Stuffing a massive subject--in this case, the Anglo-American conquest of North America over the last two centuries--between...


A SHOVEL OF STARS: The Making of the American West 1800 to the Present

Stuffing a massive subject--in this case, the Anglo-American conquest of North America over the last two centuries--between the covers of a single volume is like teaching a cat to heel: It's a neat trick, but necessarily one of limited utility. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Morgan continues his history of North America, begun in Wilderness at Dawn (1993), with this volume of narrative history on the making of the United States, beginning with the explorations of the American West at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and ending with the admission of Alaska into the Union. Along the way, usefully, he introduces forgotten characters like Manuel Lisa, the New Orleans-boru Spaniard whose early 19th century explorations of the Platte and Missouri rivers opened the West to the fur trade; points out the injustices inherent in conquest, such as the case of a California Mexican whose suit against an invasive Anglo was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff was a ""greaser""; and draws in apposite, and overlooked, contemporary observations on the cultural makeup of the West, such as A. Leland Jamison's mot that ""Mormonism is at once an irreconcilable Christian heresy and the most typical American theology yet formulated on this continent."" Morgan is a solid writer with a good command of his materials, unafraid to paint pictures with broad strokes. Regrettably, he falls short on interpretation, breezing past the important ""new historiography"" propounded by scholars like Patricia Nelson Limerick, Ekkehart Toy, and William Cronon, and even giving too little attention to such brahmins as H.H. Bancroft, who, a century ago, pointed out what Morgan seems reluctant to admit: that the conquest of the West largely served the interests of merchants, industrialists, and developers. Readers searching for a critical, scholarly treatment of frontier history should look elsewhere. Still, despite its limitations, for general readers Morgan's volume serves just fine.

Pub Date: April 1, 1995


Page Count: 544

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1995