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Graduate Reading List for The American West


This fall, I am teaching graduate students for the first time. I am teaching our senior capstone course, which graduate students can sign up for. My course in on the history of the American West. Usually 1 or 2 graduate students sign up, but I have 6 for whatever reason–my charming personality no doubt. So I’m having them meet separately (in part) for a mini-seminar. As Farley does with the Patterson reading list, I thought people might be interested in the readings I chose. Some of you will disagree with some of the readings, or I hope so anyway.

In a normal graduate seminar, I’d assign a book a week. This isn’t quite that, so some weeks there are books and other weeks a couple of book chapters or articles.

The theme of the course is power. Of course power relations define all history, but because of aridity, racial tension, and the dominance of the region by extractive capitalism, power relations in the West take on a special tone. I can’t truly provide a comprehensive history of the topic in a semester, but this is what I have. There are only 11 weeks of readings because of holidays and plans on other days, so it’s more limited than I’d like.

Week 1: Overview
Richard Etulain, Did the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?
This is my coverage of Turner’s frontier thesis and his critics. Get it out of the way and move onto something more interesting. I always hated dealing with these debates but it’s inevitable I suppose.

Week 2: The Indigenous West
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire

Week 3: The Incorporation of the West
William Cronon, “Annihilating Space: Meat” from Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Richard Maxwell Brown, “The Gunfighter: The Reality Behind the Myth,” from No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American Society
William Robbins, “An ‘Equilibrium of Chaos’: External Control and the Northern West” from Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West

Week 4: Tourism and Conservation
Theodore Roosevelt, “The Vigor of Life,” “In Cowboy Land,” and “The Natural Resources of the Nation,” from An Autobiography
Chris Wilson, “Romantic Regional Architecture, 1905 to 1930,” from The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition
Louis Warren, “’Raiding Devils’ and Democratic Freedoms: Indians, Ranchers, and New Mexico Wildlife,” from The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America

Week 5: The Working-Class West
Richard White, “Workingmen” from Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
Cecilia Tsu, “’Independent of the Unskilled Chinaman’: Race, Labor, and Family Farming in California’s Santa Clara Valley,” Western Historical Quarterly Winter 2006
Gunther Peck, “Manhood Mobilized,” from Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930

Week 6: Water, Natural Resources, and the West
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s

Week 7: The Gendered West
Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, Home Lands: How Women Made the West

Week 8: Urbanization and Suburbanization
Read: John Findlay, “Sun City, Arizona: New Town for Old Folks, from Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940
Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” from Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
Quintard Taylor, “Facing the Urban Frontier: African-American History in the Reshaping of the Twentieth-Century American West” Western Historical Quarterly Spring 2012

Week 9: Postwar Social Movements in the West
Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco

Week 10: Environmentalism and the Modern West
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p. 1-67
Darren Speece, “From Corporatism to Citizen Oversight: The Legal Fight over California Redwoods, 1970-1996,” Environmental History October 2009
Jake Kosek, “Smokey the Bear is a White Racist Pig” from Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico

Week 11: Migration and Borders
Monica Perales, Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community

Week 12: The West Today
Students search out recent articles and make short presentations connecting to the historical themes of the semester.
Given that this is the last day of classes, I don’t feel I can really assign real readings in this week. Particularly since they will be in the hell of writing their 20-30 page historiographical paper for me.

I see the strengths of this syllabus as a real focus on the relationship between diversity and power and that the major themes are woven through the weeks and not just confined to one week.

Weaknesses include not enough on Native Americans in the second half of the course, the lack of a specific week on the rise of conservative politics (if I had one more week, I’d solve this problem), and not enough works by women, which is annoying and snuck up on me as these things will. But what would I cut out?

Thoughts? I’m actually open to suggestions since I don’t have to teach until Monday afternoon and won’t print off the syllabus until a couple of hours beforehand. The books can’t change obviously, but the articles and book chapters certainly could.

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  • adolphus

    Jeebus, I am in a graduate program that won’t let a course with six or less enrolled to stay on the schedule. Half my classes were downsized from a seminar to an independent study. My grad program sucks.

    • The course has 20 total. A true seminar of only 6 probably wouldn’t make here either. Well, maybe. But anyway, I am just separating the graduate students out, meeting with them before the actual class to discuss the day’s readings, having them come to the first half of the regularly scheduled class where I’ll lecture on the West, and then letting them go home while I discuss the readings with the undergraduates.

