested in Webb
[00:45:06.930]because Annette is from Conroe,
[00:45:08.760]which is outside of Houston
[00:45:10.350]and that actually looks much more east
[00:45:13.590]and towards the south.
[00:45:15.030]She's a southern historian.
[00:45:16.680]I'm not saying that these things somehow
[00:45:18.000]are mutually exclusive,
[00:45:19.290]but I think she has always looked east
[00:45:21.780]from the Piney Woods at East Texas
[00:45:23.700]than as a southern historian.
[00:45:25.230]I grew up in San Antonio, which is sort of,
[00:45:28.560]I think it was a true borderlands history,
[00:45:30.510]where we've got a little bit of everything.
[00:45:32.250]But certainly, I think we have to think of ourselves
[00:45:34.440]as more western-oriented
[00:45:36.263]and that's certainly the direction that I look
[00:45:39.702]is more towards the west.
[00:45:42.390]So, I think that's probably one significant difference.
[00:45:44.190]I'm sure that she has read and thought about Webb,
[00:45:47.100]but I suspect that she probably thinks
[00:45:48.750]he doesn't have as much to say
[00:45:50.490]to the kind of work that she does.
[00:45:51.870]What I would say is that Annette is unbelievably open-minded
[00:45:55.650]and she would probably find some room in her heart for him.
[00:45:57.960]If she's done it for Thomas Jefferson,
[00:46:00.698]she could probably do it for Walter Prescott Webb.
[00:46:02.700]So. That's a really good question.
[00:46:05.820]Any other questions?
[00:46:08.790]I was interested to hear
[00:46:10.530]that you were thinking about ways to teach Webb
[00:46:13.740]or to think about, you know,
[00:46:16.230]the utility of the Great Plains as narrative
[00:46:19.364]from a 21st century, like, learning moment
[00:46:21.870]kind of perspective.
[00:46:23.250]And a question I have is, you know the,
[00:46:28.620]not that you're very old,
[00:46:30.397](Dr. Graybill laughs)
[00:46:31.357]but we are at a slightly different,
[00:46:33.131]scholarly generation and we were,
[00:46:34.920]you know, taught
[00:46:36.450]to read Turner's Frontier Thesis closely
[00:46:41.400]with critique in mind.
[00:46:43.553]But sort of discouraged from giving Webb
[00:46:46.590]the same attention,
[00:46:49.260]just told that it's so flawed
[00:46:52.140]that you don't really need to read it as closely.
[00:46:55.320]So my question is,
[00:46:56.370]why do you think Frontier Thesis is known
[00:47:01.410]while being known as flawed, and not Webb's?
[00:47:05.460]And then... that's one question.
[00:47:08.586]My second question is,
[00:47:10.793]if, not if, but when, you teach this book,
[00:47:13.200]what are you teaching with it?
[00:47:14.910]Like, what other readings
[00:47:16.200]are you putting in conversation with it?
[00:47:19.290]I'll answer the second part first, that's easier.
[00:47:21.080]I actually don't teach the book.
[00:47:23.183]It's too, I mean I,
[00:47:24.404]I actually did use it in a graduate class
[00:47:25.560]when I was thinking about writing some sort
[00:47:27.450]of narrative synthesis of the Great Plains,
[00:47:30.270]which would've been transnational,
[00:47:31.680]what would've taken me, you know,
[00:47:32.610]all the way up into the Canyon Prairies.
[00:47:34.350]And I thought, ah, you know,
[00:47:36.060]gosh, I can do an updated version of this book with,
[00:47:40.380]on the other side of the Dust Bowl,
[00:47:42.330]thinking about the depletion of the Ogallala,
[00:47:45.113]working in native politics and division of sovereignty,
[00:47:48.030]spilling across the border into Canada.
[00:47:50.400]Even saying it right here, my hands begin to sweat.
[00:47:54.350]There's no way that I could read...
[00:47:56.370]I mean, there are people who can do it,
[00:47:57.690]people who can write amazing synthetic works.
[00:47:59.670]Elliott West has got, and Sally Deutsch,
[00:48:02.040]I mean as Bridget Barry back there
[00:48:03.750]on promoting Nebraska Press books
[00:48:05.910]and they're wonderful series on the West.
