Another sublime contribution to the historical literature of the American West from Worster (The Wealth of Nature, 1993, etc.).
Few figures stand as tall in the exploration of the West as John Wesley Powell. He has come to represent all that is daring and wise in the move west: a one-armed man who took a boat down the wild Colorado River, who undertook to survey the great reaches of the new frontier, who stood up for indigenous people and protected the environment. (Wallace Stegner's classic Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 1954, paints the quintessential portrait of the saintly Powell.) As usual, the discerning Worster (History/Univ. of Kansas) probes this heroic image to discover a more complicated human being. The historian points out that Powell also wanted to tame the land (“He did not dissent from the project of westward expansion nor question the grand idea of progress, but he did argue that progress must always keep its feet firmly planted on the ground”) and that assimilation was his idea of the best way to protect native peoples’ rights. But Worster is no malicious debunker; he simply understands that Powell's import is diminished if we make him a plaster saint, that much of what he had to say about the future of the American West was seen through the eyes of a fervent nationalist as well as those of a trained scientist and skilled ethnographer. Worster covers Powell's life like a tarp, from his early days in Ohio to the socialist views that ultimately led to his marginalization. He has ferreted out a remarkable number of letters, journals, papers, diaries, and parish registers relating to his subject. Abetted by his sweeping knowledge of the region, he engagingly presents this deep research and makes clear connections between far-flung pieces of material. He also writes with grace and verve.
A top-drawer biography, at once scholarly and popular, generous in its intelligence, rich in context and anecdote. (Halftones and maps)