Finding West Out West | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Finding West Out West

Finding West Out West

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"I have never been able to refrain from telling easterners that Mount Washington, their pride, could be set down in the Grand Canyon—in a ditch—and never show above the rim," wrote Wallace Stegner in his 1950 essay , "Why I Like the West."

Stegner, who until his death in 1993 was founder and director of the graduate writing program at Stanford University, has written numerous books about the American West and is widely regarded as the dean of Western scholarship. In the above-mentioned essay he reluctantly admits that the characteristics commonly attributed to the Westerner are no more real than those of the extras you might find on a Hollywood film set: the Gary Cooper look-alikes that eat beef well done and fried potatoes for breakfast, while pronouncing their r's hard and fretting about crowding when the population rises to more than ten to the square mile. Though Stegner rather enjoyed the myth himself and cites a "long career of western chauvinism," the West is, he says, many Wests. "The plains are one kind, cow country is another, mining country is another, Indian country, Mormon country, the Northwest lumber empire, the industrialized agriculture of California's central valley and the lower Rio Grande and parts of Arizona, are all economically distinct." They differ in climate, topography, racial composition, history and orientation.

This essay, first published in Tomorrow magazine, can be found in a posthumous collection, Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West (Henry Holt, 1998). We recommend you pick up a copy before you take a trip out West. Not to be missed, as well, are Stegner's other compelling works, including Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), which describes in harrowing detail the first and tumultuous descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyonl. We've also put together a wide selection of maps, and guides to ghost towns.

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