What is the Best Book on the History of the American West?


(Lee Van Cleef) #1

I’m recently getting more and more interested in the history of the American west. So I thought of buying a book on the subject, it should be comprehensive, full of text (many pages) and storing a great number of pictures. Kinda like an encyclopedia with great references.
Give me some recommendations! :smiley:


(Keep Your Head Down) #2

FYI - this doesn’t fit what you’re looking for - it’s not an encyclopedia as your describe above - but there’s a great book called “Jesse James - Last Rebel of the Civil War” by T.J. Stiles, that’s about the American South as much as Jesse James during that era. Really a great read. Just thought I’d mention it.


(Richard--W) #3

I can’t think of one because there isn’t one. What I mean is, there is no one book that covers the entire American west during frontier days. The subject is too big, vast and complex for one book.

The history I recommend most often is

SCALP DANCE by Thomas Goodrich. It’s bloody as hell and every word of it is cold hard fact.

If you’re really interested in the history of the American west, I’ll give some thought to more recommendations.

Richard


(Lee Van Cleef) #4

I’m very interested in more recommendations! Also I founded this http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-American-Series-Western-History/dp/0300070888, looks like it covers a lot. 1344 pages and many pictures, but it is a encyclopedia after all, so maybe it’s too dry to read. Has any one read this?


(Stanton) #5

There is one, but it is a German one. It’s excellent:


(Richard--W) #6

I seriously doubt if a German history of the American west is “excellent.” You can’t write the history of a country as if you were writing the history of a movie genre. History is science, not art. A history is a narrative of circumstances and events reconstructed from primary evidence. To write any kind of history requires experience in several disciplines – archeology, anthropology, behavorial psychology, crime scene, etc. Too know the history of the American west is a lifetime’s pre-occupation. You have to live here to do that. You have to dig deep into public records of the time and place, government records, personal records, and an enormous body of newspapers. The documentation is in English, and it’s found in local courthouses and archives, not in Germany. Then you have to go out and study the lay of the land, and interview descendants. You have to read all the biographies and autobiographies of the pioneers themselves. The land and the people aren’t in Germany, either. It is preposterous to suggest that a history of the American west can be written in one single volume in a foreign country.

Richard


(Richard--W) #7

History is necessarily a dry undertaking. Dryness is an advantage, a virtue. You want history to be dry. Dry is your friend. Eventually you will come to love dry.

Lamar’s volume is certainly worthwhile. Probably the most comprehensive of the one-volume summaries of the broad overview. By all means, read it.

Ward’s companion volume for the PBS documentary series is too brief and suffers from political correctness, but it contains much good writing, and the photographs are wonderful:

Think of it as an introduction to Lamar.

To hear the hoofbeats and smell the smoke, however, and to get inside the head of the pioneer, you need to read books on specific topics. For example, Scalp Dance, or Walter Lord’s A Time to Stand.

Richard


(Lee Van Cleef) #8

I will remember that!

[quote=“Richard–W, post:7, topic:2995”]Lamar’s volume is certainly worthwhile. Probably the most comprehensive of the one-volume summaries of the broad overview. By all means, read it.
Ward’s companion volume for the PBS documentary series is too brief and suffers from political correctness, but it contains much good writing, and the photographs are wonderful:
Think of it as an introduction to Lamar.
To hear the hoofbeats and smell the smoke, however, and to get inside the head of the pioneer, you need to read books on specific topics. For example, Scalp Dance, or Walter Lord’s A Time to Stand.[/quote]

Thanks for the recommendations Richard, just keep em’ coming! :wink:


(Phil H) #9

[quote=“Richard–W, post:6, topic:2995”]It is preposterous to suggest that a history of the American west can be written in one single volume in a foreign country.

Richard[/quote]

I haven’t read the book in question (I don’t speak German) but what would seem more preposterous to me is the idea that a history of a place and time could only be written in the same place by someone native of it. Can the only history of Rome be written by an Italian? Or of Greece by a Greek? A successful history can be written by anyone capable of doing the work and analysing the evidence. National origin really has nothing to do with it.


(Richard--W) #10

You say that because you don’t any better. You’re used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn’t.

I wouldn’t presume to write a history of the French revolution unless I moved to France to study the subject there and came to know how people lived there and then. There is so much culture and custom and behavior to absorb before a history can be attempted. Anything less is a fraud, a hollow shell posturing as something more for people who don’t know any better.

