“The land of the heart is the land of the West.”
Readers of Chronicles are familiar with Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s regular contributions under the title The Hundredth Meridian, a rubric launched in the 1990’s. The first two dozen or so of these columns were conceived as chapters in a serialized book. With minor revisions and the addition of a Foreword, this book has now appeared. Those who have already savored his work will be delighted; new readers will discover fine writing and important reflections of and on contemporary America.
The book belongs to the prose genre now often termed creative nonfiction—either personal narratives or short informal essays, or, as here sometimes, a blend of the two modes. The chapters, which follow Williamson’s original order of publication, display loose geographic, seasonal, and thematic axes, crossing over, reinforcing, and meshing with one another (“wheels within wheels,” the author calls them). The settings are generally in the intermountain West—that vast area from the Continental Divide through the Great Basin to the Sierra Nevada, and over a range of latitudes, in this case from Wyoming to the Mexican border. The author excels at conveying what it is like to experience at close hand the contemporary American West. His descriptions give the very feel of its air, wind, altitudes, and enormous spaces; its red mesas, ochre sands, and teasingly blue mountains; its aridity, cold mornings, hot afternoons, loneliness, and the character of those who work there. The book also overflows with moments of friendship, the sort based on sharing rough experiences in a rough, if beautiful, land.
This volume offers, however, more than personal reports. For even when recounting particular experiences, such as breaking a horse, rounding up cattle, camping, or stalking elk, and still more in chapters that directly address current problems, Williamson provides important critical viewpoints on the geographical, historical, and cultural features of the Old West (in the 19th century and first part of the 20th), on what of it remains, and on the successive changes that now threaten, on the land itself and in the American mind, those remnants. Williamson’s eye is keen, his understanding broad, his intellectual acumen right for the tasks of illuminating the contemporary West for those who know it and those who do not and identifying both its strengths and vulnerabilities. He has the courage to state plainly truths as he sees them, whether they will be welcomed or not, speaking, for instance, of “our congestive and confused civilization” and the “rationalist utilitarian colossus” that waged war against the Confederacy; noting that exploitation of other peoples had long been practiced in the Southwest; and observing that, in New Mexico, descendants of the conquistadores despise Mexican wetbacks and other migrants.
Williamson is, in short, a genuine and important cultural critic, one to harken to, unlike countless other commentators thus styled, often ignorant of history and wielding a multicultural sword of base metal, who, having devoted journalistic or academic articles to exposés, diatribes, and theories concerning America, have gained wide but undue recognition and influence as authorities on this nation. Whereas some of them have succeeded, as he notes, in transforming the pioneer and post-pioneer West “into an object of sophisticated postmodern ridicule,” Williamson properly connects that earlier West to much that is good in the character of America, including its vision of freedom and the pastoral ideal, which reaches ultimately back to the ancient world.
Obviously, Williamson must likewise be distinguished from promoters of the slick, commercial “New West,” whose enthusiasm, displayed in journalistic publications and put into action through financial and political power, goes beyond ordinary self-interest to ambitious and greedy visions of redesigning the region to accommodate ever greater populations, ever higher profits, ever more pleasure. Identifying the West as one of the few regions where American values of earlier centuries and decades still are visible, he observes how what he calls “the collapse of a once-great civilization (our own)” has driven its refugees from both coasts to try again, in immense spaces that are mostly desert, to impose their notion of progress and achieve ideal communities. They do so, of course, at the expense of the land and particularly its scarce water, and to the detriment of older uses of resources, well established since the 19th century (sometimes far earlier), such as sheep and cattle ranching and logging, activities which, very broadly speaking, were in equilibrium with one another, the population, and the environment. It is ultimately at their own expense as well as others’ that these new Westerners exploit the land, since it is obvious that large resettlements to the intermountain region and the consequent overappropriation of resources will make the frontiers recede and deplete the region’s value, culturally and even economically, so that the dreamt-of paradise, momentarily protected still by wilderness, finally will disappear.
