THE PROBLEM: NO CONSISTENT DEFINITION
In 1971, the American regional geographer D. W Meinig published
his well-received and now highly regarded monographic study, Southwest:
Three Peoples in Geographical Change, 1500-1970, a book focusing
on the historical geography of the "American Southwest." In this work,
Meinig bluntly stated the basic problem related to the region's identity:
"The Southwest is a distinctive place to the American mind but a somewhat
blurred place on American maps, which is to say that everyone
knows that there is a Southwest but there is little agreement as to just
where it is." Much-respected Southwest bibliographer T. M. Pearce concurred:
"The 'Southwest' is a term more easily felt and understood than
"There are regions in the United States," historian John Caughey
wrote, "-New England, the South, and the Great Plains, for example-
which have fixed and obvious boundaries and therefore exactness of
meaning. But the term Southwest... is by contrast a variable which has
meant almost all things to all men.... And, although there is a Southwest
to and for which Nature does certain things differently than for
other parts of the United States, its geographical boundaries are blurred
rather than sharp, and ordinary maps do not make it clear."
In his work, Meinig summarized the duality of the "Southwest's"
identity. It is, quite simply, both a place and a state of mind, never the
same place to two people at the same time and often not the same place
in any one person's mind at different times.
Nearly everyone who writes about "the Southwest" appears to feel
compelled, even obligated, to define it very early. "Prudence," wrote
John Caughey, "suggests that anyone proposing to talk about this region
should begin by searching for a definition." This gesture, at once a
caveat and a rationalization, suggests an insecure and defensive attitude
concerning the matter, and it exemplifies the lack of agreement on the
Many have tried to tell us where their particular Southwest is:
Who can say precisely where it begins? Rolling down U.S. 54 to
junction with U.S. 66 at Tucumcari, I saw the Southwest gradually
appear, as the land grew more barren and beautiful; and by the
time I had entered New Mexico and was climbing steadily into the
Upper Sonoran life-zone, to piñion and juniper and even higher to
ponderosa pine at Flagstaff, I sensed around me that vast complex
of mineral mountains, saguaro and mesquite desert, and those
mostly subterranean rivers-the Gila, the San Juan, and the Bill
Withams-all seeking union with the water-course of all the Southwest,
that old canyon-carving, silt-laden, turbine-turning, cropnurturing,
gulf-bound Rio Colorado. The Mesa Verde, Shiprock,
and the Grand Canyon to the north; the descent to Lower Sonoran
in the south, the ruinous smelters at Clarkdale and Jerome, the
hellish open pit at Morenci, its copper-tailings pistachio-colored;
Pinos Altos, and Cochise's Stronghold; and before me in the west,
my homeland on the coastal plain.|
So has Lawrence Clark Powell, the premier bibliographer of the region,
distilled his Southwest in an introduction to a reprint of Edwin Corle's
Figtree John, published in 1971. Earlier, in an article which appeared in
Arizona Highways (1958), Powell agreed with this designation, saying
that the Southwest included "the lands lying west of the Pecos, north of
the [Mexican] Border, south of the Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon,
and east of the mountains which wall off Southern California and make
it a land in itself." Yet in another place, one of Powell's own books,
Southwestern Book Trails, and at another time, 1963, he said: "It is at the
heart that I take my stand; at the heart of hearts, the cor cordium, in Albuquerque,
New Mexico, that ancient crossing on the Rio Grande. . . .
Albuquerque is the midway point [of the Southwest], roughly equidistant
between Fort Worth and Los Angeles." This "midway point," curiously,
is on the eastern fringe of his other perceptions, and Fort Worth is
609 miles east of Albuquerque. In still another of his own books, Southwest
Classics, published in 1974, Powell (acknowledging the earlier Albuquerque-
cor cordium quote) said of the Southwest simply: "Its heartland
is Arizona and New Mexico." In a more recent (1984) book by Powell,
a short novel called El Morro, he implies that at the centuries-old travelers'
stopping place in extreme western New Mexico, which bears the
same name as the novel, one can find an even more westward and precise
But Larry Powell's ambivalent perspectives can be explained-and
understood. Like many other people, he, too, obviously did not always
agree with himself as to the precise locale of this region. More important,
the difference between his 1963 Southwest and his 1974 version
reflects a change in many people's perception of the region's location, As
the result of a definition that has been evolving for more than a hundred
and fifty years, "the Southwest" has steadily moved farther south and
west and has become more and more intensely confined.
