Shortly before his death last year, Merk completed the manuscript for this book, the culmination of 60 years of research on...



Shortly before his death last year, Merk completed the manuscript for this book, the culmination of 60 years of research on western expansion. He was a protegÉ of and Harvard faculty successor to Frederick Jackson Turner, the great frontier historian. Because he never expounded his views in full, Turner was vulnerable to the charge that his famous frontier hypothesis represented a type of geographical determinism--that it overemphasized the frontier's influence in molding demo cracy, individualism, and other national characteristics into their unique American forms. This accusation cannot be brought against Merk, whose approach is clearly multicausal. He knows, for example, that the divergences between northern and southern Middle Western societies derived from the different backgrounds of the settlers as well as from variations in terrain. In any case, Merk's final book is not a treatise on the frontier's significance; rather it is a detailed but panoramic and colorful story of America's settlement. The narrative begins with the arrival of the Indians from Siberia and ends with the 20th-century efforts of the federal government to deal with problems inherited from the frontier era, such as soil erosion and agricultural overproduction. Merk displays a truly impressive knowledge of international diplomacy, national politics, geography, meteorology, and technology. We learn with fascination how the configuration of water resources in the Great Basin promoted the development of the Mormon theocracy. Technological innovations such as the flotation process, which permitted the exploitation of low-grade copper ore in the Far West, are clearly explained. Merk's particular interest in the acquisition of Oregon and Texas, evident in his writings, explains his somewhat excessive attention to the subject. The California gold rush is barely mentioned, on the other hand, and the absorbing story of the cooperative and often democratically self-governing 19th-century settler migrations, known as wagon trains, is ignored in its essentials. But these disproportions are minor flaws in a monumental book that speaks high praise for Merk's lifetime of historical labor.

Pub Date: July 15, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1978