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Hart Williams

History Reconsidered

"Grassland," by Richard Manning, Viking, 306 pp., $22.95.

There are no two ways around it: Richard Manning is a self-righteous jerk. But that doesn't mean that what he says isn't true, nor that we should not be listening. We should.

"Grassland" is a grass'-eye-view of that 40% of the continent which is covered in grasslands, mostly prairie. And, Manning understands the prairie very well, if disjointedly. The problem, alluded to above, is in developing a filter against the continuous background hiss of self-flagellation.

Everything the Evil White Man did was terrible, AWFUL! And, everybody from Jefferson to Lincoln to Powell (explorer of the Colorado) is just pathetically dumb, in Manning's eyes. Why, heck, if he'd only been there -- one begins to feel -- Manning would have fixed everything and there wouldn't be any problems. Or whatever: it is obnoxious, it is self-indulgent, and, perhaps damningly, it is needless. The grasslands can be brought back, Manning asserts, and quickly, too. He catalogues the interwoven politics/history/botany/ecology of the grasslands as tightly as the roots of the prairie sod.

Manning's passion about the subject is evident, and, as noted before, intrusive. Ay, there's the rub: reading this book is something akin to trying to pluck rubies from a pit of snakes. The valuable material here is overwhelming; Manning used to be a Montana newspaper reporter, and he has done his homework. Perhaps there is something about living up in Lolo Pass that unhinges a reporter's objectivity, the historian's obligation to fairness in the assessment of the dead. Whatever it might be called, this quality is absent in "Grassland."

The cattle that graze the West are the wrong cattle. They are fat English and Scottish cattle, ill-adapted to the aridity of the prairie. The longhorns the Spanish brought thrived in the wild--like the buffalo, the bison--and arid prairie. Things crop up in this book all the time. It is we call "food for thought."

Most of the country between Missouri and the east face of the Rockies was once called, with some justice, "The Great American Desert." Manning drives that desolate country, reporting on encounters with scientists in Tucson, Arizona and retirees wandering in and out of the casinos of Deadwood, South Dakota. Grassland, Manning argues persuasively, is the heart of the continent, and if it dies, there will be hell to pay.

There are histories of the myth of the American yeoman farmer, the Homestead Act's prairie-grab; of the invention, by John Deere, of a plow that could cut through the dense roots of the prairie sod, and the distinctive cracking sound it made.

There is a wealth of good material here. There is also a terrible-seeming confusion as to how to tell the story. The author seems to switch from approach to approach, willy-nilly, without a lot of forethought as to what to say, to what has been said, and what he's trying to say.

The problem alluded to earlier has to do with a rather widespread form of psychological self-abuse. Let's take an example: White Man's Smallpox killed the majority of many Indian tribes, far more devastating than the actual armed conflicts between indigenous aboriginal peoples of Turtle Island and Northern White European Male Patriarchy. Aha!

Well, the problem of judging history is that it is what it was. It cannot be helped, nor can it be changed. We may look at history, but we may only learn from it. It is very easy to judge history, but that usually works out to the same as betting on yesterday's horse race. Now, we know who was right, and who was wrong, and all the rest, but "history" is not like that.

Mr. Manning thinks that the characters of history were idiots, and perhaps they were. In one case, he is judging an eighteenth century scientist by mid-1990s scientific standards. Of course! What else did you expect? More importantly: what else COULD one expect? And therein lies the opportunity to learn from history. Jefferson was as certain that he was right as Manning is (Jefferson perhaps less so). But the reader keeps running into this: blaming a man for ruining a micro-ecological botanical system, who wouldn't know a micro-biological ecosystem if it bit him, and who had no cultural referent or concept to explain to him WHAT that was (that bad eco-thing).

We must be very careful in our interpretation of history. We may know what the mechanism and organism of the Black Plague was, but THEY didn't, and their actions were predicated on WHAT THEY KNEW. You see?

Jefferson, Lincoln, Powell (and various others Manning disapproves so heartily of) made the best decisions they could with the knowledge that they had available to them. Why, Manning is so contemptuous of Powell that he says Powell was a lousy boatman, losing two of his crew. Well, Manning concedes, that was unrelated, but he doesn't tell why, and leaves the assassination by implication to stand.

This is not history. Manning already concedes that, even today, seasoned white-water rafters would think twice before taking on the Colorado (assuming that it could be done, which several dams now prevent). Powell's party lost many of their provisions early on, granted, but they were good boatmen. They made most of the length of the Colorado, and when, at one point, two decided to leave the party, they climbed half-a-mile to the canyon rim and were immediately killed by an Indian group they came upon.

But a poor boatman? And why bother to comment at all? Sniping at a dead explorer seems a safe target, but at least get your facts straight. And there, gentle reader, is the pitfall. It is very easy to twist history into whatever you want to see. The dead are dead, and Napoleon may be your hero or your devil (ask a Frenchman and an Englishman, even to this day, and see what answers you get) but history bids us to see that here was a person whose actions created something of the world we live in.

We are not asked to love nor to hate Napoleon. What history demands of us is that we SEE Napoleon, all cracks and flaws showing, and all lessons that might be learned. That is what history teaches us. To twist it into a personal novel of heroes and villains, of cassandras and noble martyrs is NOT to see history, and not to learn thereby.

And that is what we have in "Grassland." On the one hand, Manning's eye is sharp, his homework and legwork is done, he has a good grasp of, and usage of his language, and, should he settle down, he might be a major writer. This is, in truth, powerful stuff, but a strange botched job of a good story, shot through with enmities whose source we can only guess at. But we, the readers, should not have to guess at the author's motives or purposes. That should have been his job when he first sat down to write, and it should have been the publisher's job to catch before it went to the printer's.

One may applaud the author's ends but not his means. If you must read it, I can only say that I am torn between saying, "Read it with a grain of salt," and "Something with this information will come out that is not so difficult on the reader." It is difficult, but not for the reasons one might think.

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