Southwestern writer Mary Austin, for instance, in 1888 came to the
southernmost San Joaquin Valley in California and later to the California-Nevada
borderlands along the Great Basin margin, the latter to become
the setting for several of her early books. One of these, Land of
Little Rain (1903), became known as a "Southwest classic." But thirty-
six years after coming to California, in her last book about the region,
another classic, The Land of Journey's Ending (1924), she concluded that
the heart of the Southwest lay "between the Rio Colorado and the upper
course of the Rio Grande." "No such natural boundaries, but the limits
of habitableness, define it north and south," she wrote. "All of the country
east of the Grand Cañ,on, west and north of the Jornada del Muerto,
is like the middle life of a strong man, splendidly ordered." In her case,
then, as well as drastically curtailing the region's eastern limits, she also
trimmed off a good portion of the Southwest's western territory, including
that part she had used as the locale for Land of Little Rain,.
Scholarly example illustrates this evolution. In 1948 National Geographic
published a map entitled "Southwestern United States." The
map included the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado,
and New Mexico in their entirety, with a narrow margin of southern
Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as bits of southwest Nebraska,
western Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas thrown in. In addition, it encompassed
thin northern border strips of three states of Mexico: Baja California,
Sonora, and Chihuahua. The Geographic's 1977 map, "The Southwest,"
included all of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, but
showed no details of any of the surrounding areas. However, a version
published in 1982, strongly and conspicuously influenced by D. W.
Meinig, contains all of Arizona and New Mexico, with the Mexican
states of Sonora and Chihuahua only north of the 29th Parallel. In addition,
the map shows California's Mohave and Colorado Deserts as being
the only parts of that state belonging to the Southwest. And just snippets
of Utah and Colorado south of the 37th Parallel are included in this
latest version of the National Geographic's Southwest. While the map
shows Texas west of the 103rd Meridian, both this area and eastern New
Mexico contain very little detail on the map when contrasted with the
Arizona and western New Mexico details.
But, again, this evolution reflects the general changes in perception
that characterize the efforts Southwesterners, themselves, have made to
identify the region. For the most part, those writers who have actually
lived in the region seem to be more in harmony than in disagreement
about the Southwest's boundaries.
Seasoned visitors, Albuquerque-born (1888) Erna Fergusson said,
have their own way of identifying the region: "'You know. When you
get that first clear breath of high, dry air. That's the Southwest.' Along
about La Junta on the Santa Fe when the Kansas wheat-fields drop behind
and the horizon becomes a blue and jagged glory; that is Colorado.
Northern Colorado belongs to the West of Wyoming and Montana,
which knows cattle but not the Mexican, which has more cold and less
laziness than the Southwest and was settled by Northerners; but southern
Colorado is altogether of the Southwest. And its Indian ruins in the
Mesa Verde belong to the archaeological region south of them."
Erna Fergusson allowed that there was an argument to include Oklahoma
and west Texas, too, as well as Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila,
Mexico. But she declared, "There is no argument about the twin states
of New Mexico and Arizona. They are Southwest." And, in particular,
the western three-fourths of New Mexico together with the adjoining
eastern three-fourths of Arizona.
And the most passionate regional chauvinist of them all, Charles
Lummis, said that the Southwest was composed of "the enormous area
[which] roughly includes New Mexico and Arizona with parts of the
regions next adjacent on all sides." And he made the modest claim that
"it was indeed I who first gave that name, 'the Southwest'." Actually, the
"Southwest" Lummis visited and wrote about was limited to places
within seventy-five miles north or south of the main Santa Fe Railroad
tracks between Kingman, Arizona, and Lamy, New Mexico.
These well-respected Southwest lovers share pretty much the same
notion about the boundaries of the region. Apparently both modernday
serious scholars and the Southwest regional writers of the past,
particularly the longtime residents of Arizona and New Mexico as well as
the people who were born and raised in these states (to the frustration
and dismay of many Texans), have a more narrow and precise definition
of the region. Steeped in their region's unique ambiance, most of them
seem to be in agreement with Erna Fergusson and with National Geographic
most recent version.
