Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner recounts the remarkable career of Major John Wesley Powell, the distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, and the homeland of the Southwest Indian tribes. This classic work is a penetrating and insightful study of the Powell's career, from the beginning of the Powell Survey, in which Powell and his men famously became the first to descend the Colorado River, to his eventual ouster from the Geological Survey. In masterful prose, Stegner details the expedition, as well as the philosophies and ideas that drove Powell.
Stegner's book, now over 60 years since publication, is a worthy read on several counts. First, the writing is terrific. I had not read any works by Stegner, known for mainly his western fiction, but this writer is one of the most skilled in literature; I will read more of his works. Second, the book uses John Wesley Powell and his career as an exposition of the West, particularly its geology and climate. Powell isn't too much a major figure in our history and he deserves the recognition that Stegner gives him. His exciting passage down the Colorado River is what he is most known for in the popular mind, but it was his career in Washington as head of the Bureau of Ethnology and of the US Geodetic Survey that is most remarkable. Powell understood in an amazingly foresighted way the real issues facing the settlement and long-term use of the West. ("West" in this context is mainly the Colorado plateau.) Much fantastical thinking of the region existed in the mid and latter 19th century -- that it was a place where small-scale homestead farming without effort or toil was to be achieved. Powell knew that the key characteristic of the region is its aridity. The annual rainfall could not support farming or grazing without careful manipulation of the water resources from rivers and streams. He saw that unplanned development, especially under the control of speculating and greedy land conglomerates, would only bring ruin. His "Grand Plan" for cooperation among the users of the region's resources ran into the opposition of powerful forces that portrayed his aims as counter to the American notion of free-wheeling unrestrained exploitation. He never completely countered these checks on his vision, but many of his ideas finally took root in land use policy in the 20th century. The interplay of the politics, lobbying, economic motivation, science, bureaucracy, and more in Powell's time is strikingly (and depressingly) similar to the forces that govern today's political dynamics.
Also of great interest is Powell's scholarly work on the Native American population of the West. At the time of overt warfare between the US government and the native tribes of the West, Powell carried out a scientific study of the diverse elements of native culture, almost at the last moment when this was still possible. His contributions in the field preserve a view of native life that would have otherwise been lost.
Powell was a major force the the opening of the West between the plains and the Pacific coast. Stegner's book is an excellent way to learn about this remarkable man and deepen insights into this unique area of our country.
Kind of interesting to learn about the surveying of the Colorado River (Utah, Arizona, etc.) but does not consider the Native American's experiences much, if at all.
I thought this would be the story of how Powell explored the southwest U.S. That is certainly a wild story, but less than half the book. It covers 30 years of Powells career: frontier upstart, unlikely explorer, lobbyist, celebrated scientist, political gamesman, bureaucratic father figure. Years ago vaguely remember hearing that later in the East Powell became an unpopular voice of caution that western water could not support large scale settlement. The last chapters tell how he ruffled feathers and established water and land policies that shaped western politics, land use, and conservationism. Stegner wrote in the 1950s with the limitations of a man in that day, and his applications are still relevant today. But I wonder if the west will hold strong for responsible resource management against the politics of growth and short-term prosperity. The pattern of seasonal widespread wildfires and dropping reservoir water levels is worrying, and I wonder if a modern-day Powell could even prevail on better judgement.
Anyway, to cut it short, Stegner knows how to write, does not feel the need to use a book as a means of starting/creating a vendetta against someone he doesn't like, and is considerably more balanced and literate in his approach. A great book by Stegner and worthy of the accolades. Grand Canyon people do not read....