“The Sahara of the Bozart,” more than anything else Mencken wrote about the South, won him the undying hatred of the former Confederacy and its spokesmen. The essay, which first appeared in 1917 as a newspaper column and was subsequently expanded for inclusion in the next volume of the Prejudices series, was attacked at the time—and has been since—as malicious and unfair. As with even Mencken’s most vituperative rhetoric, however, his strictures on Southern letters contained a measure of truth that some Southerners recognized. Indeed, the opening lines of the piece were borrowed by the author from a second-rate regional bard, J. Gordon Coogler, himself now totally forgotten: “Alas! for the South, her books have / grown fewer— / She never was much given to literature.” Historians have chastised Mencken for failing to observe that, even as he wrote, a Southern literary renaissance was in the making. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by “Twelve Southerners,” was published in 1930. But a quarter-century later another native son, Richard Weaver, was insisting that the South had collapsed in part because of its failure to “define its way of life”—a failure that had been implicitly acknowledged by several of the twelve, and explicitly noted by Allen Tate in his “Remarks on the Southern Religion.”
The Southern Agrarians, looking about them for support in the struggle to defend and preserve pre-industrial civilization in the United States, identified the Western Agrarian movement as their most likely potential ally. Sixty-five years later, when both the South and the West have largely succumbed to industrialism as a way of life, their relationship to the rest of the country remains analogous. Because industrialization based on the extraction and utilization of natural resources implies a culture different from one dependent on the processing and transformation of those resources, the West is determined to reject direction from the postindustrial East; while in the South, another Southern renaissance—this time of a social and political, rather than a literary, nature—puts the region increasingly at defiance with the North. Although the homogenization of the South by Yankee influence and Yankee immigration gives its reassertiveness a minority aspect that the rebelliousness of the West seems to lack, as between the two the odds may favor the Southern cause over the Western one for the simple reason that Southerners since the 1930’s have gone some way to define their way of life, while Westerners have done very little in defining theirs.
The West needs its own equivalent of I’ll Take My Stand—less the book itself than the organized consciousness that such a volume represents. Like the South, the West has a culture, a unique way of life; unlike it, it lacks a Culture, a distinctive mode of formal thought and way of seeing. The obvious explanation is that the West represents a Late Pioneer phase of civilization, preoccupied with subduing nature and procuring basic human and cultural needs. But to stop here is, perhaps, to let the West off too lightly. Western culture is more than practical, it is Philistine, with anti-intellectual tendencies: the expression of a blue-collar society where white-collar people share blue-collar tastes and ideas. In the West, the bozart are predominantly the contribution of transplants to the region, and it cannot be said that what they contribute amounts to very much.
Left-liberal and radical individuals in the Intermountain West are likely to be most comfortable in social and environmentalist work, in education, journalism, and the funded arts programs. In fact, there is little place else for them to go, little other to do. Culturally and politically. Western educators, journalists, and artists are largely indistinguishable from their counterparts in the East and on the West Coast from whom they receive their tastes and habits of thought, as the intellectual establishment of New England in the 19th century imported its notions of thought and culture from the parent country. Most Western newspapers and television news programs support range and mining reform, sympathize with environmentalist causes in the region, oppose the Sagebrush Rebellion, defend federal ownership and control of the public lands, regard Tenth Amendment advocates as slightly cracked and potentially dangerous people, and promote federal policy furthering the consolidation of Washington’s social, economic, and political control over the 50 states. They are also strongly protective of the state arts councils, and of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities which underwrite these. In Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune regularly pounds the drum for the Wyoming Arts Council, which receives a significant portion of its income from Washington and regards itself as a sort of artistic Prometheus, bringer of the divine flame to a region that previously never had a thought of striking flint for itself. Unfortunately, the council with its monthly newsletter, mailed to every householder in the state, is an embarrassment and even a minor scandal, chiefly on account of its naive critical assumption that creativity is a wholly undifferentiated quality, pushpin being indeed as good as poetry provided that the pins themselves are handmade. More seriously. Western poets, story-writers, and novelists have taken contemporary Eastern “artists” for their models. Terry Tempest Williams, a Utah native and a Mormon in (apparently) good standing with her church, is hardly more a Western writer than her friend Bill McKibben of New York State, although the setting of her books remains the West; temperamentally and ideologically, she has become an Easterner. In the last generation or so the best—as well as the best known—Western writers, from Edward Abbey to Thomas McGuane, have been native Easterners as well. In this respect. Western literature has actually lost ground in the past half-century, as born Westerners like Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Harvey Fergusson, A.B. Guthrie. Jr., and Wallace Stegner have been succeeded by a generation of literary carpetbaggers that includes McGuane, Rick Bass, Gretel Ehrlich, Richard Ford, and Richard Brautigan.