Cultural geographer Raymond Gastil refines the area, which he calls
"the interior Southwest,"
even more closely:
Today the borders of the region can be defined by a series of contact
zones. To the south the Mexican border separates the dominance
of two distinct ways of life. On the west the lower Colorado
River irrigated areas represent a contact zone between California
and the southwest. The zone has two Indian reservations, a large
Mexican-American population, is rural-agricultural (including cotton),
and is in the oasis-style of all the interior Southwest borderlands.
Discontinuities of desert and canyon cut this world off from
the rest of California and Las Vegas [Nev.]. To the northwest the
contact between the outliers of Mormon culture and the Navaho
and Ute reservations is determinative. On the east the edge of
continuous plain farming separates the Western South from the
Interior Southwest. The hardest borders to define are to the north
and east of El Paso in Texas. In southern Colorado, the limits of
the solid expansion of the Spanish Americans of northern New
Mexico form the approximate line, while in Texas the cultural influence
of El Paso dies rapidly to the east.|
But not everyone agrees. Mabel Major and Rebecca Smith, in their
book, Southwest Heritage, A Literary History (1938), included a map that
does show Arizona, but also has Arkansas and Louisiana. In 1972, the
University of New Mexico's T. M. Pearce, a Southwest bibliographer
since 1933, said the area was composed of Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma,
New Mexico, and Arizona. And as recently as 1980, the UNM's American
Studies Department declared that "the Southwest is identified as
that region encompassing New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah,
Texas, and Oklahoma." But UNM has no corner on such chauvinistic
geographical centrism. Tucson, Scottsdale, Albuquerque, Socorro, and
numerous other places call themselves the "center of the Southwest."
Scholars from outside the region have endorsed similar parameters.
In 1970, Yale University historian Howard Roberts Lamar used the term
"far Southwest" to denote Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and
most of Nevada. After discussing the matter for several pages, outsider
historian Eugene W. Hollon said in his book, The Southwest: Old and
New (1961), "the term 'Southwest' as hereinafter used refers only to the
four large states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona." But
Hollon's book, as Larry Powell has pointed out, "is woefully neglectful
of Arizona." Historian of the West, and of California in particular, John
Caughey points out the most spacious-gargantuan, in fact-South-
west to date: "By implication, at least, Walter P. Webb ... and Abraham
G. Mezerik ... come ... to the conclusion that the Southwest is that
part of the United States-about three-fourths [of the nation] ...
which is not the favored Northeast." This reference makes Caughey's
own definition appear to be drastically pruned. The Southwest, Caughey
wrote, "as I see it, stretches from central Oklahoma and Texas to southern California.
Much of Colorado,
Utah, Nevada, and northern California belong, so that it [the Southwest]
embraces the lower left-hand quarter of the parallelogram that is the United States."
More broadly popular and less directly involved sources have also
failed to participate in the National Geographic's development of a Southwest definition.
U.S. News & World Report magazine identifies New
Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana as its "Southwest,"
leaving out Arizona, Colorado, and Utah entirely. The South-Western
Publishing Co. has its home office, in Cincinnati, Ohio, with branch
offices in West Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Pelham Manor, New
York; Palo Alto, California; and Brighton, England. Fodor's "Southwest"
travel guide includes as belonging to the- region, Arizona, New
Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. In 1981,
Max Apple edited a "Southwestern" anthology that included writers
from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. In all of
the sources emanating some distance from the region, Arizona comes up
as the runt among the regional litter, with Texas being the favorite child.
In view of the potentially influential and the broadly popular appeal of
the National Geographic, perhaps some changes will take place soon.
Joel Garreau, also observing from outside the region (The Nine Nations
of North America, 1981), has denoted a Southwest identity which is
as silly as it is ignorant. Void of human sensibilities above the pop culture
level, the book's appearance tells us that the regional books that
traditionally unenlightened and geographically insensitive trade publishing
houses send out still enjoy a strong mass market. Garreau, as have so
many pop-culture writers, overemphasizes the Hispanic qualities of the
region, and claims that Los Angeles is the region's capital.
