A Man for All Seasons

Patricia Limerick is the author of "Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West." She chairs the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado

Heroes have always been hard to persuade to hold still. Even when they seem thoroughly fastened to their pedestals, their human complexities are certain to loosen the bolts that were supposed to hold them upright.

In 1954, in what might prove to be the last successful installation of a Western American hero, Wallace Stegner published "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West." Celebrating Powell's heroism in his exploration of the Colorado River as well as in his reckoning with the limits of water in the western United States, Stegner wrote eloquently of a tough and wise man whose example offered a renewable source of inspiration to the conservationists of the mid-20th century.

In his recent book, "A River Running West," Donald Worster makes few direct references to Stegner, and he certainly declares no intention to debunk Stegner's admiration for Powell. But Worster's Powell is a complex fellow, as is the nation in which he put so much faith: "To discover the man behind the celebrity," Worster declares in his prologue, "with all his ambivalence and contradiction, is to discover a more complicated America."

The full delivery on this promise is what makes his book readable and thought-provoking. This is a man, after all, who suffered a maiming injury in the Civil War, led a party of men in descents of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871, explored the Colorado Plateau, studied Indian languages and ways of thinking, founded the federal Bureau of Ethnology, served as second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and offered a courageous plan for reckoning with the conditions of settlement in the arid West. His public activities, in the American West and in the mires of Washington, supply readers with an unusually interesting and instructive tale.

Moreover, Worster explicitly and effectively shows what a central role Powell played in the rise of federal bureaucracies, in particular, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology, with power over the West. Rather than Stegner's "Man of the West," Worster's Powell emerges as a Man of Washington, D.C., "above all, an intensely nationalistic American."

What were the motives for his explorations and for his public policies? Powell left abundant evidence in the public record, and Worster presents us with a compelling and instructive story of his public life. But when Powell's friend, Grove Karl Gilbert, "destroyed most of the personal papers [Powell] left behind," he left us with a correspondingly constricted story of Powell's interior life. Does that matter? Would knowledge of this person's private world deliver us to a better understanding of his public impact?

Do we need to know his private story? Did Powell truly surrender his parents' religious faith and replace it entirely with science? When he was beleaguered and besieged in his office-holding, where did he find his comfort? Did the site of his amputation hurt constantly or sporadically? How did he respond to the Powell family's apparent tensions, to the fact that his wife, Emma, seemed to grow distant during the course of their marriage or to the friction with his brother-in-law, Almon Harris Thompson, who shouldered the emotional and psychological burden of a number of Powell's expeditions and who felt considerably underappreciated?

Accepting the fact that these questions are beyond answer, Worster gives us everything we need to recognize and respect Powell's complexity as a public figure.

Perhaps the most conspicuous contrast between Stegner's Powell and Worster's Powell is the airing that Worster gives to the criticisms of Powell by his contemporaries. One member of the second Colorado River expedition complained that he was "getting heartily sick of this infernal fooling and the haphazard manner in which the expedition is run." Powell's brother-in-law did not hold back his frustration: "I do not think you have acted squarely or honorably," he declared in one letter to his kinsman and boss. According to Sen. William Stewart of Nevada, Powell knew "too well ... how to run geology in Washington. He knows too well the geology of the District; and he knows too little of the geology of the Earth ...."

Always attentive to the need to secure federal money for his explorations and the production of his studies and publications, Powell was entirely assimilated into and intimate with what we would now call "life inside the Beltway." Co-founder of the Cosmos Club, an elite scientific society in Washington, and dues-paying member of a long list of newly founded professional associations, Powell developed a reputation as a networking bureaucrat that came close to trumping his identity as the toughened hero of Western exploration that Stegner and many others celebrate. Though "a utilitarian at core," Worster declares, Powell "appreciated the land for its wild beauty as well as for its economic potential." Worster reminds us that we would do Powell a disservice (and we would misrepresent him) if we were to ignore or downplay either the pleasure he took in looking at landscapes and appreciating their beauty or the satisfaction he took in planning for the use, in farming and ranching, of those landscapes.

Yet on one remarkable occasion, Powell took a stand of defiance that would qualify him for lead status in any collection of "The Lives of the Saints" of environmentalism. In 1893, Powell spoke to the second annual Irrigation Congress, a group pushing for federal support for the vast project of irrigating the entire West. The delegates expected Powell to champion their cause and, indeed, they invited him to take the role of their hero.

Powell declined that invitation. When all the water in the West had been put to use, he declared, "there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region." There was not even enough water to irrigate all the land that was already in private ownership, leading Powell to propose that the federal government simply stop allocating Western land to individual ownership. "What matters it whether I am popular or unpopular?" Powell asked an audience in Los Angeles in 1893. "I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands."

This extraordinary speech is one of the world's most thoroughly vindicated prophecies. That "heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights" is an unmistakable feature of contemporary regional life. Saying such a firm "no" to the dreams of Western boosters, who saw the West as an open door to limitless prosperity, was an act of courage--in its own way, a kind of courage more impressive than the physical daring that took Powell through the rapids of the Colorado River.

And yet, when it comes to submitting to the status of a founding father of today's environmentalism, Powell puts up quite a fight. He thought botany and zoology were self-indulgent practices, closer to philosophy than to real science, and he thought progress should involve the subordination of nature to human intelligence. He was interested in forests only so far as their watersheds would increase the water available, in run-off, for agriculture. Powell foresaw a future when the major rivers of the West would run dry, as their sources and tributaries were put to work in irrigation.

Much of nature's value, for Powell, came from providing grist for the mill of science. Powell, Worster tells us, replaced his parents' faith in religion with a secular but ardent faith in science, and thus his life story comes to encapsulate one of the most important trends of his time. And yet, painfully, when the U.S. Geological Survey, with the science-championing Powell as its director, found itself under a budget-cutting attack from Congress in 1892, Powell got "weak support from the scientific community," writes Worster. No scientists made "a public plea on his behalf, even those whose research he had supported." As a research scientist, Powell had, in fact, become "outmoded" in the very profession he had worked hard to establish.

On the last page of "A River Running West," Worster briefly comments on Powell's standing, so espoused by Stegner and contemporary environmentalists, and he issues what we might call a "permit to admire": "Conservationists and environmentalists would rightly look back on him as one of their founding giants." But he also suggests that those who might want to reshape Powell, retrospectively, into a supporter of any early 21st-century political program will have a tough time of it. Worster lets us know that Powell had an unusual and progressive enthusiasm for the company of Indian people; inspired by his parents' ardent abolitionism, he believed that difference among races derived purely from culture and not from biological inferiority or superiority. And yet, as Worster thoroughly acknowledges, Powell felt certain that Anglo-American culture was far superior to Indian cultures. Near the end of his career, Powell announced his hearty approval of the good work done by the federal government in driving Indian people toward assimilation: "The lowest tribes are still children," he said, "and must be managed by a kindergarten system."

As an "ahead of his times" hero of either multiculturalism or environmentalism, Powell is going to defy those who would sanctify him. In truth, the effort to place Powell on either pedestal--environmental hero or multicultural hero--makes us uncomfortably aware of how irrelevant and anachronistic our standards for heroes can be, when we apply them in haste to figures of the 19th century. But rethinking those standards leads to a more productive point: Let Powell be a founding figure of today's good causes, and those causes become richer, more complicated, more flexible and more tolerant movements.

The surrender of self-righteousness would be an enormous boon to the environmental cause. Acknowledging the unedited, complicated, utilitarian John Wesley Powell as an ideological parent would be a big step in that laudable direction, and it is this step that Worster's thorough and empathetic biography makes possible.

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