The Western United States: A Geographical Reader, by Harold Wellman Fairbanks
This is the sort of book that someone like me would have read in the early 1900’s (it was published in 1904) to acclimate themselves with life in the Western United States. This particular book appears to be made for someone whose interests are broad, including geology, history, ethnology, and geography among its interests. As is often the case with a book like this, there is a lot of resonance with other books, some ways that it has been made obsolete by future events and ways that it is eerily prophetic and relevant even today. Some of these elements are worth discussing, although it should be confessed at the outset that this book suffers somewhat from being so disorganized, so that it switches from talking about an Oregon glacier to comments about earthquakes, from the Pony Express to how climate has affected the settlement of the West. With such a lack of organization and such a random path, the book loses momentum as the reader switches between one theme and another without any sense of underlying structure or organization.
The parts of this book that strike the reader as the most quaint and antiquated today are related to the scientific and ethnographic viewpoint of the author. The author seems to value natural places because of the variety of their views, as well as their lack of accessibility to others (his comments about the beauty of the Sisters seems particularly relevant), and has no understanding of plate tectonics , assuming earthquakes to be the agency of the mountain-building that has existed. The fact that he believes the US has no active volcanoes also seems somewhat quaint, as does his support of the massive irrigation that has taken place in the West coast . Likewise, the author focuses his attention on a few large cities, and very little on the smaller cities and towns, failing to account for the factors that have led Vancouver to grow dramatically in the 20th century. The fact that the author does not see the growth of Washington’s major cities is another failure of imagination, it would appear.
On the other hand, there are areas where this book has a lot to say, including the fact that America’s interest in trade has made every habitable site where water could be brought or food could be grown an area where people live. The author’s interest in notable history, whether one is looking at the colonial period or the early period of American rule, gives the reader a lot of fascinating facts about Russia’s rule over part of the Pacific coast, the American discovery of the Columbia River and its consequences, and the remoteness of areas like the Great Salt Lake and the importance of preservation of national forests and other parks. Despite the age of this book, the author shows himself to be a conservationist, which is certainly noble, and accounts for his criticism of extractive industries like mining and logging. Likewise, the author shows himself to be an able student of history, even if his views on the native population is not very enlightened.
In the balance, this book must be judged both as a product of its time, as well as for its goal in enlightening people about the West. The book has some interesting comments about a wide variety of fields that relate to the West, and is especially savvy for his view on which particular sites have drawn the most inhabitants, namely those with good harbors, water and fuel sources, natural resources, and access to fertile river valleys for food. Likewise, the author points out the essential nature of technology and moral conduct when it came to the advance of society, stopping short of a geographical determinism but showing geographical influence to a high degree . A reader of this book will find out about how the West was viewed in the early 1900’s by people who were knowledgeable and articulate to the best standards of their time.
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