Arnold C. Miller (Ghost Towns of the Southwest) suggests that the
Southwest can be found where ghost towns exist. And the United States
government has almost as many "Southwest" definitions as there are
agencies and departments within the bureaucratic colossus. Like the
blind men feeling the elephant, there are as many perceptions of the
Southwest as there are people to perceive it.
Much of this disagreement is historical. The Library of Congress
classification system observes that prior to the United States' war with
Mexico, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri
comprised the "Old Southwest." It designates that part of the United
States that roughly corresponds to the Old Spanish province of New
Mexico, including Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern parts of Colorado,
Utah, Nevada, and California as comprising the "New Southwest."
Generally speaking, between 1848 and the Civil War the term
"Southwest" cartographically designated Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
For many observers prior to 1900-and to many stiff today-
the Southwest was simply part of the "Far West" or the "West." Between
1865 and 1920, Charles Lummis notwithstanding, the expression usually
referred to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. As late as
1935, two scholars, Rupert N. Richardson and Carl Coke Rister (both
born in Texas), in their book, The
Greater Southwest, wrote: "the Southwest
or the Greater Southwest includes the country of the United States
west of the eastern border of the Great Plains (about the ninety-eighth
parallel) and south of the northern boundaries of the tier of states extending
from Kansas to California," and they then said that Kansas,
Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and
California constituted "the Greater Southwest."
At the same time, in contrast to such broad inclusions, archaeologists
Earl Morris and Alfred V. Kidder narrowed the dimensions of the Southwest
greatly by emphasizing the rich pre-Columbian pueblo sites radiating
out two hundred and fifty miles west, south, and east of the Four
Corners area. Anthropologists, too, have tended to focus on a similar,
relatively small locale. And most of those writers-ethnologists or otherwise-
who focus tightly on the region honor, roughly, the lower one-
fourth of Utah and the lower one-third of Colorado as part of their
Some observers emphasize the Hispanic tradition. In 1921, one of
New Mexico's most celebrated artists, Gerald Cassidy, painted a combination
map and mural on the wall of the Santa Fe Room in Santa Fe,
New Mexico's La Fonda, the Southwest's most venerated hotel. With
strong emphasis on conquistadores and the Catholic church, the mural
includes Arizona minus its northwestern comer together with southeastern
Utah, the southern one-sixth of Colorado, the Texas llano, a northeastern
part of Sonora, a tiny northwestern piece of Chihuahua, and all
of New Mexico.
Historian Herbert Eugene Bolton's "Spanish Borderlands" delineated
the Southwest as being made up of regions that had been conquered by,
occupied by, and culturally influenced by Spain and Mexico. Bolton
once wrote, in an offhand way that was quite literally parenthetical, that
"the Southwest (the region from Louisiana to California)" constituted
his scholarly demesne.
Erna Fergusson mentioned the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua,
and Coahuila as part of her "broader" definition of the Southwest, but
other people include such places as being part of the region's heartland.
The Elizabeth B. Steinheimer Collection of Children's Materials on the
Southwest, a bicultural collection of the Tucson Public Library, defines
the Southwest geographically as including "all of Arizona, New Mexico,
Sonora and Chihuahua, and parts of California, Colorado, Texas and
Utah." University of Arizona anthropologist Edward H. Spicer set the
area even farther southward toward Hispanic influence: "This region
extends from the southern Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico to the
San Juan River in Utah, and from the Pecos River in New Mexico to the
Gulf of California." One United States Department of Agriculture document
states: "We consider the natural Southwest region [to be] that area
shared between the U.S. and adjacent Mexico from longitudes 103° to
118° and from latitude 37° 31' to latitude 27°, including all or parts of
the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and
California and all or part of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and
The late Southwest ethnologist Charles DiPeso said that he considered
terms such as "The Southwest," "The American Southwest," "The
Mexican Southwest," "The Greater Southwest," and other similar designations
to be a "scientific embarrassment caused by cultural imperialism."
