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Best Western

History was never this easy to read

Reimagining the Modern American West:
A Century of Fiction, History and Art

By Richard W. Etulain
University of Arizona Press; 212 pp.

Reviewed by Traci Hukill

LAST SUMMER, the idea of the American West emerged from between glossy coffee-table-book covers and romped merrily into grand and public view dressed as a nine-part PBS documentary titled The West. Variously eliciting delight, criticism and heaps of speculation from general viewers, the documentary shed light on a topic that has, especially in the last decade, stirred impassioned controversy in the halls of academia between two determined camps: those who view the West's development as a natural outgrowth of the pioneering spirit, and the New Western historians, who see a sad legacy of racism, greed and violence in the skylines of sprawling western cities.

Enter unflappable historian Richard Etulain and his sound, sensible overview of Western American culture from frontier times to the present, Reimagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History and Art. Chronicling in linear fashion the region's most influential writers, historians and artists, Etulain makes sense of what ordinarily wouldn't: how the culture that produced the bronco bustin' paintings and sculptures of Frederic Remington a century ago could deliver the socially conscious murals of Judith Baca in the '90s; how Owen Wister's archetypal Western, The Virginian, gave way to Ken Kesey's elegy to dying American individualism, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and how the academic community has swung from embracing Frederick Jackson Turner's seminal frontier thesis 100 years ago to denouncing it as ethnocentric and naive today.

Granted, the sections on historiography might leave the general reader's mouth a bit dry, although the author does an excellent job of summarizing the major historiographical trends of the past century. But Etulain more than compensates in the sections on art and literature with fluid prose peppered with fresh turns of phrase, an obviously thorough knowledge of his subject, and a lilting rhythm that guides the reader through description and analysis of a considerable number of works. He positions each artistic movement in Western history, pointing to cause and effect and always, but always, considering the perspective of women and minority groups.

As an added attraction, the book brims with tales of Californians' favorite subject--Californians. Jack London enjoys a lengthy discussion, as do John Steinbeck and artist Richard Diebenkorn, among a number of others. Thumbs up to Etulain for not subjecting his readers to an onslaught of names and titles, however--he discusses just enough writers, historians and artists to qualify the book as an overview without bringing on reader meltdown.

Consider reading this book before you visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's current exhibit, Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, and before you view Clyfford Still's and Richard Diebenkorn's works in the permanent collection, and think of it when you're gazing at Alfred Stieglitz's portraits of Georgia O'Keefe in New Mexico. Each of these styles, so disparate at first glance, is part of a cultural continuum that's sweeping us up even as we read bestsellers, drink our coffee and decide it's high time we visited the museum.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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