The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America

Robert G. Athearn

"Caroline Bancroft Prize

Western Heritage Book Award

“An exceptional book. . . . [Recommended for] all libraries.”


“A fine portrait of the recent West: its booms and busts, its enormous rearrangements of population, its endless search for a settled identity, and its chronic tension over wanting outside help and resisting outside control.”

Western Historical Quarterly
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Just what and where is the West? Why have so many been so obsessed with finding and saving that mythic time and place? What has the West meant to those who have lived there and to the millions more who have journeyed there only in their imaginations? And how have the answers to these questions changed with the years? The issues involved here—the place of the West and the frontier experience in our search for a national identity—have inspired a small library of important books during the last thirty years or so. Most of these writers have given their attention to those confident and aggressive years of the nineteenth century when the frontier was sweeping across the continent.

"Athearn's contribution, in part, is to pursue the shifting perceptions of the West into the present century. There the story has taken new twists as Americans have confronted hard lessons about themselves and their land. Again and again the message of events has been much the same: We are running short of resources and of room to grow. The region that once seemed endlessly bountiful and forever wild has become a land of narrowing limits. With this realization, popular feelings about the West, 'the most American part of America,' have swung erratically between hope and disillusionment, affection and anger. Yet the myth has survived, however battered and bent into new shapes. . . .

"The Mythic West is by no means meant as a full treatment of its subject. Instead Athearn uses each chapter to consider from a different angle certain developments that have shaped the modern West and some of the ways these transformations have in turn molded what people have thought and dreamed about that land. . . . It is informed by his characteristic intelligence and graced by the humor and felicity of style his readers have come to expect. As do his other works, it leaves us with a deeper, richer understanding of that elusive and complex place, the West, which he knew as well as anyone ever will."—from the Foreword