Sunday, November 16, 2008

Icons of the American West: From Cowgirls to Silicon Valley. Edited by Gordon Morris Bakken. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, July 2008. 2 Vols. Cloth: ISBN 978-0313341489, $175.00. 640 pages.
Review by Douglas C. Macleod, Jr., State University of New York, Albany
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)

Icons of the American West: From Cowgirls to Silicon Valley is a somewhat sanitary anthology where historians, professionals, independent scholars, and graduate students assemble to provide a plethora of historical information on such subjects as Annie Oakley, John Muir, Disneyland, the Sierra Club, and Las Vegas (to name just a few). The two volumes, edited by Gordon Morris Bakken, provide a flawed journey through time from the primitive beginnings of what has been deemed (by these texts) the American West, to the American West of modern days; these modern days precede the more politically charged actual American West of 2008.Bakken’s volumes succeed when the authors discuss “human” icons of the American West. Most notable are the earlier essays in Volume 1: “Buffalo Bill Cody” by Jennifer Mizzell, “George Armstrong Custer” by Shannon D. Smith, “John Muir” by Kenneth W. McMullen, and “Annie Oakley” by Glenda Riley. All four articles are extremely informative, providing the reader with a clear picture of the fascinating lives that each of these American citizens led during a time of struggle and/or war. McMullen’s and Smith’s articles, in particular, help flesh out the lives of two men who, although diametrically opposed to each other as far as their respective life’s work is concerned (Custer the imperfect but funny military man, and Muir, the Al Gore of his time), are important figureheads from which America’s younger generation can learn. Also, it would be remiss not to point out John J. Stanley’s essay “Eugene Warren Biscailuz,” a brilliant piece in Volume 2 on the trials and tribulations of one of Los Angeles’s most influential, modern-day lawmen.
Where Icons of the American West seems to lose focus is when it discusses the iconic nature of “the place” or “the thing.” Although all are well-written, many of the articles tend not to prove that “the place” or “the thing” being written about is an icon. Such articles like “Bozeman, Montana” by Elwood Bakken, “Disneyland” by Solaiman M. Fazel, “Sierra Club” by Brandon Davis, and “Hetch Hechy” by Kenneth W. McMullen, provide the reader with brochure-like information, but end up doing just that and nothing else; they do not implicitly or explicitly explain why these “places” or “things” are iconic.Keeping that in mind, Icons of the American West thus (as two overall texts) reads only as fact; both volumes do not adequately question why these particular people, places, and things are iconic. Even the more successful articles state things matter-of-factly. One thinks of Susan Tschabrun’s article “Bill Gates,” where she writes about Gates’s legal issues, but with no grittiness; her article is very sanitary, as is the text in which it is published. One also thinks of Paul R. Spitzzeri’s essay “Banditry in California, 1850-1875,” which, although competent, does not provide the reader with a significant amount of descriptive detail. To put it another way, where is the essay on the O.J. Simpson trial? the essay on Los Angeles street gangs? the essay on Charles Manson? the essay on illegal immigrants? the essay on Alcatraz? the essay on the underground cultures of San Francisco? the essay on the San Francisco earthquake of 1902? the essay on Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla? Culturally speaking, rather than editing essays on Ronald Reagan (Caroline Owen) and Ann Willis Richards (Scott Behen), why not include essays on figures like Antonio Villaraigosa or Bill Richardson? on the significance of San Francisco’s version of Chinatown? Also missing are essays on Hollywood (of which there is only a brief mention in Owen’s article on Reagan)--the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood icons of the past or the present. All of these topics would have made the volumes better-rounded and more culturally diverse.
To Bakken’s credit, he did add essays on American Indian culture (“Indian Casinos” by Lisa E. Emmerich, “Geronimo,” “Chief Joseph,” and “Sacagawea” by Vanessa Gunther). He also added an essay on female politicians by Danielle Moon (“Female Politicians”), an essay that (unfortunately) was published too soon, in that the incorporation of Sarah Palin to the work would have made for an interesting read. The entire volume, in fact, would have benefited from an essay on the new political Civil War taking place in America today: the “elitist East” (Obama and Biden ticket) versus the “idyllic West” (McCain and Palin ticket). But, through no fault of their own, editors and publishers cannot predict the future. The same goes for book reviewers. So one cannot say that Icons of the American West will be successful as a college textbook. For History departments: most likely. The volumes are very much a success when evaluating them as containing significant historical documents. For other areas within the Humanities: most likely not. For the volumes to be more successful on that front, Bakken should have picked or sought more diverse topics to add to his volumes. For one to be an icon, or for something to be iconic, he, she, or it does not necessarily have to be influential in a positive way; nor does he, she, or it have to come from a certain type of background. All things and people of cultural power, positive, negative, or otherwise, should be considered iconic.

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