[00:48:10.283]Sally Deutsch from Duke wrote one, sort of,
[00:48:12.570]on the first half of the 20th century
[00:48:13.890]and Elliot West, wrote a beautiful,
[00:48:15.240]beautiful book on, I think,
[00:48:16.500]the most interesting period in the history of the West,
[00:48:18.210]which is the second half of the 19th century.
[00:48:20.475]They did it, they did it beautifully.
[00:48:21.450]His books read incredibly well.
[00:48:22.860]I don't think I'm cut out for that.
[00:48:24.797]So I taught his book with thought that,
[00:48:27.610]which would help them to write it, too,
[00:48:29.790]I would be able to envision a way to craft an argument
[00:48:32.220]about the West.
[00:48:33.053]I did not feel that I needed to-
[00:48:34.440]Oh, we certainly talked about the problems.
[00:48:36.510]I didn't feel I needed quite the same learning label
[00:48:38.760]that I would've had with undergraduates.
[00:48:41.130]I used the Harpers article,
[00:48:42.690]'cause this is too big,
[00:48:43.977]this is too much.
[00:48:45.600]And you know, quite frankly,
[00:48:47.370]until it was nicely re-typeset,
[00:48:49.230]people, they thought they were reading printouts
[00:48:50.820]from the fax machine.
[00:48:51.960]So I couldn't do that to the students.
[00:48:54.060]And the Harper's piece is meant to be combative
[00:48:58.290]and the students,
[00:48:59.580]even relatively docile university students,
[00:49:02.640]would kind of get fired up
[00:49:03.660]and feel their region was being dissed.
[00:49:05.940]So I used that and that's a good teaching tool
[00:49:09.810]because again, Webb writes so well.
[00:49:12.570]The other question,
[00:49:14.040]which is, "Why is Turner known and Webb not?"
[00:49:18.330]So, I think there are a couple reasons.
[00:49:19.800]I think one of them is that Turner
[00:49:21.750]was making much bigger claims
[00:49:23.520]about, you know, for him,
[00:49:25.650]this is something, of course, you know very well
[00:49:27.360]and Margaret knows it too,
[00:49:29.220]and other people who spend any time
[00:49:30.570]thinking about Frederick Jackson Turner.
[00:49:31.920]He gave a narrative that explained the whole history
[00:49:34.980]of American civilization to 1890.
[00:49:37.320]I mean, sort of,
[00:49:38.160]what did he say at the end?
[00:49:40.528]"thus closes the first chapter in American history"
[00:49:42.593]It's much more sweeping.
[00:49:45.360]It's, although it's allogenic in its own way,
[00:49:48.531]it's, you know,
[00:49:49.770]it's a much more, in some ways, a kind of alluring story.
[00:49:54.390]'Cause it's about progress,
[00:49:56.100]it's about democratic institutions,
[00:49:58.230]it's about the regeneration of democracy.
[00:50:01.950]Even if in the end it's like, okay,
[00:50:03.660]well that period is over, what's next?
[00:50:08.010]That Harvard article again is a useful reference.
[00:50:10.680]Webb's is, he loves,
[00:50:13.380]he loves this place of these people,
[00:50:16.470]but he really does see that it's an awfully hard place
[00:50:21.930]The West, as he describes it.
[00:50:24.780]It's not necessarily an uplifting story.
[00:50:26.820]He does celebrate technologies,
[00:50:30.570]but by the end of the book, you know, he sees,
[00:50:32.730]he thinks he sees where things are headed
[00:50:33.990]and he's right that the way that we have used the land,
[00:50:37.635]and this is even before the Dust Bowl,
[00:50:39.000]spells real trouble.
[00:50:40.710]So, I wouldn't say that Turner's particularly optimistic,
[00:50:43.350]but it's a more sweeping, soaring, story
[00:50:45.420]and it explains a lot more.
[00:50:47.220]Webb, as a regionalist, isn't a telling a national story.
[00:50:50.250]Unless of course like me,
[00:50:51.270]you think that the only interesting part of the country
[00:50:53.100]is the West.
[00:50:55.375]So I think, yeah.
[00:50:56.266]I think that's probably part of it, would be a guess.
[00:51:00.625](laughs) I haven't figured it out as a Sociologist
[00:51:03.063]but I keep trying.
[00:51:04.428]Okay, I've got two questions.
[00:51:05.487]I will tell you. I'll figure it out.