      • And yes, doing this destroys my Mondays since I am basically giving an extra hour and a half of my time. But I can’t justify graduate students discussing readings with undergrads.

        • Tyto

          Is it really that bad? At my U., undergrads could attend grad seminars (with the prof’s approval), and the discussions were always collective.

          • I hated it as a graduate student.

            • lobo

              Getting shown up by the smart undergrads is never pleasant.

        • Autonomous Coward

          Yes, heaven forfend that grad students might have to (shutter) speak with those whose kind they (presumably) wish to teach someday.

          • grigori, trained octopus

            I hated it as well. Not because I hated socializing with undergrads but because the professor leaned heavily on us for keeping the discussion going and the undergrads learned that they didn’t have to say anything at all.

            • Bill Murray

              That isn’t primarily the students fault

            • rea

              the professor leaned heavily on us for keeping the discussion going and the undergrads learned that they didn’t have to say anything at all.

              Well, but how is that different than if the undergrads weren’t there?

          • Undergraduates and graduate students have different needs, neither are served particularly well in this format.

      • adolphus

        Sorry I misunderstood.

  • adolphus

    Now that I have read the list, I notice nothing on Pre-Columbian or Colonial Era. By design?

    • Good question–it is a course on the Trans-Mississippi West, not the frontier. The Comanche Empire does cover that period. But yes, it is a course that is based on the late 19th century-present. Because that’s what I am more interested in.

      • adolphus

        Good enough. But just to be argumentative, covering the Spanish Colonial Era, you would cover the Trans-Mississippi West and help mitigate the bias of so many courses and books in their being Anglo-Centric and dominated by a moving Westward from the East narrative. I might recommend:

        Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands by Julianna Barr

        This of course would step out of your time frame and I have no idea what you would replace on that great list.

        I should note I am not an Americanist per se, but a historian of science who does American science, so my two cents has a low exchange rate.

        • Linnaeus

          I should note I am not an Americanist per se, but a historian of science who does American science, so my two cents has a low exchange rate.

          Same here. But I offer my two cents anyway.

      • DrDick

        You might try some of the readings in the Columbian Consequences volume on the Southwest.

  • AuRevoirGopher

    I need someone to explain the greatness of White’s Railroaded. I’d recommend the book to anyone because the parallels between 19th century disaster capitalism and the present day are so striking. But Gawd, the narrative style is killing me. Scattershot, with the stories going in all directions at once. Less than 100 pages to go and I feel as if I’m at the 24th mile of a marathon. I’m in pain but I will finish.

    • Alex


  • Jevon Jaconi

    have them watch Tombstone! :).

    • Bill Murray

      I’m your huckleberry

    • Tehanu

      No, don’t! I just read a terrific book, The Last Gunfight, about what really happened at the OK Corral, and it was a lot more interesting than that Hollywoodized gorefest.

  • howard

    this is generally outside of any expertise i have (but nothing from my old prof richard slotkin and gunfighter nation?!), but the one thing i do know enough to say is that in week 4, you ought to incorporate the fact that a great deal of the image of the west as a tourist haven was a direct outcome of the intensive marketing efforts of the railroads to attract customers to the west for vacation travel.

    • I’ll talk about how the West became a tourist area, through railroad promotion, Fred Harvey, tuberculosis havens, etc. in the lecture part of it.

      Slotkin is interesting but a) those books are really really long and b) the course doesn’t deal a whole lot with western mythology and those ideas (outside of the Brown chapter) so it would have to be shoehorned into the course’s major themes.

  • CJColucci

    Is that some damn dirty Finn writing about Commanches?

    • Fucking savages. He probably wrote it in a sauna.

  • Larry

    The first couple of chapters of Rick Perlstein’s “Before the Storm” might be shoehorned into the Urbanization and Suburbanization week, to touch on the rise of conservative politics.

    • firefall

      or into:

      Postwar Social Movements in the West

      which I’d immediately assumed would have to cover the rise of the conservative west

    • Joe Benge

      I was going to say that there’s the potential for some stuff on conservatism in that section. The bits on Barry G’s roots in Arizona from “Before the Storm” would be perfect. So might some of Lisa McGirr’s “Suburban Warriors” on Orange County anti-communism in the 60s, or maybe Bruce Schulman’s “From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt” for the emphasis on government programs reshaping the West.

