For the last several years Douglas Brinkley has been working on a massive illustrated narrative, The American Heritage New History of the United States , to be published this month by Simon & Schuster. This essay is adapted from the introduction.
In one of Willa Cather’s earliest novels, the heroine has been reflecting on the settlers who had come to Nebraska a generation earlier and on the great changes that have taken place in the intervening years. “We can remember,” she says, “the graveyard when it was wild prairie 8#230; and now. 8#230;” Her companion, however, responds not to this change but to consistency.Read more »
Likely as not, when René Descartes invented his grid system of coordinates in the seventeenth century, he did not have Carroll, Iowa, in mind. No matter. Carroll, like the rest of the state and a good deal of the nation, is laid out in a Cartesian grid. For this geometric landscape we have the Ordinance of 1785 to thank.Read more »
Behind my grandparents’ house, the house in which I was born, rose a high pasture, little used in my boyhood and then only for grazing a few head of cattle. Crowned by tall weeds and scarred by runoff gullies, it was my first prairie, the one that still drifts behind all my images and notions of that phenomenon even though it was only forty or fifty acres bounded by timber and bean fields.Read more »
The historian Francis Parkman, strolling around Independence, Missouri, in 1846, remarked upon the “multitude of healthy children’s faces … peeping out from under the covers of the wagons.” Two decades later a traveler there wrote of husbands packing up “sunburned women and wild-looking children” along with shovels and flour barrels in preparation for the long journey west. In the goldfields of California in the 1850s, a chronicler met four sisters and sisters-in-law who had just crossed the Plains with thirty-six of their children.Read more »
SOMEWHERE IN THE emptiness between Hudson Bay and the Rockies, a vagrant puff of wind raised a dusty snow and went skittering over the plains, picking up a spiral here and another one there to create a north-country November blizzard of the kind that rages lustily for a few days and then blows itself out with no great harm done. But in this first week of November 1913, things were a bit different. Read more »
Until recently the history of the American West has been dominated by the elite, the spectacular, and the gaudy, not by the ordinary folk—the “little people with dirty faces,” who are only now beginning to get their due. The same generally has been true of canine history.Read more »
A stifling spring or early summer afternoon draws on toward evening. To the west and south, a sullen cloudbank, swollen with moisture, pulsing with electrical display, rides up on the push of hot Gulf air.
Back-lighted by late sun, the advancing storm front can be seen to churn and shift and tumble in mighty collisions. But now, on the ground, the last memory of a breeze has subsided into a wrapping, oppressive stillness. A breath, it seems, scarcely can be drawn.Read more »
People who have been turned out of their homes make keen historians. Forced from the land of their ancestors and onto the open road without a destination, they have a way of remembering—often to the minute of the day—the trauma of departure.Read more »
I always felt at home in Edgar Lee Master᾿s quarters in the Chelsea Hotel. It was all so much like a Petersburg, Illinois, law office that I might have been back in Papa Smoot’s office overlooking the courthouse square. Edgar Lee, plain and short and stocky, sat in a straight chair near a big desk. there was the same smell of books and tobacco. The same southern light filtered through the braches of the ailanthus trees, and the court behind the Chelsea was almost as quiet as the empty Petersburg square with its big elms.Read more »