Detailed, intermittently interesting, but finally unrewarding study of America’s 19th-century overland expansion from (perhaps too) prolific biographer/historian McLynn (Napoleon, 2002, etc.).
“The 19th century saw the American character at its best, and the best of that best was probably evinced on the wagon trains West.” This cheering sentiment, like much else in McLynn’s sweeping study, is factually questionable and ultimately empty. The author is keen to demonstrate what the drive west says about the American character, marked in his view by “permanent rootlessness . . . spatial mobility, relocation, and the belief in the Fresh Start.” In doing so, however, he overlooks a basic reality of 19th-century life: most of the men who went west (often accompanied by unwilling women and children) did so not out of some grand sense of Manifest Destiny or adventure, but because they wanted land, a commodity in short supply in the crowded East. Generations of American historians have established this fundamentally economic motivation for the acquisition of lebensraum, but McLynn persists in holding a romanticized and eminently European view of the era, as well as an eminently European lack of knowledge about the Native American cultures that Anglo pioneers encountered and battled. That said, he does a reasonable job of charting the rise and fall of such important overland routes as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and of depicting some of the well-known pioneers and explorers who crossed them, such as Charles Frémont, Jedediah Smith, and the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. McLynn’s anecdotes and odd bits of fact, which make up the best parts here, are well chosen, particularly those having to do with how newcomers to the West gouged, swindled, and otherwise mistreated those who arrived a day later, a constant of American history much worthier of examination than our supposed wanderlust.
Only marginally useful for general readers, and likely to be dismissed by specialists and knowledgeable buffs.