Richard


(Stanton) #11

Well, it is an excellent book and luckily it is far from being dry.

And it was not written by a historian. But by a film historian. And it is as much about a (possible) truth (there ain’t only one truth), as it is about the myths and the mythmaking. Hembus wrote it with full awareness against the usual historian book, and may for that have the advantage to overcome the limitations a book by a mere historian might have.

Funnily an Italian recommended it in the SLWB and describes it very well:

"I’m only halfway through it but this book is very fascinating.

Unfortunately I don’t think it was ever translated, so it’s only for people who can read german.

Hembus traces an history of American West by chronologically enumerating the most important facts and figures of the period, sometime critically discussing the most important ones. At the same time he includes a list of all the western movies (both hollywoodian and not) which dealt with the same topic, giving some short informations on the plot. You end up having a good (and, most of all, systematic) representation of reality vs. filmic myth. The number of movies (even recent ones) I didn’t even hear of (let alone watched) is endless. Unfortunately the author died a few years ago and the most recent edition of the book (first appeared in 1981) was published in 1996. 9\10 "


(Phil H) #12

[quote=“Richard–W, post:10, topic:2995”]You say that because you don’t any better. You’re used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn’t.

I wouldn’t presume to write a history of the French revolution unless I moved to France to study the subject there and came to know how people lived there and then. There is so much culture and custom and behavior to absorb before a history can be attempted. Anything less is a fraud, a hollow shell posturing as something more for people who don’t know any better.

Richard[/quote]

It’s funny that you wouldn’t presume to attempt that but you would presume to know what I’m used to or know; better or otherwise. And if you’ll excuse the paraphrase from your previous post, you seem to think that being rude and insulting is the same as having a strong argument. It isn’t.

Phil


(Richard--W) #13

On the contrary, Phil, you’re the one who seems to think that you have the right to put words in my mouth that I didn’t say. You’re the one who thinks being rude and insulting is the same as having a strong argument. It isn’t. Your argument is no argument at all. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

I’m personally acquainted with two Brits who have published histories of the American west. They live here a large part of the time to do that. Both gentlemen are senior citizens who have focused on one specific aspect of the west for their entire lives. They are not finished studying yet. They do not hesitate to wiggle their toes in other peoples boots, and many local historians wish they’d go back to England and mind their own damn history. The Brits do have a habit of exploiting the research of local historians for their own self-aggrandizement. There is no doubt they will continue to publish reliable history, but that doesn’t justify their personal conduct.

[quote=“Stanton, post:11, topic:2995”]Well, it is an excellent book and luckily it is far from being dry.

And it was not written by a historian. But by a film historian. And it is as much about a (possible) truth (there ain’t only one truth), as it is about the myths and the mythmaking. Hembus wrote it with full awareness against the usual historian book, and may for that have the advantage to overcome the limitations a book by a mere historian might have.

Hembus traces an history of American West by chronologically enumerating the most important facts and figures of the period, sometime critically discussing the most important ones. At the same time he includes a list of all the western movies (both hollywoodian and not) which dealt with the same topic, giving some short informations on the plot. You end up having a good (and, most of all, systematic) representation of reality vs. filmic myth. …[/quote]

If your description is accurate, what you describe is not even remotely a history of the American west. It is some kind of movie concordance. No doubt it’s a fun book, but professional historians would consider it trivial and irrelevant. A disciplined history of any facet of the American west would not even mention movies. Thanks for proving my point, Stanton.

History is fact reconstructed from evidence into a chronological narrative of circumstances and events that actually happened. Fact, not myth, and certainly not movie myths. Movie myths are somewhat different from belief myths. Movie myths started long after the fact. There are books about myths but they are not histories. To understand the American west, and to learn the history of the American west, you have to remove movie myths from your mind.

To show you my heart is in the right place, PM me your street address and I will send you two books as a gift. Both histories of the American west in which there is no mention of movies. After you’ve read them, maybe you’ll have an idea what a history is all about. Then you can pass them on to Phil H.

Richard


(Stanton) #14

I’m not very interested in the history, so thanks, but I won’t read this books. but if it come to facts there aren’t no facts anymore about the past. There are only interpretations of what might has been, not one truth but several possible truths.

And the book by Hembus does not intend to replace books written by historians, but it also much more than a “fun” book.

And myths are more interesting than facts. My interest in westerns is also more concerned with narrative structures and not with contents.


