Friday, November 23, 2007

Realism in short supply in Western histories

In her New York Times' Review of "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Aagainst Chinese-Americans" by Jean Pfaelzer," Patricia Nelson Limerick said this:

Thinking realistically about the history of the American West easily lands on the list of this nation’s top 10 least favorite pastimes. Hundreds of historians have invested their life force in pointing out the inaccuracies in the image of the 19th-century West as a place of colorful romance and innocent adventure. “No thanks,” the believers reliably respond. “We like our version a lot better.”

Limerick, faculty director at the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado, nailed it. Not only is "thinking trealistically about the history of the American West" one of the "top 10 least favorite pastimes" in the nation, it's also true in Wyoming. This state had its own rampages against Chinese-Americans during the the period Pfaelzer addresses: 1850-1906. There was the infamous Chinese massacre in Rock Springs, in which disgruntled European immigrants murdered their equally disgruntled Chinese cousins. Disgruntlement and disenchantment were rfie among immigrants to the American West.

Pfaelzer writes:

“Whites saw in Chinese workers precisely what they hated about their own lives: hard and underpaid work, long hours, poor living conditions and a dearth of women.” In other words, white workers made the Chinese their scapegoats because of the similarities, rather than the differences, between them.

"Driven Out" is one of this year's "100 Notable Books" in the New York Times. I haven't read it, but now it's on my list thanks to fine review by Ms. Limerick. For entire list, go to

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