Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Webb we weave with: TR, Douglas Brinkley, and a Canyon

No secrets: This entry is primarily a review and commentary (part I) upon Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior  Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, a 2009 800+-page portrayal of TR as our premier conservationist President. 
I wanted to learn what an acclaimed historian could teach me about TR, giving me a broader context, a deeper understanding of how he achieved such an exalted place in American environmental policy, and what a less specialized but more formidable researcher than I could tell me about TR and the Canyon. I therefore read lots of the parts that told the overall story, skimmed other parts, and worked over the Grand Canyon references intensively.
When I left TR and the Canyon a number of entries ago, it was with the sense that though he is deservedly the patron political touchstone for us Canyon advocates, his record was unbalanced--rhetoric over action--, and I was left with one significant mystery: Why did TR never push for National Park status for the Grand Canyon.
Most of my research has been in government papers; I have read little of Roosevelt's own writings, for instance. So I was looking to Brinkley for a full portrait of hows and whys and whats of THE conservationist President. That would include an understanding of TR's thinking about the Canyon and what he did and did not do for it. 
No secrets: There is no new material on the Canyon for me; Brinkley's is both a shallow and a high-falutin', tendentious presentation. He uses secondary and tertiary sources, and spends entirely too much space on unsubstantiated (and too-often dubious) general speculation about what TR's thinking was. "Shallow"  because there is no original research or critical thinking about sources. His history of TR's proclaiming of the Monument in 1908 does not even cite Donald Hughes' In the House of Stone and Light, but relies on Stephen Pyne's essay and Robert Webb's book of photo comparisons; both valuable in their own right, but not anything like primary sources for the political history of Grand Canyon National Monument. 
Here is an example of what I find irksome. The Monument creation is written about in detail on pp 754-8. On 755, B is ranting on about TR as impatient and self-confident, ready to wake up Congress which was "drowsy".  And: "Congress was too scared to move, worried about the reaction from miners and ranchers who were against any alteration that would limit their access to public land." For this, he cites Webb, p 208: "Miners and ranchers opposed any change that would threaten their access to public lands". That's it. A paraphrase, and partial at that, of an undocumented non-primary source, about something that ought to have struck a critical historian as strange: Why did TR do nothing between 1903 (his big speech) and 1908? Why did he not have a national park bill introduced? His successor Taft's administration did. Powell, as a bureaucrat, got a Senator to introduce a bill. But not TR. Strikes me that Brinkley's undocumented and speculative narrative suggests not that Congress was drowsy and scared, but that TR was.

Lets go back. pp 450-2. I will summarize some. Brinkley has TR in 1902 as fervent enthusiast of national parks, and his "first choice for a new national park was the Grand Canyon plateau".

Hmm, lets digress: does that sound strange to you, too-- "Grand Canyon plateau". Nobody ever says that--lets go save the Grand Canyon plateau. Yes, the Canyon is Grand in part because of the plateaus it is dug into, but, the "Grand Canyon plateau"? I suspicion that B has a tin ear. I dont think he has seen the Canyon, or spent much time talking with people who have. Try this (528): "If Roosevelt had done nothing else as president, his advocacy on behalf of preserving the canyon might well have put him in the top ranks of American presidents. Middle Granite Gorge, the Redwall Cliffs of Havasu Falls, Kaibab Plateau, Marble Canyon, Mount Trumball--all topographically part of what would become the Grand Canyon National Park--became treasure places that miners or loggers would never lay to waste."
Wha?! Who was that masked man? THAT was the Solo Ranger! 
Its a bird! Its a plane! No, its … Bigguy!!

Ok, a bit of deconstruction: As far as the first sentence in that quote goes, it is conventional sounding puffery that loses its punch when it says "might well have"; = or might not have. If B had said: "preserving the canyon PUTS him", then we have something muscular TR wouldve appreciated, But "might"?
Then that list, a real head scratcher. The Granite Gorges are quite wonderful; the middle is the least of the three. The Redwall limestone is one of the great markers throughout the Canyon. Havasu Falls and the falls in Havasu Canyon are effusively celebrated. But "Redwall Cliffs" of "Havasu Falls"? Thats tin ear stuff. And Mount TrumbAll -- yes, thats the way he spelled it. I mean, even I have never advocated adding Mount Trumbull to the Park, and of course, it is not in "what would become the Grand Canyon National Park". Though the biggest groaner there is to try to grab away Havasu Falls from the Havasupai again after their great effort to get it back, and into their expanded reservation.

And what do we do with "treasure places"? What a meaningless idea in the context of the Grand Canyon. Much less in talking about TR who, I would suppose, was impressed as most day visitors are, with the immensity of all he could see from a rim viewpoint during his 1903 afternoon there. Not to mention the unfunny joke of listing the "Kaibab Plateau" that "loggers would never lay to waste". (And yes, the Park did eventually end up with the southern end of the Kaibab, but not in TR's Monument; and fine as that is, we shouldnt be blind to the 50-year clear-cutting spree that went on over most of the Kaibab, 

Picky? Try this one. TR goes on the train to the Canyon for the afternoon in 1903. He has heard that the Santa Fe had planned to build a hotel on the rim near the end of the line, but has dropped the idea. So TR includes this in his speech:  I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe Railroad in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the cañon. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the cañon. The Santa Fe opened El Tovar in 1905. Further down on page 528 from the quote above, B is writing about the 1903 visit: "At the comfortable El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim, Roosevelt … told a reporter for the New York Sun that it was one of the 'great sights every American should see'". Of course, this quote to the Sun is from the famous speech, just after his complimenting the railroad's "wisdom" in not building the non-existent hotel TR is talking to the reporter in.

Or this from p. 529: "But the Grand Canyon was the vortex of America's four great deserts…and this explains why dozens of cactus species…appeared all around him on the rim." Or maybe it was the spinning vortex that so dizzied TR that he thought he was sitting in a comfortable non-existent hotel surrounded by dozens of cactus in the Disney cartoon: "Mr Roosevelt Visits the Grand Canyon". In the next scene of which, he went out and dropped a huge monument on the heads of the miners and ranchers while Congress, scared of stepping on all that cactus, drowsed in the corner.

Enough? P. 529: "Insisting on seeing the sun set from the Grand Canyon's north rim, the warm sky ablaze wih ragged bands of orange, pink, and purple, Roosevelt leaned over the ledge to soak in the drama. His train didn't leave for Barstow until six o'clock that evening, when the dusk would have thickened. Night comes to northern Arizona fast, as if someone were blowing out a candle." Very, very fast. He was there in early May, and right now in mid-March, the sun is setting about 6:45. But seeing that blazing warm drama two hours before sunset was nothing compared to the way TR could stretch from the yet-to-be-built El Tovar over to the north rim to see that sun go down. But as B reminds us, and reminds us, and reminds us, he was Roosevelt, and "accustomed to pushing against limits", p 754-5, so "He would just declare something and let the chips fall where they may. And if Congress and Arizonan lawyers were confused about the Grand Canyon's irreplaceable aesthetic values, he would make them see it." All they had to do was stretch their necks from the seats where they drowsed, avoid stepping on all that cactus, not to mention the chips flying from the Kaibab loggers, and admire the ragged Arizona bands before someone blew out the candle. 

And you know, not to get personal, but the picture of Douglas Brinkley reminds me a bit of a Texan I once sold the Canyon to. Cheap.

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