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Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley…

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening…

by Wallace Stegner

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I bought this book during our first trip to the Southwest. Before this trip I had not thought too much about the West; it's there and it's big, that's about the extent of my perception.

Stegner's book, now over 60 years since publication, is a worthy read on several counts. First, the writing is terrific. I had not read any works by Stegner, known for mainly his western fiction, but this writer is one of the most skilled in literature; I will read more of his works. Second, the book uses John Wesley Powell and his career as an exposition of the West, particularly its geology and climate. Powell isn't too much a major figure in our history and he deserves the recognition that Stegner gives him. His exciting passage down the Colorado River is what he is most known for in the popular mind, but it was his career in Washington as head of the Bureau of Ethnology and of the US Geodetic Survey that is most remarkable. Powell understood in an amazingly foresighted way the real issues facing the settlement and long-term use of the West. ("West" in this context is mainly the Colorado plateau.) Much fantastical thinking of the region existed in the mid and latter 19th century -- that it was a place where small-scale homestead farming without effort or toil was to be achieved. Powell knew that the key characteristic of the region is its aridity. The annual rainfall could not support farming or grazing without careful manipulation of the water resources from rivers and streams. He saw that unplanned development, especially under the control of speculating and greedy land conglomerates, would only bring ruin. His "Grand Plan" for cooperation among the users of the region's resources ran into the opposition of powerful forces that portrayed his aims as counter to the American notion of free-wheeling unrestrained exploitation. He never completely countered these checks on his vision, but many of his ideas finally took root in land use policy in the 20th century. The interplay of the politics, lobbying, economic motivation, science, bureaucracy, and more in Powell's time is strikingly (and depressingly) similar to the forces that govern today's political dynamics.

Also of great interest is Powell's scholarly work on the Native American population of the West. At the time of overt warfare between the US government and the native tribes of the West, Powell carried out a scientific study of the diverse elements of native culture, almost at the last moment when this was still possible. His contributions in the field preserve a view of native life that would have otherwise been lost.

Powell was a major force the the opening of the West between the plains and the Pacific coast. Stegner's book is an excellent way to learn about this remarkable man and deepen insights into this unique area of our country. ( )
2 vote stevesmits | May 21, 2013 |
Another of the greatest generation of independent self-made men that includes Sam Clemens, Abraham Lincoln.

Tells the amazing story of a 1-armed civil war veterans journey from the head of the colorado thru the grand canyon, in wide-waled row wooden rowboat, and what he found there. ( )
  weeziemae | Aug 12, 2009 |
No Westerner can say he understands the West until he has read this book about John Wesley Powell. I'm afraid water problems of the past will pale compared to those in the future, brought on not so much by climate change, but by ignoring the lessons Powell tried to teach us about the arid West. ( )
  co_coyote | Mar 24, 2008 |
This book was my introduction to Stegner and it hooked me on all his writing. It is essentially a biography of John Wesley Powell, a man primarily known for his exploration of the Colorado River. His river trips have an action-adventure feel, whereas his latter carreer explores the problems of aridity in the far west and how misguided federal ploicy has created the problems (tensions between water availability and land use) that still dog this section of the country today. Powell was an autodidactic scientist whose insights were profound, but largely ignored. ( )
  nemoman | Dec 24, 2007 |
3227. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner (read 7 Aug 1999) This is listed as the number 2 book on the list of the 100 best 20th century nonfiction books of the West, as picked by San Francisco Chronicle readers. It is mainly about John Wesley Powell and the good ideas he had. It was published in 1953 and seemed a bit dated, but it was a good book to read. ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 2, 2007 |
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On July 4, 1868, about the time when Henry Adams was turning back toward New York to face a new and sharply altered America after ten years of study and diplomacy in the service of the old, two men who would have been worth his attention as a historian were going about their business on the western edge of the Great Plains.
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John Wesley Powell took an expedition down the Colorado River and was later instrumental in getting accurate government surveys made.

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