Author of one previous history of the American West, Richard Batman has attempted in The Outer Coast to provide a history of foreigners in California from the founding of the first mission in 1769 until the attempted annexation of Monterey by a drunken American Navy captain in 1842, which, in Batman’s eyes, marked the end of California’s isolation from the world.

On the surface. Batman has prepared an exciting tale. How could any book with guest appearances by Daniel Boone, Captain James Cook, Jedediah Smith, and dozens of hard-living fur trappers, ship captains, merchant bankers, and other worthies be dull?

But Batman overcomes all obstacles and achieves boredom nonetheless by never allowing any of his characters to speak in their own voices. Perhaps this is because most of the admittedly obscure adventurers Batman chronicles did not leave any journals or letters worth citing. I suspect the real reason is that Batman prefers his own voice to those of the explorers he chronicles. Here, for example, is Batman’s account of the return of Captain Cook’s crew to London after Cook’s death in 1779:

Officers and sailors were paid off and went their separate ways to spread tales and legends of the South Seas, of Hawaii, of the west coast of America, of the Arctic, of Kamchatka, and of China. Wherever they went—to the drawing rooms of London society or to the sailors’ bars on the waterfront—they took with them the same stories.

What were these stories? Were any of them preserved? Did the sailors invent tales as fantastic as those of Herodotus or Sir John Mandeville? We do not know. All we know is that Batman’s tone-deaf technique has glossed over what, to me, should be a tantalizing piece of information.

The best histories, like the best novels, are means of giving voice to ages and times now lost to us. Batman methodically silences past voices in favor of his own. Batman’s explorers and alcaldes are reduced to the lifelessness of the emperors in Byzantine chronicles. Even Daniel Boone, shoehorned into this history despite never having traveled within 1,500 miles of California, is reduced from being an authentic American hero to a quizzical old grouch.

It is only when Richard Henry Dana enters the scene two-thirds of the way through the book that Batman’s tableaux momentarily comes to life. Dana is a very empathetic figure, a Harvard graduate who decided, after devouring too many books, to sign on board a whaler on a voyage from Boston around Cape Horn to California and back.

Dana described his travels in Two Years Before the Mast, one of the earliest and best accounts of American exploration. When Batman paraphrases Dana, he is on solid ground. When he leaves Dana’s adventures, his footing is much less sure, except for one memorable scene in which a wandering fur trapper named Antoine Robidaux travels to a small town in Missouri in 1840 to urge farmers, for the first time, to cross 2,000 miles of uncharted wasteland for the golden land of California. Robidaux “said there was but one man in California that ever had a chill there, and it was a matter of so much wonderment to the people of Monterey that they went eighteen miles to the country just to see him shake.”

It is touchstones such as this that make popular history worthwhile by allowing us, for a moment, to glimpse into the past and see it fresh and whole. These moments occur so rarely in Batman’s work that I can’t recommend The Outer Coast. I hope, however, that more gifted writers will emerge to till the same fields as Batman. The history of our nation is much too important to be left to the Marxists and the mathematicians.


[The Outer Coast by Richard Batman, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $18.95]