"Unfortunately," he wrote, "some of these terms are well established
in the literature even though they can be defined only in terms of
modem political boundaries and consequently are of little use in cultural
and geographical studies." DiPeso specified a large region bounded by
the 38th Parallel on the north (from Wichita, Kansas, to San Francisco,
California), the Tropic of Cancer (23° 27' N.L.) on the south, the 97th
Meridian on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. He called this
region the "'Gran Chichimeca,' . . . an honorable term ... used by
pre-Hispanic Mesoamericans and Iberians alike" to constitute his Southwest.
DiPeso posited that topography, aridity, and a common prehistoric
culture tied this broad region, the Gran Chichimeca, together.
"This region," he wrote, "encompasses a unique combination of geographical
and meteorological features-high mountain chains which
contain five and sometimes as many as seven major biotic zones within
a relatively small vertical land area, extremely localized rain, wind and
thunderstorm patterns; and excessive diurnal and annual temperature
shifts." DiPeso stated that this place "has always been a land of challenge-a
harsh country of drastically changing moods which has constantly
tested the mettle of man."
And Mexican ethnologist Miguel León-Portilla, taking the Hispanic
concept even further, wrote: "Most commonly, within an ethnohistori-
cal frame, [the Southwest] is thought of as including the U.S. states of
Arizona and New Mexico and the Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa,
Nayarit, Chihuahua, and Durango." Like most other things, regionalism
can be quite relative, too.
In the same vein, another source-Northern New Spain: A Research
Guide, by Thomas C. Barnes, Thomas H. Naylor, and Charles W.
Polzer-extends the region even further than DiPeso's or León-Portilla's
boundaries. This research guide points out that the subject "Spanish
Colonial Studies of the Southwest," contains "an intrinsic contradiction
because there was no 'Southwest' in Spanish colonial times. . . . Mexicans
still refer to the tier of northern [Mexican] states as 'El Norte,'
although a vast part of the former colonial territory has now become
part of the United States by conquest and purchase. The people of the
United States customarily call the ceded territory the 'Southwest."' The
guide goes on to say, "the two politically separate sectors have often
been called the 'greater Southwest.' Students and scholars have long
recognized that this extensive geographical zone is a region of analogous
cultures. Whether 'southwesterner' or 'norteño,' whether North American
or Mexican, the region possesses distinct cultural features that lend
meaning to the designation'Southwest'or'El Norte.'The meaning connotes
more than a compass direction from earlier colonial centers. A
final descriptive definition has not yet been given to this region. . . . The
geographic region encompassed in this guide is bordered on the south
by the 22nd parallel of north latitude, and on the north by the 38th. The
eastern limit is the 94th meridian of west longitude; the western limit,
the 123rd.... Such an extensive part of the North American continent
ought to have a distinctive name, but neither usage nor history has
given us one." While Northern New Spain: A Research Guide does not
make clear that this extravagant encompassment should be called "The
American Southwest," it does intend to identify an area where certain
types of geographical features together with certain Indian and Hispanic
cultural traits traditionally called "Southwestern" dominate both history
At first, Southwest ethnologist Bertha P. Dutton begged the question,
and then turned around and became quite specific, despite an awkward
attitude toward Southwestern cartography, for an admittedly self-serving reason:
The Southwest is an area with no specific limits or definite boundary,
but for the purpose of culture studies, ancient and modern, it
includes all of New Mexico and Arizona, the southwest corner of
Colorado, southern Utah, southwestern [?] Nevada, and the California
border of the Colorado River. The
Greater Southwest adds
the southern California Indians to the Pacific coast, [adds] western
Texas and [then] dips down into northern Mexico on occasion.|
In a way, just like Bertha Dutton, almost all of these writers, including,
to a degree, D. W. Meinig, have employed regional designations that are
conceptual, speculative, self-serving, subjective, and arbitrary. What
they all lack concerning this identification problem is a methodology
that uses more objective data and concrete-and consistently unique-
Actually, several students of the American Southwest have made efforts to identify unique physical traits characteristic of the region. Ross
Calvin, in his classic work Sky Determines (1934), focused on climatic
factors, particularly aridity and its related topics: precipitation; native
flora and fauna; crops; and underground water storage and recharge.