[00:51:06.989]Okay, I've got two questions.
[00:51:08.039]One is, I don't know if you said this and I didn't catch it,
[00:51:10.950]but, so, the 98th parallel,
[00:51:13.110]that's where the Mid Great Plain starts.
[00:51:15.690]According to Webb.
[00:51:18.068]It really would be more of where the West begins
[00:51:18.901]as he would say.
[00:51:19.734]The West. Yeah.
[00:51:20.653]'Cause I feel, like, this conflation of the West
[00:51:21.977]and the Great Plains, so like, does it-
[00:51:23.605]'Cause I think of,
[00:51:25.203]actually I had a job interview here in 1997.
[00:51:27.540]Most of the conversation was about
[00:51:29.160]where does the Great Plain begin?
[00:51:31.501]Is it in Ohio? Does it begin in the Mississippi River?
[00:51:33.450]So, I thought that was interesting.
[00:51:34.560]I was just like,
[00:51:35.393]I'm just trying to figure out where the hell I am.
[00:51:38.045]"I just want a job."
[00:51:38.878]That's what you were thinking, probably.
[00:51:41.783]I tried to memorize, "Okay, it's next to... Colorado,
[00:51:43.530]it's below South Dakota... anyway.
[00:51:47.100]And so, but-
[00:51:48.210]Julia's from Connecticut, you need to know.
[00:51:51.317]Does it end?
[00:51:52.150]Like is it the Pacific or the Rocky Mountains
[00:51:54.120]or like does he, does the Great Plains end?
[00:51:56.490]Oh, you're asking great questions.
[00:51:58.979]And this is a sort of great place to be asking
[00:52:00.188]'cause there are a lot of really smart people.
[00:52:01.650]You're in the Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:52:03.150]We spent a lot of time working on that.
[00:52:05.250]And what I would commend to you is,
[00:52:07.260]I'm almost positive it's in the front
[00:52:09.600]of a great CGPS project called
[00:52:11.647]"The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains"
[00:52:13.290]that David Wishart did with a whole lot of help
[00:52:15.300]from a bunch of other people.
[00:52:17.190]And there is a map at the front that shows,
[00:52:20.160]pretty much everybody agrees that the Great Plains
[00:52:22.237]end at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
That's pretty easy.
[00:52:24.432]That's where the end in the West.
[00:52:25.265]But the eastern edge-
[00:52:26.976][Lecture Attendee] There's a map in the lobby, too.
[00:52:27.809]A map of the lobby as well? Okay.
[00:52:29.880]And all the asking,
[00:52:30.900]I'm not sure if it's asking, sort of,
[00:52:32.790]I'm assuming it's asking geographers and historians
[00:52:34.920]to draw that Eastern boundary
[00:52:36.240]and it's all over the place.
[00:52:37.770]You know, it goes, I think I, I would say,
[00:52:42.150]and Webb certainly would say,
[00:52:43.800]pretty much, kind of, the eastern border
[00:52:45.630]of the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska.
[00:52:48.870]But is Western Iowa really that different?
[00:52:52.410]I think Eastern Iowa is,
[00:52:54.922]and then certainly, when you get into the prairies
[00:52:56.400]of Illinois, it's much harder to define.
[00:52:59.040]Is this, I mean,
[00:53:00.630]these are conversations that have, I'm sure Margaret,
[00:53:03.150]they just sort of echo like ghosts in here.
[00:53:06.738]You know, is this the Great Plains?
[00:53:07.950]Yes. I think we can agree on that.
[00:53:09.449]Is it the Midwest?
[00:53:10.950]I don't think so.
[00:53:11.850]I think in the Midwest is, you know,
[00:53:13.200]sort of the old Big 10 before it added...
[00:53:17.663]but really Maryland and Rutgers, what's that about?
[00:53:20.970]I think that's-
[00:53:21.803][Lecture Attendee] Or UCLA.
[00:53:24.414]UCLA, USC, yes.
[00:53:26.705]So, can I ask one more?
[00:53:29.155]The Eastern border is fuzzier.
[00:53:30.224]It's a lot fuzzier. It's the Mississippi...
[00:53:31.057]But it's easier at the Rockies.
[00:53:32.250]It's easier with the Rockies in the West for Webb,
[00:53:34.735]it was just, it's literally,
[00:53:36.104]it's where you get less than 20 inches of rainfall a year.
