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The Legacy of Conquest

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick.

Patricia Nelson Limerick The Legacy of Conquest

This history of the American West is a significant revisionary account, which takes as its foil the century-old thesis of Frederick Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Author Limerick notes the effective obsolescence of any narrative about the West structured around a frontier, and she laments this conception as one that has caused a general eclipse of interest in the West as a historical topic. She then proceeds to raise a wide range of issues with which to demonstrate continuity between the ‘frontier’ West of the 19th century and the contemporary West of the late 20th. She seeks to portray “the West as a place and not a [completed] process.” (26) The innovation of the book is in its breadth of its perspective. Limerick has drawn principally on secondary sources written in the second half of the 20th century. Historical specialists had already come to factual grips with the individual issues and concerns that she constellates into an “unbroken past.” Her synthesis thus provides a new point of departure for historians and readers seeking fresh problems.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, “The Conquerors,” undermines heroic stereotypes of settlers and frontiersmen. Limerick provides resounding evidence against the savvy and independence that Turner attributed to those living a “frontier life,” and develops a counter-narrative in which settlers and developers of the West embraced naive hopes, and often came to view themselves as victims, tied as they were into commercial, social, and environmental nets of interdependence.

The book’s second section, “The Conquerors Meet Their Match,” restores narrative agency to the allegedly conquered forces of indigenous peoples, Mexican-Americans, other racial and religious minorities, and the wilderness environment itself. Limerick’s account firmly and convincingly contradicts the “composite nationality” of inter-ethnic solidarity asserted by Turner as a feature of the West, by pointing out racial conflicts and divides as significant and persistent as those chronicled in the South.

Limerick writes, “Simplicity, alas, is the one quality that cannot be found in the actual story of the American West.” (323) But on those occasions where she suggests a keynote, it is “the contest for property and profit,” (292) “an array of efforts to wrap the concept of property around unwieldy objects.” (71)

A chief feature of The Legacy of Conquest is its consistent success in tying its topics from the 19th century West to dilemmas of the same region in the late 20th century. While aimed at the reader in history, the book would be engaging for those whose ultimate interest is the contemporary American West. Like Turner, Limerick represents the stories of the West as the most characteristically American portion of America’s history, and thus reflective of tropes and trends common to the nation as a whole, and even to the entire project of European conquest of the Americas. [via]