- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

The American West, the last truly American culture, is disappearing rapidly, Chilton Williamson Jr. says. In his new book, “The Hundredth Meridian,” he describes this problem and recounts his own adventures in the West.

Mr. Williamson is a former editor for National Review and author of several books about the American West. He is senior editor for books for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and lives near Laramie, Wyo. The following are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mr. Williamson:

Question: You say enmity between the East and the West is a matter of opposing cultures. What are those cultures?

Answer: The first, of course, is the old conflict in American culture that goes back to the 19th century at least. …

As the West was settled and America moved West, the divide opened between the polite, genteel culture of the East Coast, North and South, and the pioneer culture moving West. This has been a major subject in American literature from the 19th century beginning with Fennimore Cooper. And Mark Twain was very involved in that conflict, too. [Pulitzer Prize-winning Western historian] Bernard DeVoto wrote about what he called “paleface” versus “redskin” culture. That’s the basis of the East-West split today, paleface and redskin. … The redskin culture would be Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and the trans-Appalachian culture of the frontier, whereas paleface would be Henry James, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton. …

To this has been added in the last century, as America becomes more urbanized, the clash between urbanized culture and [rural] culture. And finally, the environmental movement versus the non-environmental, anti-environmental politics and culture of the Rocky Mountain West. …

Q: Why are these cultures clashing now?

A: Because so much of the environmental movement comes from the East, [from people] who don’t live out here and who want to preserve the West as, essentially, a playground for rich Easterners. Needless to say, those who make their living out here — miners and ranchers and so forth — are opposed to having the West turned into a theme park, as opposed to a preserve. Now there are pockets of Eastern culture embedded in the West — Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Santa Fe, New Mexico — so the enemy, so to speak, has a foothold in the West.

Q: A lot of people see environmentalism as a good thing.

A: I do, too. As I say in the beginning of the book, I’m not an uppercase “E” environmentalist. Environmentalism is a highly ideological movement and cause at this point. And I want to see as much of the West preserved as possible. What they really want to do is put Westerners out of their livelihood. They want to shut down ranching, take cattle off the public lands. Once the ranchers are shut down and effectively expelled from the land, they’ll be succeeded by developers who will put in theme parks and suburbs, which is far more destructive and painful to see than anything the ranchers can do. … The environmentalists essentially want to shut down mining and logging in the West.

Q: What does America stand to lose if the West is altered?

A: It stands to lose the oldest part of the American culture that exists in this country, which is to say rural self-reliance. The West represents what remains of the old America. And as it’s progressively urbanized and suburbanized, and prevented from being a real culture — which is to say a living culture, which is to say a working culture — by having its livelihood taken away, it will have its culture taken away from it and stop being American.

Q: You’ve traveled extensively. Do you have a favorite place in the West?

A: Wyoming is really my favorite place. But there are parts of the Southwest I love. I spent a lot of time down there. I lived in Las Cruces [New Mexico] for two years. I didn’t like Las Cruces itself, but I love northern New Mexico. … I love most of Arizona, except the developed parts. The Southwest Boothill [territory] of New Mexico is beautiful, and the Southeast corner of Arizona is all former Apache country, and that’s wonderful … it’s beautiful. The border country is extremely interesting. The Mexican presence, combined with what’s left of the Indian presence, combined with the old ranching culture … the bringing together, the simultaneous presence of all these cultures makes it a very interesting region. …

Wyoming is mainly visited in its so-called “beauty” spots by those who don’t care for the rest of the state, which is largely high plains, largely upland sagebrush plains, which I think are lovely. Most of the country comes here to go to Jackson, Yellowstone Park and Devil’s Tower. They largely overlook the rest of the state, even if they have to drive across it.

Q: You write that the Rocky Mountain West is one of the only portions of the U.S. that is American, as opposed to modern. What is the difference?

A: Modern isn’t anything. It isn’t American, it isn’t English, it isn’t Italian. It has no characteristics. It certainly isn’t civilization, and may not even be culture. But the old America is real, and that is the West. The old South used to be real, and that’s been modernized to the point where it isn’t a civilization anymore.

Modern is a state of mind more than it’s a state of development. …

Q: What can urban East Coast Americans learn from the West?

A: Well, when I came out here, I was completely green. I was raised in New York City and went to the Trinity School in Manhattan, but when I was 5 my parents bought a rural farm in Vermont. My sister and I spent summers there. … I had a rural upbringing as well as a city upbringing, which allowed me to adapt very quickly to the West. Still, when I came out here, I was very green and didn’t know about a lot of things.

I think they can learn experience, they can learn reality, they can learn what it is to be male. To ride a horse, shoot straight, tell the truth. Simply to explore the reality of nature, closeness to nature, to learn something about physicality instead of intellectuality.

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