"What is the West? Who but an editor would ask such a question? Who but a genius could answer it?" begins Walter Prescott Webb's introductory essay to this collection compiled by the Chicago Corral of Westerners. Webb, the most distinguished scholar to appear in the book, hardly provides the answer to the question.
His conception of the West is still that he propounded in the June issue of Harper's: the West is the Desert. Anybody at all familiar with the West is certainly aware of the importance of the Desert in shaping the lives of the inhabitants of the region, but to say the Desert is the only physical characteristic of the West is a gross over-simplification. Webb, who teaches at the University of Texas, has had his conception of the West shaped by the Great Plains, which served as the title of his greatest book.
Webb certainly knows about the dryness of Texas and the Great Plains, but he is not sufficiently aware of the mountains and verdant, irrigated vallies of the Northern Rocky Mountain States. Another weakness in his analysis of the character of the West is his lack of concern with the social implications of a recently-settled society which relies on irrigation. This society tends to be much less rigid and more communal, than that of, say, the Midwest.
But despite Webb's superficiality, his is the best essay in the book. The other essays try to examine various aspects of the cultural history of the West, but they mainly succeed only in relating factual anecdotes.
This is not to say that this type of essay is without value. The study of Western America suffers from a lack of compiled source material. The piece by Richard L. Evans and Kenneth S. Bennion on "The Mormoms" is possibly the best very short history of the early church. James D. Horan in his "The Gunmen" has the good sense to know that the "Wild Bunch" was the fiercest Western outlaw gang and to spend his time relating their story but he makes factual mistakes in the story of this magnificent group, who died under attack by a whole company of Infantry.
The subjects, however, of these essays reveal the peripheral and romantic attraction with which at least the editor viewed the West. The collection is composed of pieces on "The Indians We Fought," "The Mountain Men," "The Scouts," "The Ladies," "The Prospectors," "Saddlebag Docs," and "Shootin' Irons." Very little of the book is spent describing the bulk of the people who settled the West, the farmers and small ranchers.
The intellectual intensity of the authors can be discerned in the section "The West You Can Enjoy." Here is given a directory of places you should see in the West, as well as recipes for Western dishes, including "Apache Sunset" and "Son of a Bitch Stew." This is all indispensable for those interested in the West, but it hardly helps answer the question: What effect did the West have on its inhabitants.
This book may well be the closest attempt to a Western "Mind of the South" type work, but it fails because it lacks the unity and feeling of a single point of view. The essays, often disorganized, tend to center around one individual as arch-typical instead of examining the variations within the type. They are anecdotal instead of analytical, but perhaps the West has not sufficiently solved its own problems of physical survival to attempt a serious study of its cultural history.
It is probably significant that this book was published by The Westerners, a group recently organized into corrals in Eastern and semi-Western cities. This is an exceedingly romantic type of organization, but it is the only one which has made much concerted effort to study the West as an entity. However, the West has not yet enough perspective on its past to be able to understand the present. The West is more than the "Howdy Country" that S. Omar Barker calls it, just as it deserves a better epitaph than the opening of this book, "They know the West lives on . . . in men wind over its prairies and the sunshine on its shores." The West deserves a more articulate voice to tell of its differences from the rest of America.