Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Monotony, The Eternal Sameness

The Spring issue of Western Historical Quarterly has a trio of excellent articles on historical interpretations of landscapes. One of them deals with Spanish and Mexican views of the Pacific Coast and is richly illustrated.

Another article, “How to see Colorado: The Federal Writers’ Project, American Regionalism, and the “Old New Western History” by Susan Schulten, examines how Depression-era projects interpreted the western landscape in a new manner that set foundations for future regional histories.
The guides broke from the prevailing traditions of travel literature ... and substituted lean and unvarnished language to describe the western landscape, featuring not just the majestic peaks of the Rockies, but also the bitter dust of Colarado’s eastern plains. This was a self-conscious attempt by the national editors to ground American identity in a more “authentic” view of the landscape, region, and by extension, the nation.
In all the states, the national office collaborated with state officials and locals to gather information on a broad range of topics. The goals of the project -- to produce guides in a documentary style -- conflicted with the aesthetics that looked at the environment through the prisms of poetry and metaphysics.

The FWP wanted to represent Colorado more than the Rocky Mountains. The guidebooks examined all parts of the state, giving equal space to areas that were not tourist attractions. Plurality was also extended to the social realm, depicting the diverse racial and social makeup of Coloradans.

However, the native Coloradans produced the descriptive style that the FWP wanted to avoid, so the national office changed the language.
Consider the description of the areas between Paoli and Sterling, in the state’s northeast corner, written by Coloradans and submitted to the national office. ‘On either hand [of the highway] the brown prairies, interspersed with grain fields which are golden in the late summer, stretches away into illimitable, purple tinged distances. The monotony, the eternal sameness of this landscape is lightened by the intangible mystery which touches the unbounded level vistas of the west.”

The nation editors lamented the tendency of locals to write in a florid style engendered by years of exposure to romantic travel literature. In response, they stripped down the language to match the prevailing wisdom of contemporary agricultural reforms: ‘Level broad prairies, interspersed with grain fields, border both sides of the route. ... To be a successful dry farmer, one must understand the principles of water movement in the soil ... .
The article goes on to look at how the project gave a shot in the arm to the state's historical institutions.

Check out the Federal Writers Project at the Library of Congress. Also, the state keeps an extensive collection of development and works projects in Colorado.

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At 12:22 AM, Anonymous eb said...

The description of the "eternal sameness" of the plains reminds me of the opening of Borges' story, “Utopia of a Tired Man”:

“No two hills are alike, but everywhere on earth plains are one and the same. I was making my way in such country, asking myself, not that it really mattered, if this were Oklahoma or Texas or the part of the Argentine that literary men called the pampa.”

At 10:04 AM, Blogger David Sucher said...

Btw, so far as I can tell the articles you mention in WHQ are not now/won't be on-line. Or did I miss something?

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Your are correct -- JSTOR does not carry current journals.


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