Williamson’s strong, often lively style fits well the region and people he evokes. It can be casual, with homely talk about horses and sheep; it can be terse, to make a point; it can be reflective and erudite. It is frequently lyrical or painterly, as in the following description of a southern Arizona landscape:
the brown winter desert touched by the pale green of the saguaro, the yellowish creosote bush, and underlain by the gray-pink surface hardpan: wide valleys many miles across sweeping between ragged parallel ranges of red volcanic rock blackened with the dark desert varnish . . .
With skill, the author weaves such passages into his usual narrative structure, which also includes anecdotes; portraits of friends and others; dialogues; historical, topographical, and economic facts; and judgments, always cogent. He does not shy from the very personal. It is, after all, always through the particular that literature reaches the general, and even if, as Dr. Johnson noted, it is needless to “number the stripes of the tulip,” well-selected details from a writer’s experience are what allow readers to share his vision and enrich their own. Williamson’s position cannot be solipsistic in any case, since it is grounded on a sense of nature that takes into account religious and moral perspectives, involving men’s relationships with both it and one another.
By his devotion to the American West, displayed in a writer’s proper way—that is, through writing, astutely and sensitively, about what he cares about—Williamson continues a splendid Western literary tradition, begun in the 19th century and lasting to the present. Names from this tradition, by no means monolithic, that come to mind, among others, are Theodore Roosevelt, Willa Cather, J. Frank Dobie, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Zane Grey, Wallace Stegner, William Mac-Leod Raine, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Cormac McCarthy. (One should remember that Williamson has published fine novels about the west—Desert Light and The Homestead.) Critics, unfortunately, too often think of work such as theirs and his as merely regional, intending the word pejoratively; among those just mentioned, only Cather and McCarthy, probably, escape the dismissal implied by the term. To suggest here that Williamson’s work belongs with theirs is not excessive. He shares their concern for the region, deep bonds with it, grasp of its features, and, chiefly, literary skill in depicting it. His present-day task is to distinguish the Old West, or “land as it was,” of which they wrote, long part of America’s consciousness and persisting still in some areas, from today’s ersatz copies, as a way of identifying what may still be preserved and how.
Other predecessors are two environmental writers, Marc Reisner (whom Williamson mentions), author of Cadillac Desert, an exposé of attempts to redesign the West through water diversion, and Edward Abbey, to whom the author pays homage in a chapter recounting an attempt to find his grave. Williamson specifies, however, that, if he is himself an environmentalist, it is only in lower case. That Abbey has been turned into the uppercase variety, his interests having become, as Williamson notes, “glamorous,” is not his fault, while the ecological degradations that have worsened since his death give additional force to his arguments without justifying extremists’ positions.
What the Old West had that the New West increasingly lacks are, finally, reality and dignity—the reality of what is basic to human experience, the dignity that comes from acceptance of the physical trials, dangers, hardships, and experience which accompany that reality. Both these elements tend to erode from our modern, complicated, multilayered, remote, technologized, abstracted, indoor society . . .
This observation from the Foreword, reprinted on cover four, is a fair sample of the sort of cultural criticism to be found in this volume. Whether, on the one hand, aggressive New Age Environmentalists and their money machines, including those who would cut off all backcountry access and those crusading against traditional water use by ranchers and irrigation farmers, or, on the other, crass developers grabbing land (and water diverted from the older purposes) for resorts (including golf courses), huge vacation houses, and vast tracts of housing with bluegrass lawns sprawled around the big Western cities, those designing the “New West” are a threat to much that was formerly good not only beyond the hundredth meridian but east of it also. In very personal terms, Williamson’s book conveys a sane man’s experience and appreciation of this good, for readers’ enjoyment and enlightenment.
[The Hundredth Meridian: Seasons and Travels in the New Old West, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Rockford: Chronicles Press) 149 pp., $21.95]