From these considerations, he attempted to explain Indian, Hispanic,
and Anglo economic, historic, and cultural patterns. Contrary to popular belief, as Calvin makes clear from
the book's beginning, he actually
is writing about New Mexico, and mostly about southwestern New
Mexico at that, even though the term "Southwest" creeps into his language
occasionally. Everything considered, however, Calvin's work is
deep on romantic impressions, reflections, and speculations ("possibly,"
"seems," "probably," "maybe," "perhaps," "one wonders," and other
weasel words), but is shallow on data. And he doesn't go far enough in
any serious attempt to explain factually-that is to say, meteorologically-
what causes the region's climate. Ultimately, Calvin's book stands
simply as part of that great body of belles lettres which constitutes virtually
all of the popular literature about the Southwest. The belletristes
and other dilettantes take the region's conspicuous and dazzling physical
traits and try to force them into a fanciful shape and substance both
significant and profound.
In his treatise Southwest Meinig, a Syracuse University professor, attempted
to develop a much more documentable presentation on the
subject. Now identified as being both "historical geography" and "geographical history,"
the seminal book focuses on, in Meinig's words, "the
changing areal relationships of the several [Indian, Hispano, and Anglo]
distinct social groups [of the Southwest], rather than upon contemporary
patterns and problems of man and his use of the land." Meinig
persuades his readers rather well in his effort to support his belief that
"the term 'Southwest' is of course an ethnocentric one." While his treament
is somewhat narrow and brief, his methodology is a giant step
More recently, in The Arizona Atlas (1981), two University of Arizona
professors, Melvin E. Hecht and Richard W. Reeves, compare the "Traditional
Southwest,-the states of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and
Arizona-with the "Contemporary Southwest," "a more limited territory
embracing Arizona, New Mexico, and the Rio Grande country
of Texas near El Paso." By superimposing maps developed by several
Southwest scholars-Ruth F. Hale, 'A Map of Vernacular Regions in
America," (1971); John W. Morris, The Southwestern United States
(1970); D. W. Meinig The Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographic Change,
1500-1970 (1970); Alvar W. Carlson, "A Bibliography of the Geographers'
Contributions to Understanding the American Southwest (Arizona
and New Mexico)" (1972); Clifford M. Zierer, ed., California
and the Southwest (1956); and Richard L. Nostrand, "The Hispanic-
American Borderland: Delimitation of an American Culture Region"
(1970)-Hecht and Reeves have created what they call a "coincidence
Hecht's and Reeves's overlaid map makes graphic an intensification of
definitional agreement that creates a denser regional identity as more
definitions overlap. This technique does, it would appear, move toward
a consensus of defining a Southwest "heartland." Its composite nature
displays a feathering-out of more divergent views as one's eye moves
away from the center of the map's dense core toward its less dense,
fuzzier periphery. But this method is as troubling as it is satisfying.
Canvassing opinions as a technique to establish a region's heartland may
be somewhat democratic and eclectic, but it is not necessarily valid or
complete. And it stiff lacks a test of "objectivity." Popularity polls do not
of themselves establish knowledge.
Even more disconcerting about this issue of "defining the Southwest'
is the failure of any writers-or artists or geographers or ethnologists-
to be anything more than one- or, occasionally, two-dimensional about
it. The various disciplines remain Balkanized about the subject, a treatment
not unlike the ten blind men feeling the elephant. This failure to
be "crossdisciplinary" and "holistic" strongly characterizes the many diverse
studies, popular as well as scholarly, of the region. Rarely do
Southwestern historians reveal much familiarity with Southwestern
geology or Southwestern novels. Rarely do Southwestern fiction writers
seem to have any knowledge about-or any interest in-Southwestern
demographics or Southwestern water law, John Nichols's The Milagro
Beanfield War notwithstanding.
How many Southwestern archaeologists have read Marguerite Noble's
classic Filaree? Arguably the finest novel ever written about Arizona, it
ranks, too, as one of the best books on any subject ever written by any
native-born Arizonan. Writers of Southwestern history should read
Leslie Silko's Ceremony if they care to get into something other than a
paternalistic apologist's orientation toward the region's Native Americans.
Luci Tapahonso's poetry provides the same warts and wrinkles of
contemporary Native American life. Southwestern geographers should
read Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima if they want to get another-and
fuller-perspective concerning the difference between the Southwest's
basin and range area and the Llano Estacado, as well as a more intense
understanding about the "presence" of the Pecos River.