[00:53:37.260]Although that could be creeping east, you know, as,
[00:53:41.880]I mean the Great Plains may need to be re-defined-
[00:53:44.010]Just like the Frontier reopened
[00:53:45.990]for Frederick Jackson Turner.
[00:53:47.676]The way that he defined "The Frontier" was that places,
[00:53:50.640]I'm not sure, Margaret, if you remember the number,
[00:53:51.930]I can never get it right.
[00:53:53.010]It's where every county had a certain threshold population
[00:53:56.340]and that even as Turner was writing that in 1893,
[00:53:59.460]because of rural depopulation,
[00:54:00.960]the Frontier was opening up again
[00:54:02.610]according to his definition.
[00:54:04.050]I think that the Great Plains or the West may,
[00:54:07.315]according to Webb, bleed to the East as we get,
[00:54:10.770]sorry to end on a grim note here, get drier and drier.
[00:54:13.440]What is your second question?
[00:54:14.550]Okay, so, you know,
[00:54:16.024]I can't see myself a scientist
[00:54:16.857]and I'm curious if you said, like, he kind of admits
[00:54:22.080]that he didn't actually have empirical evidence.
[00:54:24.390]He just sort of had stories and accounts,
[00:54:27.090]but that primary sources might be able to support it.
[00:54:29.517]But has anybody tried to figure out
[00:54:31.260]if there's a verbal support for his claims? Or- ?
[00:54:34.380]Oh. And it's not really that he didn't have any,
[00:54:36.690]there was all intuition and experience and anecdote.
[00:54:39.270]It's just that a lot of the book is based on sort of stuff
[00:54:43.230]he sort of observed and lived
[00:54:46.177]and he did go out and find a lot of stuff.
[00:54:47.839]He read, I mean, he read lots of government reports.
[00:54:50.070]He did, oh gosh.
[00:54:51.000]I mean he, he read Fred Shannon
[00:54:53.820]and he just lambasted him,
[00:54:55.680]did acknowledge that he read some unbelievable
[00:54:58.500]like nine-volume history of water along the west
[00:55:01.367]and Shannon was like,
[00:55:02.587]"Well, I give him credit for that because that's just long."
[00:55:05.251]So, it is,
[00:55:06.084]it is not all ethereal
[00:55:08.316]and gauzey at all.
[00:55:09.450]It's just that, you know, he really does make,
[00:55:12.870]I mean, for instance, I can kind of get with this,
[00:55:15.270]but he basically argues that there's one,
[00:55:18.600]there's one sort of literary and folklore tradition
[00:55:23.130]that is indigenous to the United States.
[00:55:24.600]You know what that is?
[00:55:28.408]Folk songs and trail songs and cowboy literature.
[00:55:29.640]That's the only distinctive American literary tradition
[00:55:32.370]according to Webb.
[00:55:33.600]So, it's those moments, particularly,
[00:55:35.940]where he just makes these sweeping generalizations
[00:55:39.060]that really, that are rooted entirely in opinion,
[00:55:41.820]but he presents them as fact.
[00:55:47.212]I think I'm, I don't wanna prevail on you too long.
[00:55:49.686]Is there any, is there one last question?
[00:55:52.958]There doesn't have to be.
[00:55:54.659](lecture attendee laughs)
[00:55:56.477]All right. Alex, go.
[00:55:57.593]Oh, from a German historian, this should be great.
[00:56:01.080]Funny that you mentioned,
[00:56:02.155]'cause it is kind of,
[00:56:03.257]because I'm not that familiar
[00:56:05.268]with, kind of, the geography of the West.
[00:56:07.498]You make a pretty clear case
[00:56:09.210]of why he gets rejected almost from the start.
[00:56:11.400]You also have mentioned kind of how much he sells
[00:56:13.230]and that he had very positive reviews early on.
[00:56:16.740]But it seems like he's somebody
[00:56:18.120]that Western students have to still wrestle with
[00:56:20.520]in some ways.
[00:56:21.630]So, where, why does,
[00:56:23.780]in what ways did he remain influential
[00:56:25.920]despite the kind of the immediate and later pushback?
[00:56:29.400]So, there is like a kind of a sort of a three-headed beast
[00:56:31.940]of sort of significant Western historians
[00:56:34.260]and again, one historian to another.
