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Review of Lions of the West by Robert Morgan

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Southern History, The South, Writing on January 31, 2012 at 6:46 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at the Southern Literary Review.

Good histories don’t just tell stories; they make arguments.  Robert Morgan’s arguments in Lions of the West, subtle though they are, run as follows: historians and storytellers cannot help but view dramatic shifts of history as products of the actions of famous individuals; nevertheless, what happens in the course of history is attributable to numerous common folk acting independently and with disparate motivations.  Even the most comprehensive history cannot tell the stories of all these individuals, each of whom, in the narrative of the American West, could be numbered among the great “lions.” 

“While it is understandable,” Morgan explains, “that we see history mostly in terms of the deeds of a few, our grasp of what actually happened will be flawed and limited if we do not consider the story of the almost invisible many who made the notable deeds possible, even inevitable.”  Despite this claim, Morgan seems taken by the Great Man theory of history, and one of the epigrams to his book, which gets repeated in the Prologue, is Emerson’s remark that there is “properly no history; only biography.”

Morgan’s stated purpose is to “create a living sense of the westward expansion of the United States through brief biographies of some of the men involved.”  In realizing this goal, he offers a nod to other popular historians and storytellers such as Joseph J. Ellis, Gordon S. Wood, and David McCullough.  Each of these men writes histories free of the monotony and tendentious urgency of academic historians, yet each is also committed to facts and small details as indicia of greater narrative patterns. 

Morgan admits, as he must, that Lions of the West is, at best, “only a partial story.”  That’s not a shortcoming peculiar to Morgan’s narrative but a reality of human experience: all histories, like all memories, are partial.  Morgan himself submits that “written history is distortion through selection,” and that by its nature “narrative can represent only by implication, explicit about some parts, suggesting the many.”  No history could recount all the constituent parts that make up the whole; no history, in other words, could recreate the past.  For that reason, an author’s values and priorities are reflected in the subjects he or she chooses to undertake. 

Morgan’s values and priorities can be gleaned from his decision to profile ten individuals whose lives and toils characterize the American West in all its outlandishness and glory: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), David (“Davy”) Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.  Of these, all but Chapman and Adams maintained significant ties to the South or would have considered themselves, or by others would have been considered, Southerners. Read the rest of this entry »

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