Regionalism and the West

Robert L. Dorman examines the identity of the area left of the 100th meridian

The agrarian urge that has ever bothered the American soul is ascendant once again.

Blame it on trends wrought deep down in our humanity driven by the slow realization that climate change is upon us. Or maybe it's a similarly deep reaction to decades of religious devotion to unseen, all-knowing markets. Whatever the cause, the fact is that many of us, if we are truthful, dream at night of rural acreage. The brave avant garde has been growing its own kale and making its own cheese for several years now. This new agrarianism, with its attendant local gaze, has necessarily brought about a resurgence, whether conscious or not, of regionalism.

In his absorbing new book on its history in the West, scholar Robert Dorman defines regionalism as not only the "spatial conceptualization of a region," but also "self-identification with a region, or the feeling that one is a native, inhabitant, or otherwise has special ties to a particular region."

Such feelings in Westerners (those inhabitants of the "17 coterminous states located on and westward of the 100th meridian") have waxed and waned over the decades since the postbellum land rushes, but the attachment nearly disappeared in the Cold War era of nationalism and consolidation, according to Dorman. Technology and globalization could have easily killed (and may do so yet) the concept of American regionalism altogether, before the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession reminded everybody that boom and bust were better catchwords for the West than cowboy and cactus. From the 1980s to 2008, the Southwest, especially, became nothing more than a rich man's dormant view, an empty "postwestern" landscape awaiting the construction of an oversized climate-controlled dream house.

Despite these ups and downs, there have always been deep strains of regionalism in the West. At its core, the concept is about meaning, and that's what everybody wants. But meaning has often been troublesome in the West because so many of its most attractive creation stories are based on legends, lies and half-truths, and so many of its alleged successes can be qualified nearly out of existence. In many ways to be a Western native today is to be the left-over, fading offspring of myopic conquerors.

Much of the settlement of the West was driven on one level by a nationalist belief in manifest destiny, but on a more personal level the moving force was often the romantic Jeffersonian concept of agrarian republicanism. This term captures not only the lure of the small, self-sufficient farm, but also the cowboy on the range, perhaps even the mountain man with his fur traps. So many of us have this unshakeable belief that it is the land, and our attachment to it, that gives us meaning. This is regionalism at its most useful, though it can often have divergent effects in the real world. It has inspired the will to prevent the destruction of America's wilderness, and it has kept cattle on arid ranges that should have never welcomed them in the first place. It has led to both the destruction of Native American cultures and the scramble to preserve them. It filled up the Great Plains with stalwart, inspiring settlers and emptied it of the same after they ruined the grasslands with overproduction and invited the Dust Bowl.

In Hell of a Vision (which takes its name from the end of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove), Dorman leads a fascinating, 150-year tour through works of literature, essays, government reports and sociology texts relating to the agrarian and regionalist impulses in the West, which, unlike those of the South, grew out of all proportion and grasped the nation's imagination.

"The West and its agrarian archetypes, the cowboy and the pioneer, came to be seen as quintessentially American, part of the pantheon of the national civic religion," he writes. "The tourism, film, and publishing industries were critical to disseminating these western archetypes to the broader public. Yet the more widely shared these western archetypes became, the more generic and abstract—and disconnected to a specific place—they necessarily were."

And now we see this kind of romanticism rising again in the locavore movements of recent years. These new regionalist ideas may be good for the Southwest, a desert land that needs  a certain level of communal thinking to stay inhabited but that, perhaps more than any other subregion of the West, still believes to the point of absurdity in the radical individualism of the "agrarian archetypes." But so far the new agrarianism, while conservative in its heart, has been populated mostly by progressives and has inspired a small, hesitant but still very real move toward sustainability in food and energy production, and thus water use. Otherwise, this idyll cannot last.