      There’s a collection called “Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Space, Place, and Region” from last year that has some great stuff on this theme. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer’s chapter on pro-business boosterism in Phoenix is really good.

      I love that Mike Davis gets in there. I’m a big fan.

  • Bruce Vail

    Your students may protest an additional long book, but I thought J. Anthony Lukas’ “Big Trouble” was wonderful in the way it brought together the subjects of mining, labor unions and Western politics.

    • James E. Powell

      I loved that book. Some readers don’t like the many meanders and side trips, but I enjoyed them.

  • Daniel

    As a scholar of the 19th century frontier, I prefer Ned Blackhawk’s Violence over the Land and Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts to Comanche Empire. Violence over the Land’s meditation on the centrality of violence to the frontier will likely transform the field and DeLay’s work is one of the best products of the recent move toward transnationalism. Comanche Empire, however, is certainly a wonderful book in its own right.

  • Dan Mulligan

    I know you said no change in books,but seriously, no Twain? Bierce? Steinbeck?

    Yes, I know its not a lit course.

  • ECC

    I sure wish you could fit something in from Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. At the risk of repeating something you probably already know, John Wesley Powell proposed the division of western land into areas having enough water to support a family farmer. Instead, political and commercial factions wanting to portray the west as a boundless cornucopia prevailed and it was divided into the same sections as well-watered midwestern land had been. Subsequently the small farmers suffered and sold out for next to nothing to large land aggregators.

  • gabe

    The move I’d have made would be to combined urbanization/suburbanization with the conservative West; Robert Self’s American Babylon would be a great book to use for this, but you could also use Lisa McGirr or Becky Nicolaides.

    • Certainly American Babylon is a great book. If it was a straight graduate seminar, I would certainly assign it. But other than Comanche Empire, the books are the same as the undergraduates are reading and American Babylon is thick and complex.

  • Anonymous

    (You mentioned the omission of female historians.) But where are the women?

  • Poxsonus

    Greetings! As a Canadian historical geographer, my viewpoint is bound to be off, but I would probably include something on the impact of introduced infectious disease. If you want to stir the pot, something by Dobyns or Ramenofsky might be of interest to your students. Of course, I am somewhat preoccupied with the subject. Best of luck in any event.

    • Linnaeus

      Robert Boyd’s The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence is very good on this topic.

    • DrDick

      Russ Thornton’s American Indian Holocaust and Survival is probably still the best general work on the topic. Dobyns’ general works are problematic in a number of ways, though his work on the Southwest is really pretty good.

      • DrDick

        Clifford Trafzer’s Death Stalks the Yakama: A Social-Cultural History of Death on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888-1964 is also excellent and one of the few works to deal with these issues in the late 19th and early 20th century.

        • Poxsonus

          I agree on all points, though I would state that Dobyns’ work influenced me to pursue the subject as a graduate student. As someone who studies CDN First Nations disease history I found the assumptions mind-boggling. I would take Henige’s Numbers from Nowhere as a remedy. I strongly second Boyd’s work, including Coming, for his detailed and, I would argue, sensitive treatment of the evidence.

          There’s lots of work done north of the 49th but unfortunately there tends to be a sharp disconnect between American and Canadian scholarly work, both in coverage and in data sources. Boyd is a counter example to this. I’ve generally tried to work in the American data in my own work. I also like Trafzer’s book, particularly for the way he handles his data. Great stuff.

  • SlothropRedux

    First, some warm fuzzies – I like the reading list generally. I’m particularly pleased to see Mike Davis and Bill Cronon together in the same syllabus.

    I agree that women are notably absent from the narrative, and that is a bad thing. You might even try some Little House on the Prairie as an antidote…

    I do have a geography piece to suggest: Scott Kirsch’s “John Wesley Powell and the Mapping of the Colorado Plateau, 1869 – 1879: Survey Science, Geographical Solutions, and the Economy of Environmental Values.”(Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92(3), 2002, pp. 548–572). A nice piece about how Powell’s survey’s defined (and in some cases defined the native inhabitants out of) the land as part of westward expansion.

  • What is this thing called ‘print’?

  • Beth

    Speaking of Finns–did you see the recent discussion over at Historiann about The Comanche Empire? It’s about absence of gender analysis in that book. The comments might have more suggestions for readings that focus on gender and the West. Or just reading the post with the book could spark some interesting discussions in seminar, without adding much extra weight to the reading list…

    • That’s a fantastic essay and I will definitely be having the graduate students read it.