(Richard--W) #15

Since narrative structure is dependent on content, especially in script writing, perhaps you should broaden your horizons.

You’re not interested in history. I kinda figured that. That’s why you don’t know anything about the American west. As for interpretations and truths, you’re in over your head because you don’t know enough history to realize what these terms mean. A fact is constant. A fact is what it is. A fact doesn’t change. Fifty different historians will agree on a fact. How they interpret a fact, or what the fact means to us individually and collectively, is something else again. The fact stands on its own. However the interpretation of the fact can, and often does, differ. And it has nothing to do with myths.

Take, for example, a movie like Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. The story is an amalgamation of movie-generated myths about the American west. There is no history / fact in it. Nothing in the movie ever happened in real life. Eastwood misconstrues movie-generated myths about the American west for historical truths. Yet nothing in the movie is true or realistic in the historical sense. Eastwood doesn’t know anything about the west. His movie is well-made and entertaining, and dramatically compelling, but it is so steeped in movie-myths it has nothing to do with the American west of reality.

The reality would make a much better western.

Richard


(Stanton) #16

For you, maybe, not for me.

As for the rest, your way of thinking is much too simple and limited.


(Phil H) #17

I really have no interested in getting into a row over the internet with you or anyone else but just to clarify my argument that according to you isn’t one and to show that I am not putting words into your mouth this, again, is what you said:

Now, I don’t know what your idea of good manners is Richard but telling someone they hold an opinion because they don’t know any better is at best condescending and, whichever way you look at it, rude and insulting. Furthermore, you have no idea what I’m used to nor what I think American history is so to make the above statement is both presumptuous and offensive. Now perhaps you make sweeping statements like this to deliberately rub people up the wrong way, I don’t know. If you do, you’ve succeeded. Well done. If not, and I’m hoping this is the case, may I suggest you think twice before typing in future or at least consider how what you have written may come across. None of us are here to get into fights.


(Richard--W) #18

Go to hell, Phil H. I’m not here to get into fights either, but I can’t continue this childish, mindless argument with you. you’re clever at taking statements out of context, and you are determined to put me in my place and to take offense. Nothing can prevent you from getting your feelings hurt. Since that’s what you are determined to do, enjoy yourself. Don’t ever let on what you know. Keep it to yourself. That way you’ll always have an out.

I reiterate:

[b]You say that because you don't any better. You're used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn't.[/b]

Once more:

[b]You say that because you don't any better. You're used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn't.[/b]

Again, in case you didn’t get it:

[b]You say that because you don't any better. You're used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn't.[/b]

Let me punctuate it with this:

[b]You say that because you don't any better. You're used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn't.[/b]

Are we clear on it now:

[b]You say that because you don't any better. You're used to movie histories, and you think the history of the American west is the same thing. It isn't.[/b]

[quote=“Stanton, post:16, topic:2995”]For you, maybe, not for me.

As for the rest, your way of thinking is much too simple and limited.[/quote]

I won’t be told that my way of thinking is too simple and limited by someone who confesses he is not interested in history. I’m a professional historian with three decades of experience and scholarship behind me arguing with a collector of movie trivia. I was trying to keep it simple for your benefit, Stanton, because I like you. You’re posts are usually helpful. But your view of history and of mythology, as posted here, is profoundly ignorant.

Richard


(Richard--W) #19

I will write up a list for you when I get home tonight. Happy to help.

Richard


(Richard--W) #20

I agree. Jesse James - Last Rebel of the Civil War is an outstanding biography and history. I appreciate T.J. Stiles clinical approach and his careful footnoting. But I take issue with his value judgments. His interpretation of Jesse and gang as terrorists is a modern perspective alien to the 19th century western mind. Not even his enemies in law enforcement thought that way. It is always a mistake to impose contemporary standards onto western history. One can’t judge the past by today, and indeed, judgment obstructs understanding. Frontier conditions necessitated a different way of living that can scarcely be imagined now. Ted P Yeatman does not make the same mistake in his rival book, Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend. A different perspective on the same evidence which adds a little more to our understanding even though the research is not as clinical. You’d enjoy Judgment At Gallatin: the Trial of Frank James by Gerard S. Petrone. A comprehensive and trenchant analysis of Frank’s trial with transcripts and annotations. In the near future, watch for Mark Gardner’s forthcoming book on the Northfield debacle. It promises important new research.

Richard