February 3, 2014

Book of the Month:

Robert L. Dorman. Hell of a Vision: Regionalism and the Modern American West. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

reviewed by Brett Hendrickson

There are two continua at play in Robert Dorman’s fascinating study of how the West has been perceived and handled over the past century and a half. The first and most prominent of these continua, found in the subtitle of the book, is the tension between regionalism and national unity. The second is the long-running debate about what land in the West can and should do: new frontier of agricultural and industrial paradise or unique setting of magnificent and virgin landscapes that are already spoken for by nature, by Indians, or by “authentic westerners.” The author does a wonderful job of allowing the story of the American West to move to and fro on these continua, and the reader can enjoy the sparks that fly when competing claims and ideas for the region and for the nation scrape against one another.

The question of regionalism is begged when one talks about the American West, and the cast of characters Dorman depicts in his book know this. From John Wesley Powell’s vision of a managed settlement of the West, to the Bureau of Indian Affair’s assimilationist manipulations of Native Americans, to Edward Abbey’s radical and environmental isolationism, to the Sierra Club’s paradoxical plea that the West be saved as a common and nation-wide heritage, it has long been up for debate how much the West should be known as its own special place, or if it should be known as an integral extension of the rest of the country. To complicate this debate about identity, the regionalism of the West has so often broken down into more and more minute expressions of localism, often going far beyond the typical divisions of Pacific Northwest, California, Mormon Country, Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, Plains, and Texas.

Tensions about use of the West are tied to the question of region vs. nation. The anti-regionalists, to over-simplify Dorman’s fine analysis, want the area to be planned, tilled, ranched, mined, and managed as part of the national project. An example of this that Dorman discusses is historian Karl Wittfogel’s fear that the exploited, nationalized West could become a despotic “hydraulic society” that depended on “centralized works of water control.” The regionalists, who often include Native American groups as well as Mexican Americans, not to mention Western exceptionalists like Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather, and Earth First!, remind the would be exploiters and national project builders that the region cannot be made in the image of the East. The Dust Bowl, the poverty of reservations, and the contentious localism within the region itself make their point abundantly clear.

Another fascinating and provocative point that Dorman makes has to do with academic fashions and the notion of region. Take these examples:

[The regionalists’] cardinal sin was to attempt to define the regional characteristics of the West (aridity, wide-open spaces, predominant federal ownership of land, etc.). To do so was to “essentialize” the West—to fix its characteristics as a given, an essence—which to the postmodern, poststructuralist mindset of the 1990s was the gravest of scholarly errors....Historian Virginia Scharff declared that to “claim any object, idea, place, process, or people for the category ‘West’ is to fix things, thoughts, and social processes, and lives that are, historically, only contingently, contradictorily, and discontinuously Western” (176-7).

The opposing view:

Other scholars begged to differ with this assessment of regionalism, continuing to find it a potent source of cultural radicalism. Conceptually, their focus was on the subregional localist West....Regionalism was therefore “an alternative and oppositional tradition, one that worked against the construction of nation and empire and that challenged the construction of masculine and feminine that underwrote the projects of nation and empire” (177-8).

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that religion is barely mentioned in Dorman’s book. But one does not need to try very hard to apply Dorman’s observations about regionalism and its discontents to the study of religion in the West. This reader was inspired by Dorman’s book to think more about questions of regional religious study vis-à-vis the study of religion in all of North America. We know that regionalists tell stories that complicate nationalist myths. But we also know that regionalists can reify localist myths. That’s why we keep working and why books like Dorman’s are so helpful.

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