  • Linnaeus

    I’m not really a US West historian, so maybe I’m out of the loop here, but I noticed that Patty Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest isn’t listed. Is that because it’s not considered to be graduate level, or it’s out of date, or maybe you just don’t think it’s a good choice?

    Some suggestions for Native history, even though they’re Pacific Northwest-centric:

    Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making
    Coll Thrush, Native Seattle

    • There’s a bit by Limerick in the Etulain book, which I should make clear is an edited collection of major essays on western history.

      I also think Legacy of Conquest is overrated, a book that is more important than good.

      But maybe I just have had a hard time taking Limerick seriously since she started writing Times op-eds complaining that environmentalists were too mean to her new friend James Watt.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Haven’t read Pekka H[umlaut]’s The Commanche Empire. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon is also a fine portrait of that long-feared tribe. Gwynne describes the Commanche warrior of the 18th & early 19th century as probably the freest man on the planet. This was a tribe with remarkably few social controls.

    • Dave

      Bet the women had fun, too.

  • wjts

    My own knowledge of the field is woefully outdated (I “focused” on the US West as an undergraduate 15-odd years ago), but here are some works that stuck in my head:

    Sucheng Chan, This Bitter-Sweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910. A chapter or two might fit into the labor week, but it looks like you’ve already covered that angle.

    David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986. The chapter “Race, Labor, and the Frontier” might fit with the third week’s readings.

    Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny. Probably nowhere to put it, but I remember really liking this one.

    As to the absence of women, I’ll second Linneaus’ question about Limerick: is she out of date these days?

    • Those are good books but old books.

      Maybe that shouldn’t matter.

      • wjts

        Well, like I said – woefully outdated.

    • DrDick

      Horsman’s work overall is quite good.

  • Patrick Pine

    I would suggest that something from Cadillac Desert would fit nicely – in week 8 or week 10 or both.

    • That book was my introduction – as an easterner – to the water issues. Great stuff.

  • Anonymous

    Glad you included Richard Maxwell Brown. He was a mentor to me at the University of Oregon. I fondly remember those days.

    • I was the last person to do an undergraduate honors thesis under him.

  • Josh

    What, no Larry McMurtry?!?!

    • Not a lit course.

      • Anonymous

        He’s written nonfiction too! I’d have thought you’d jump at the chance to assign it, given the flattering things he’s had to say about your profession.

        • Josh

          Erm, that was me.

  • Bill Murray

    No Lakota or American Indian Movement readings? Not that I could recommend any but the obvious ones.

  • For suggestions on Native Americans in the latter half of the class I came across a very interesting comparative history while living in Arizona. Margaret Ziolkowski, Alien Visions: The Chechens and the Navajos in Russian and American Literature (Newark: U. of Delaware Press, 2005). The book has problems in that the comparison does not hold up well for much other than the period of deportation and confinement for both nationalities. But, it is an interesting idea and there is a lot of room to criticize where Ziolkowski goes wrong. Which gives a lot of space to thinking how such a comparative history might have been done right. I have a review of the book at jpohl.blogspot.com/2006/08/more-on-chechens-and-navajos.html dealing with these problems. I still think George Fredrickson was the best comparative historian there was.

    On migration I had good luck with the following article by Thomas J. Espenshade, “Unauthorized Immigration to the United States,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 21 (1995), 195-216. I know it is a bit dated, but it does give a good overview of some of the basic issues in a rather concise form.

    Finally, on the rise of the conservative movement I recommend as a primary source Barry Goldwater’s Conscious of a Conservative. I personally would stay away from too much stuff on California and focus more on the Mountain West including Arizona and New Mexico as well as northern Mexico. But, it is your class.

  • CapnMidnight

    Isn’t hippie-ism a distasteful but important post-war western social movement? Or at least an aesthetic movement that (a) started in the west and (b) harbored and contributed to important social movements, like the new left and environmentalism. I don’t have a good scholarly proposal, but I recently saw a collection of non-scholarly essays called “West of Utopia,” and there’s lots of new left books (Jim Miller, e.g.), and there must be plenty on Berkeley. Or, rather, “Berkeley.”

  • Sasha Nichols

    Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp
    Bruce Schullman From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt
    Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warrior’s is a must, as well

  • bartkid

    >Weaknesses include not enough on Native Americans in the second half of the course

    May I recommend Lewis and Clark through Indian eyes, edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.?

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