The Mountain West: Interpreting the Folk Landscape

By Attebery, Jennifer Eastman | Western Folklore, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Mountain West: Interpreting the Folk Landscape


Attebery, Jennifer Eastman, Western Folklore


The Mountain West: Interpreting the Folk Landscape. By Terry G. Jordan, Jon T. Kilpinen, and Charles E Gritzner. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Pp. xii + 160, photographs, maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $35.95 cloth)

Terry G. Jordan's most recent cultural-geographical study of material culture in western North America will be of interest to folklorists specializing in vernacular architecture and to those interested in the West as a cultural region. In this book Jordan teams up with Jon T. Kilpinen and Charles F.

Gritzner, cultural geographers, like Jordan, who have published previously about western log architecture. Reviewing this volume, I find myself liking the end but not the means: The authors' conclusions regarding the West's complexity ring true to me, but their methodology and rejection of theory are problematic.

In their introduction Jordan, Kilpinen, and Gritzner argue for the interpretive superiority of cultural geography in addressing the "debate [between Turnerian and Webbian views] concerning the cultural roots of the region" (5). In answering the question of whether the West is continuous with the East or is a place of cultural innovations, they declare themselves unimpressed with the findings and methods of the New Western Historians, who "have added little to" this debate (5). Moreover, they claim also to "disdain social scientific theory, an opiate which only clouds the mind and distorts the observation" (8).

These disclaimers call into question their declaration that they can make "a straightforward reading and interpretation" of the western landscape (9). Is any "reading" possible which is not guided by theory, whether or not that theory is articulated? There is no need to be coy: The authors clearly are using cultural-ecological theory when they point to "cultural preadaptation" to explain why many eastern artifacts did not make it West (126), and more familiar cultural geographic theories, such as diffusion and the doctrine of first effective settlement, permeate the book.

The authors' method consists of sampling the "greater artifacts" still extant on the western landscape (9). These greater artifacts are log dwellings and outbuildings, wooden fences, and hay stackers, cribs, and shelters. The focus is not, then, on whole assemblages of artifacts, but rather on artifacts selected for their presumed ability to "mirror" the assemblages which may exist (131). Because the authors look for variation across geography rather than over time, their method lumps together artifacts dating from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s. …

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