Much more significant in the immediate crisis is the West’s failure to develop a body of political and constitutional literature to support it in its confrontation with an aggrandizing federal government backed by invading social, cultural, and economic forces from the East. Regionalist patriots and defenders of the Old West act as if they believed that a simple appeal to the Tenth Amendment, reinforced by libertarian arguments regarding freedom of economic activity and the exploitation of natural resources, should be sufficient to convince Washington, the country at large, and the West’s own dissenters and quislings of the justness and constitutionality of their cause. It is as if the leaders of the Southern states in the protracted crisis leading to the Civil War should have restricted their case to a narrow defense of states’ rights, and the right of individuals to exploit any form of labor they found to hand.
In addition to its Calhoun, the West needs its Jefferson, its Hinton Rowan Helper, its George Fitzhugh. It will not be an easy thing to acquire them. Though no less a unique cultural entity than the Old South, the contemporary West cannot match Dixie as a developed civilization, or as an intellectual force in the national life of its time. More than a century after the closing of the frontier, it has yet to develop an intellectual tradition, to produce major artists and thinkers, great statesmen, and universities of distinction. The Mojave of the Bozart is the Mojave of rhetoric and the political intellect as well. But if it remains a Mojave much longer, it is certain to forfeit its historical identity to the assault of postmodernist influences which will not abate until the entire Intermountain region is reduced to the level of postindustrial uniformity and abstraction that has prevailed elsewhere in the nation—including, alas, in the South.
The West’s principal enemy is not the federal government as such but environmentalism, whose role in relation to the region and its future is analogous to that played by abolitionism in the destruction of the Old South. In a sense undreamed of by Thoreau, environmentalism represents the ultimate Free Soil movement—Free Soilism taken to its literalist extreme. As the abolitionists considered the demolition of Southern civilization to be a justifiable program if it resulted in the emancipation of the Southern slaves, and as the Northern-dominated government used abolitionism as a means of acquiring economic and political dominion over the South, so the environmentalists anticipate the destruction of the culture of the Old West in the name of freedom for trees, rocks, wolves, and grizzly bears, and the federal government is eager to avail itself of their efforts for the purpose of effecting the political subduement of the Western states. This is why the West, if it is to make headway against its enemies, must accomplish two things. First, it needs to deploy effectively a moral and scientific critique of the environmentalist movement. Second, it will have to develop or adapt a political philosophy embracing devolution, regional and local control, and the value of intact regional communities.
These will not be easy tasks, partly because the kind of intellectual labor required is not congenial to Western people, and partly because such few Western intellectuals as exist are mostly not Westerners at all but carpetbaggers drawn to the region by the lure of wilderness and the environmental ideal, not the attraction of Western culture and traditional Western life. Nevertheless, a start has already been made by the most responsible of the various county movements which, abjuring land grabs, bombings, and personal threats to federal officials, prefers to concentrate on the fundamental issue at stake: the extent to which federally mandated environmental regulations attenuate and destroy local custom and culture. The innovators are the commissioners for Catron County, New Mexico, and their legal counsel, Jim Catron. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asserted that the Endangered Species Act overrides the National Environmental Policy Act requiring them to share power with affected local communities, Catron County sued FWS in the Federal District Court of New Mexico, and won. And when Josephine, Coos, and Douglas counties in Oregon, influenced by ideas propagated by the National Federal Lands Conference in Salt Lake City, also sued the Service in the Federal District Court of Oregon over its interpretation of NEPA, Jim Catron advised them on how to argue. Although this judge too bought Catron’s argument, the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco reversed on appeal. Meanwhile, FWS has appealed the District Court of New Mexico’s ruling to the Tenth District Court in Denver, whose decision Catron County awaits. If the county wins, that would mean a split in the circuits, and the case would almost certainly then go before the Supreme Court. And if the high court were to find for Catron County, the outcome would be a new way by which FWS does business with state and county government—a possibility that environmentalists contemplate with fear and loathing.
Their counterstrategy is to argue that “culture” as the term is employed in the National Environmental Policy Act refers to ruins and other archaeological sites, not to anything that European-Americans have created in the American West in the past couple of hundred years. “They’re bawling in Catron County about their ‘custom and culture,'” says Susan “Toxic” Schock, an activist from Tucson who, since her move to Silver City, New Mexico, has become the nemesis of the county movement in general and Catron County in particular. “They’ve been around four generations at most. That’s not very long in the scheme of things.” Schock wants county residents to accept with good grace an end to ranching and timbercutting and embrace industrial tourism for their livelihood. Jim Catron, in his syndicated column “Mucho Ojo!” appearing weekly in newspapers around the West, has recently countered the “no-culture” argument by claiming that the Old West represents the contemporary extension of the ancient Celtic culture which, having swept across Europe from East to West over the past three or four millennia, crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the great North European migrations and continued its progress westward with the frontier. Mocking the pretensions of some environmentalists to be the New Druids, or Archdruids, Catron reminds his readers that the Celts were the first European miners, produced innovations in silviculture, and pioneered in sheep and cattle ranching, particularly in Scotland and Spain.
“How many cowboys,” Jim demanded, stabbing his finger against a photograph of an ancient piece of statuary known as “The Dying Gaul,” “have you seen with faces like that?” Quite a few, I agreed.