The Last of True America; Westerner Fears Latest Culture Clash Will Erode Rural Self-Reliance

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Last of True America; Westerner Fears Latest Culture Clash Will Erode Rural Self-Reliance


Byline: Shepherd Pittman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The American West, the last truly American culture, is disappearing rapidly, Chilton Williamson Jr. says. In his new book, "The Hundredth Meridian," he describes this problem and recounts his own adventures in the West.

Mr. Williamson is a former editor for National Review and author of several books about the American West. He is senior editor for books for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and lives near Laramie, Wyo. The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mr. Williamson:

Question: You say enmity between the East and the West is a matter of opposing cultures. What are those cultures?

Answer: The first, of course, is the old conflict in American culture that goes back to the 19th century at least. ...

As the West was settled and America moved West, the divide opened between the polite, genteel culture of the East Coast, North and South, and the pioneer culture moving West. This has been a major subject in American literature from the 19th century beginning with Fennimore Cooper. And Mark Twain was very involved in that conflict, too. [Pulitzer Prize-winning Western historian] Bernard DeVoto wrote about what he called "paleface" versus "redskin" culture. That's the basis of the East-West split today, paleface and redskin. ... The redskin culture would be Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and the trans-Appalachian culture of the frontier, whereas paleface would be Henry James, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton. ...

To this has been added in the last century, as America becomes more urbanized, the clash between urbanized culture and [rural] culture. And finally, the environmental movement versus the non-environmental, anti-environmental politics and culture of the Rocky Mountain West. ...

Q: Why are these cultures clashing now?

A: Because so much of the environmental movement comes from the East, [from people] who don't live out here and who want to preserve the West as, essentially, a playground for rich Easterners. Needless to say, those who make their living out here - miners and ranchers and so forth - are opposed to having the West turned into a theme park, as opposed to a preserve. Now there are pockets of Eastern culture embedded in the West - Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Santa Fe, New Mexico - so the enemy, so to speak, has a foothold in the West.

Q: A lot of people see environmentalism as a good thing.

A: I do, too. As I say in the beginning of the book, I'm not an uppercase "E" environmentalist. Environmentalism is a highly ideological movement and cause at this point. And I want to see as much of the West preserved as possible. What they really want to do is put Westerners out of their livelihood. They want to shut down ranching, take cattle off the public lands. Once the ranchers are shut down and effectively expelled from the land, they'll be succeeded by developers who will put in theme parks and suburbs, which is far more destructive and painful to see than anything the ranchers can do. ... The environmentalists essentially want to shut down mining and logging in the West. …

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