Most of the discrete areas of Southwest concern, academic and popular
alike, refuse or at least fail to connect the region's reality with the
forces, forms, and processes that do the most to dictate the region's
destiny, that is to say, its political reality and its politics. In The Milagro
Beanfield War, for example, John Nichols reduces politics to the adolescent
level of political understanding, with stereotyped greedy and
brutish villain-buffoon developers pitted against the humble but wise
and wily "good" Mother-Earth people. Frank Waters did a similar thing
in The Man Who Killed the Deer.
There is little useful explanation of real political issues or dynamics in
this kind of romantic literature, so that what we get are caricatures and
fairy stories, designed to tug at our heartstrings and compel us to hiss
the villains. In Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire we can sense strongly the
passion Abbey feels for the fragile beauty of the region and the indignation
he feels toward those people who would befoul, bludgeon, and
whack away at the region's dramatic but delicate primeval beauty. But in
The Monkey Wrench Gang, novelist Abbey shows the same simplistic proclivities
found in John Nichols's work. The slapstick comedy and the
unlikely characters detract from the book's credibility.
Most popular Southwestern writers arc not native to the region, and
they appear to write in order to dazzle, to captivate, and to entertain
their non-native readers. The Milagro Beanfield War and The Monkey
Wrench Gang present romantically stereotyped Southwest circumstances,
heroes, and villains so distant from approachable reality that the books
generate little broad and positive public concern or political action. In
effect, writers like Abbey and Nichols preach primarily to the fashionably
converted, a marketplace with a readership so faddish and ephemeral
that within a few years they are voting Republican and driving gas-
guzzling road hogs.
More than anything else in serious scholarship about the Southwest,
the lack of effort (laziness? spiteful reluctance? subject area chauvinism?
obliviousness?) to understand and respect an interdisciplinary approach
to the region stands out and arrests a curious person's attention. Perhaps
the failure to recognize the limitations of discrete approaches is one key
explanation as to why there is no agreement about the "Southwest's"
exact location. What all of these various self-perceived "sensitive" and
"thoughtful" and "scholarly" people have in common is an attraction to
a mirage, a "romance" about the region, a romance custom-tailored to
their own appetites and proclivities and background and training, together
with the fantasies about the region that these influences engender.
Among them are historians, essayists, ethnologists, journalists,
editors, and other image perpetuators who see Southwest poverty with
its grin-Ay bizarre attendant qualities as something fatalistic and "quaint",
Not only are the various disciplinary and interest areas of study sharply
categorical and often smothered with investigational overkill, but most
of the published studies of the region are simplistic and intellectually
sterile narratives with no well thought-out practical suggestions for improvement
of the Southwest human condition about them. One would`
expect such a level of concern from the belletristes. But many of the
"serious" anthropologists, historians, artists, essayists, fiction writers,
and journalists appear to have learned very little provocative from all of
this. And there is no thoughtfully integrated mapping of the environmental
lessons to be learned or demographic patterns to be identified
and understood. For them, the Southwest is a place only to be observed,
described, loved and, in many cases, worshipped.
Without much argument one can state that there are several Southwests.
There is a geometric Southwest, an aesthetic Southwest, and a
political Southwest. We could read forever about the historical Southwest,
the physiographic Southwest, the commercial Southwest, and the
climatic Southwest. Volumes of journals, books, and raw data document
the prehistoric Southwest, the contemporary Indian Southwest, and the
bureaucratic Southwest. Browse in a university library and it will take
you days, even weeks, to complete the sections on the Hispanic Southwest,
the Anglo Southwest, the mythic Southwest, the biotic Southwest,
and the literary Southwest. None of these various regions will be exactly
like any other; yet there may be some agreement among the different
categories of criteria, some kind of overlapping density of unity that
gives the region a substantial degree of specificity. We use the term
"Southwest"; surely this term doesn't always connote something altogether unfocused and mythical. To the
contrary, carefully using comparisons,
one sometimes can find a rather amazing agreement among all
of these perspectives and perceptions. The obvious differences, at first
apparently great, actually become less significant when closely and comparatively viewed.
These similarities are not coincidental, nor are they
artificially created by scholars and other folks who want to tidy up things.