Publication Date

November 1, 1996

The significance of region to the study of American history has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, especially with the revival of interest in the history of the American West, dubbed somewhere along the way "the new western history," Despite this vital recasting of the western experience, historians are still trying to come to terms with what the West is. Donald Worster says aridity defines the West, Richard White says western dependency on the federal government makes it unique, and Patricia Limerick says the West is the most culturally diverse region in America.1 This essay does not put forth any new definition but suggests that the impulse to define the West is part of a larger problem of how historians approach the history of the American West and regional history in general.

Region, like race and gender, is a socially constructed system of marked and unmarked categories, to borrow some fancy terminology from linguistics. In history departments across America, there is women's history but no men's history. There is an African American history, an American Indian history, and a Chicano history, but no white history or Euro-American history.

And there is a western history and a southern history but no history of the Northeast. Ask students just starting a survey course in American history what the first European settlement in America was, and the majority will vote for the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth. American history is the history of the Northeast. Women's history, the histories of people of color, and regional histories emerged to challenge narratives of American history in which men, whites, and the Northeast dominated. Consequently, however, these subfields became marked as different, while the unmarked categories—men, whites, and the Northeast—retained their power as the standard against which the alternative histories must position themselves.

Historians don't invent their categories of analysis. These systems of marked and unmarked categories—whether race, gender, or region—are ways of thinking that are drawn from society at large. For example, I discovered a few years ago that I had a regional identity, that of the unmarked, dominant Northeast. I had thought I had no regional identity. I didn't have an accent. I didn't have any allegiances to the Northeast. I could make no claim to having a regional cuisine. But then I moved to Texas, where many southerners labeled me a northerner and, to my surprise, seemed to blame me for winning the Civil War. As a historian, I saw the importance of the Civil War from a professional standpoint, but I never thought it had anything to do with me personally. Scholars working in the area of race are now showing how whites do not see themselves as belonging to a racial category.2 Well, I did not see myself as belonging to a region, and it took people with a much stronger regional identity to point mine out to me. Like “whiteness,” the Northeast is the standard by which other regions are left to define themselves as different. Consequently, the Northeast deceptively appears as an empty category, a category without a character of its own. This need to define oneself is born from a sense of marginality. Richard White’s definition of the West is in some ways, then, a double entendre. Like other western historians, he feels compelled to define the West (when no one would think to do that for the Northeast), and his definition of the West is that it is marginal to the Northeast. However, White’s definition also raises the problem of competing marginalities. His “westerner” resents the federal government’s all-encompassing power and stranglehold on western land use, a feeling shared by many American Indians. But American Indians don’t see government as oppressive because they live in the West. They think government is oppressive because they are Indian.

If region is a system of categories akin to race and gender, regional historians should exercise the same attention to intersections of categories and to dominance within categories that scholars of race and gender do. A common critique of American women's history is that white, middle-class women have dominated. They are at the center of the category "women," and other women's experiences tend to be articulated against this prototype or standard. Other women are different. In African American history, men are at the center of the category. And whites are at the center of regional categories. The people in Texas who teased me about winning the Civil War were white; I wondered at the time whether the Civil War was as powerful a memory for black southerners as it was for my white, southern acquaintances. And if so, what kind of memory was it? One in which the South won the Civil War? That whites as subjects dominate in regional history is a potential source of bias within the historical profession. At a women's breakfast held at a professional meeting I attended several years ago, a woman from the audience asked the speaker, "Why is it that people working on the history of African Americans in the South are not considered seriously for jobs in southern history? Why is what they do only African American history and not also southern history?" It's because whites are at the center of the category "southern."

White history has dominated and continues to dominate in the history of the American West. But, some readers will undoubtedly interject, the new western history has taken care of that, for one of the prevailing definitions of this new West is that it is a very multicultural place. However, much of the new western history is multicultural to the extent that it is about Anglos who live in a multicultural landscape. Anglo experiences and feelings define Richard White's West. His "westerners" are implicitly, invisibly white: "modern westerners see themselves as part of a lineage that conquered a wilderness and transformed the land."3 Patricia Limerick’s A Legacy of Conquest tells a multicultural history of the West that is not multicultural in perspective but is about how whites dealt with cultural others. Multiculturalism in Limerick’s West is a history of white racism. Whites still dominate the story.

