Convergence, California, and the Newest Western History

By Aron, Stephen | California History, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Convergence, California, and the Newest Western History


Aron, Stephen, California History


Convergence: "a way of seeing the large, evolving story of the American West as an interwoven tapestry of cultures and peoples, and a way of understanding how their stories are connected to one another--and to us." (1)

Convergence as a way of interpreting Western history has molded much recent scholarship, becoming, perhaps, the signature approach of Western historians in the last decade. Indeed, the accent on convergences and on the complex weave of cross-cultural connections that these interactions have generated distinguishes this "newest Western history" from its predecessor, the "new Western history."

As a cultural crossroads par excellence, California has moved to the fore in this newest Western history. That was less the case in new Western histories, whose regionalist vision, often tied to aridity, relegated California (or at least coastal and northern California) to the margins. Yet, with historians' focus now turned to demographic diversity and the multiple intersections at which cultures met and mingled, California's importance becomes inescapable. As Walter Nugent recognizes in his 1999 survey of the peopling of the region, California has been and remains "fundamentally western ... at the edge of the West and at its center, all at once." In Nugent's "story of its people," and in much scholarship about the West that has been produced in the last ten years, Californians command attention for the variety of their origins and for the ways in which their stories link to one another and to the world. (2)

THE OLD AND THE NEW

What was labeled the new Western history surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s, setting itself against an older Western history whose roots date back a century to Frederick Jackson Turner's famed 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In that piece (and subsequent writings), Turner insisted that the settlement of successive frontiers explained American development. He and his disciples treated the West as synonymous with westward expansion, regarding the U.S. Census Bureau's reported closing of the frontier in 1890 as the endpoint of Western history. (3)

By contrast, new Western historians dismissed the utility of the frontier concept and substituted a regional definition that limited the latitude of what was West. Rather than following the course of westward expansion--tracking the process of settling successive frontiers across the continent as Turnerians had done--new Western historians confined their attention to the region that is today generally considered the American West, roughly the western half of the United States. While restricting their geographic vision, new Western historians extended the field's chronology by opening up to inquiry the history of the West in the twentieth century, something historians of the frontier had tended to ignore.

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Old and new also split on the meaning, message, and moral of the Western past. Where the old Western history heralded the blessings of American expansion, new Western historians condemned the ecological despoliations and cultural dislocations that attended the extension of European and American colonialism and the spread of industrial capitalism. Where the old saluted rugged pioneers, the new downplayed the virtue of individualism and disputed the myth of self-reliance, emphasizing instead the leading role that the federal government played in the conquest, colonization, and consolidation of the American West. And where the old put white male pioneers alone on center stage, the new widened the spotlight to reveal an astonishingly multiethnic cast of men and women. (4)

Combined, these distinctions supplanted an older, monocultural interpretation with a multicultural one and fundamentally changed the complexion of Western history. We now take as a starting point that the West is and has long been home to a racial and ethnic diversity that surpassed the East's population mix. …

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Convergence, California, and the Newest Western History
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