[00:56:35.970]And the rest of you are welcome to go to sleep.
[00:56:38.769]No, I'm kidding.
[00:56:39.602]It's Turner, it's Herbert Eugene Bolton
[00:56:41.970]who sort of suggested that, you know, actually,
[00:56:44.700]there were other imperial powers on the continent,
[00:56:46.530]like the Spanish in the Southwest.
[00:56:48.360]And there was sort of migration from south to north,
[00:56:51.030]not only from east to west.
[00:56:52.023]And then Webb sort of,
[00:56:53.513]I think geograph-
[00:56:55.470]but also probably, reputationally, sort of comes in third.
[00:57:00.210]And I think that,
[00:57:01.043]but people after-
[00:57:03.390]why he remains relevant today really
[00:57:05.820]is because of this idea about defining the west regionally,
[00:57:10.950]which was something that,
[00:57:16.358]you know, that I think people thought that first,
[00:57:18.060]last, and middle words have been written by Turner
[00:57:21.750]and Webb says, you know, "No, actually.
[00:57:23.969]You know, the West really is an actual, then, actual place.
[00:57:26.697]And I'm gonna show you, I'm gonna tell you where it is.
[00:57:29.940]I'm gonna stake my scholarly reputation,
[00:57:32.340]such as it was when this was published,
[00:57:34.110]on this particular definition."
[00:57:36.900]I just have to point out there's some problems
[00:57:39.120]with sort of saying the West begins at the 98th parallel.
[00:57:42.060]Because, I mean, there's a lot of rain
[00:57:44.790]as our friends in California can tell you,
[00:57:46.740]a lot more than 20 inches.
[00:57:48.210]Or in the Pacific Northwest,
[00:57:49.470]or if you consider are Hawaii and Alaska part of our West?
[00:57:52.696]Does it really fit Webb's definition?
[00:57:54.150]So there are some easy ways you can poke some holes
[00:57:57.666]in his Thesis.
[00:57:59.670]On the other hand,
[00:58:01.530]I think that a lot of people were, didn't,
[00:58:06.000]were tired of Turner for a whole variety of reasons.
[00:58:08.760]But I think people, and I think particularly about,
[00:58:10.710]you know, Patricia Nelson,
[00:58:11.670]an American really prominent historian,
[00:58:14.065]at the University of Colorado.
[00:58:15.343]I think, you know, she was somebody who really embraced
[00:58:18.300]the idea of the West as a place,
[00:58:20.010]a place where particular things happened.
[00:58:23.040]And her story is that a conquest took place.
[00:58:26.250]That, sort of, it's a place that was conquered
[00:58:28.898]by, sort of, English-speaking peoples in,
[00:58:31.440]you know, the 19th and the 20th centuries.
[00:58:34.740]But Webb gave the area,
[00:58:36.240]instead of this kind of elastic kind of, you know,
[00:58:39.390]spongy definition that Turner had,
[00:58:41.640]Webb said the West is a place that you can actually go.
[00:58:45.480]It is, you know,
[00:58:47.550]deficient as it may be in some ways,
[00:58:49.650]that it is,
[00:58:50.956]that it is a place and that is defined by its scarcity
[00:58:55.020]more than anything.
[00:58:55.853]And I think that that's something
[00:58:57.219]we still have to wrestle with.
[00:58:58.322]And I think that, again, I close on this,
[00:58:59.880]that I just think it's never been more relevant
[00:59:01.770]than it has been right now.
[00:59:02.670]We're really running.
[00:59:04.320]We don't know that,
[00:59:05.153]or some of our students don't know that,
[00:59:07.188]or some of our politicians would say otherwise.
[00:59:08.730]We are really running up the limits,
[00:59:11.752]even in our sort of industrialized, wealthy country.
[00:59:17.040]We're running up against the limits
[00:59:18.390]of what the environment will let us do.
[00:59:22.110]And it's already starting to revolt.
[00:59:24.780]And I think Webb, I think Webb understood that.
[00:59:26.700]I think he really did.
[00:59:28.299]There are limitations that we can't push past.
[00:59:31.410]And unfortunately, the book is a hundred years old
[00:59:33.420]and we seem not necessarily to have learned that lesson.
[00:59:35.700]So, there's a happy note on which to conclude.
[00:59:39.129]Thank you all so much for coming.
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