How would the history of the West look if multicultural history meant multicultural perspectives instead of multiculturalism as referring to the nature of the place in which people live? Indian students have given me some insights into this question, for most of the Indian students in my classes have been from eastern tribes, primarily Iroquois. These students feel their own history has been overwhelmed by the history of Plains Indians, the movie Indians, the "real Indians." For Indians, the history that is treated as marginal to the larger story is that of the East, not the West. West and East have different meanings for Indians and whites, just as North and South must have different meanings for whites and blacks, and just as West and East are clearly irrelevant to Chicano history, better conceptualized as a regional dynamic between a North and a South. Western historians would be reluctant to re-envision their categories, however, because the West might turn out to be a regional identity that belongs only to whites. If whites were not at the center of western history, would there even be such a thing as western history?

The problem of western history does not end there, for another system of categories is at work in how historians conceptualize the field. The analytical frame for environmental historians of the West is a two-category system consisting of a dualism between people and nature. This is apparent in Donald Worster's use of aridity to define the West's distinctiveness. As Susan Rhoades Neel observed, aridity marks the West as different from an unmarked East, for "the 'arid' West has meaning only in relation to the 'normal' East where the landscape is verdant."4 Worster’s West is marginal to the Northeast, but in contrast to how White’s and Limerick’s definitions of the West are rooted in human characteristics, Worster locates the source of difference in the natural environment. Although Worster uses an essentially different kind of categorizing scheme when compared to race or region, the same categorizing logic applies, for one category dominates the other. Worster describes his “hydraulic West” as a place where “the Americans who came into the region brought with them a deeply rooted drive for mastery over the natural world.”5 People dominate, nature is the underdog and nature then bears the burden of having to be defined.

Environmental historians of the West have the same problem as other westen historians. As a system of categories, nature versus people will always be challenged by historians who prioritize other categories of analysis, those which are framed as differences among people regional identity, race, gender, and class. In environmental history, there are no subcategories of people: no northerners, southerners, or westerners; no blacks, whites, Indians, or Chicanos; no men or women; and no social classes, the last of which is the prevailing criticism lodge, against William Cronon's Nature’s Metropolis (1991). Instead, it is just people, usually capitalist people, and nature involved in some contest over who will dominate. Those histories that do focus in on particular groups of people—William Cronon’s comparison of Indian and English environmental attitudes in Changes in the Land (1983), for example—treat each group as successive waves of human influence on nature: Indians an nature followed by English colonists and nature. If environmental historians were to incorporate struggles between people in their nature-versus-people dualism, nature might lose its status as the marginal, dependent category.

Environmental historians have the additional problem of not being sure that their categories are separate entities. If people were included as part of nature, environmental historians would lose their dominating-dominated paradigm. They would be left without any categories of analysis. Of course, the same paradox exists with other categorizing systems. Historians persuaded by postmodernist critiques of race and gender will insist on the one hand that these are social constructions and yet in other contexts will speak assuredly of women, men, blacks, whites, and westerners as though these labels capture clearly bounded; distinctly defined groups of people.

I've picked on White, Limerick, Worster, and Cronan because they are considered the vanguard of "the new western history," but in so doing I've also done them an injustice since they all acknowledge the West to be a slippery place where no one definition will ever gain a foothold. My intention was not to slight the significance of their achievements but to show that we historians, even the best among us, live in a world of social constructions. To deal with the problems raised here, regional historians could think more about their categories of analysis. One solution to the dominance of whites in regional history is to be aware of it and to write histories sensitive to the issue of perspective, histories that do not accept the idea that there is a West or that the West means the same thing to all people. And, instead of taking our categories of analysis unquestionably and directly from the world around us, we could analyze the historical origins of these categories and come to terms with them.


1. Donald Worster, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly 18 (1987): 141-56; Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West (1991), 57 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987), 27; David M. Emmons, “Constructed Province: History and the Making of the Las American West” and “A Roundtable: Six: Responses to ‘Constructed Province’ and a Final Statement by the Author,” Western Historical Quarterly 25 (1994): 437-59, 461-86.

2. See, for example, David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991).

3. White, 57.

4. Susan Rhoades Neel, “A Place of Extremes: Nature, History, and the American West,” Western Historical Quarterly 25 (1994): 497.

5. Worster, 154.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.