Hunger for the Wild
America's Obsession with the Untamed West
Michael L. Johnson
Spur Award, Western Writers of America, Finalist
A Kansas Notable Book
“This book is a fascinating look at the landscape and our perceptions. It is also an examination of how both have changed and evolved, and that they continue to do so.”
“The breadth and depth of Johnson’s sources and topics are remarkable. This is a valuable synthesis of the most recent scholarship about nature and the Western environment, but it is ultimately far more than that. Johnson analyzes Western paintings, photographs, artists, writers, movies, literature, rodeos, dude ranches, dams, bombs, and cowgirls. Western personalities such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill Cody do not escape his gaze and neither do ‘poisoned places’ and urban spaces. . . . This is a landmark study that deserves a wide audience, especially among students of American studies, the environment, and the West.”
—The HistorianSee all reviews...
“A dizzying fizz of cultural analysis, intoxicating and effervescent . . . . Johnson’s book buzzes with intriguing turns of phrase and trenchant insights. It introduces a number of fascinating new artistic portrayals of the West and reintroduces many classic statements. . . . ”
—Great Plains Quarterly
“Examining a diverse cast of regional actors, from Native Americans and Spanish colonizers to gay cowboys and Hollywood moguls, Johnson follows five hundred years of evolving attitudes about the West and its ruggedness. . . . Scholars interested in the complex legacy surrounding the national obsession with the untamed West will find much to appreciate here.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“A gifted storyteller, Johnson describes Americans’ambivalent attitudes toward the West—and the way these have changed over time—in language that is clear, precise, and often playful.”
—Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
“This book is engaging, informative, masterfully researched, and artistically crafted. It promises to be important to a broad audience of scholars, artists, and anyone interested in how culture is constructed in relationship to place as well as how a place can be re-envisioned to suit the needs of the culture.”
—Western American Literature
“Builds on a critical engagement with the central works of western history and culture to arrive at an approach to the western past that is both thought-provoking and persuasive. The sweep of the volume itself is breathtaking.”
—South Dakota History
“A clever tour de force—full of anecdotes, vignettes, literary observations, and art interpretations that challenge our knowledge as well as our imagination. . . . Johnson’s study will take its place among the thoughtful and sophisticated works on the American West. Its originality inspires new ways of thinking about the region.”
—American Historical Review
“Utilizing a vast array of art, literature, intellectual writings, public entertainments, movies, and other cultural mediums, Johnson explores the diverse viewpoints and inconsistencies over the past 300 years. This exercise in intellectual and cultural history on a grand scale goes beyond earlier works by Roderick Nash, Hans Huth, R.W.B. Lewis, and Arthur Ekirch, Jr., to bring the story up to date. . . . [A] wide-ranging and sophisticated book.”
“Brimming with wordplay, personal anecdotes, and telling vignettes, this comprehensive book serves up a cornucopia of Western personalities, phenomena, and events.”
“A tour de force that draws upon and synthesizes the works of major historians, scientists, writers, and artists to interpret just what is meant by a ‘Wild West’ and what that concept means to ranchers and rural communities, American Indians, land developers, and postmodern urban telecommuters. The wide-ranging essays include discussions of early Spanish explorations, the controlling of wild places and managing of wild animals, McWildernesses, urban sprawl, gay rodeos, modern Native American identity and New Age spiritualists, Roswell alien sightings, and how the Wild West is represented in films and nature writings.”
“Move over Henry Nash Smith, Roderick Nash, and Richard Slotkin. This stunning volume immediately vaults Michael Johnson to the forefront of authorities on the Wilderness West. A brilliant and profound study.”
—Richard W. Etulain, author of Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West
“Provides us all with a new and insightful way of looking forward that places him in the rarified company of Frederick Jackson Turner, Henry Nash Smith, and Patricia Nelson Limerick in providing a fresh western synthesis.”
—Paul A. Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army
“An astonishing book—an epic, often jaw-dropping survey of our centuries-long love affair with the untamed West. ”
—Michael Steiner, coeditor of Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional IdentitySee fewer reviews...
Just what was so wild about the Wild West?
Americans have had an enduring yet ambivalent obsession with the West as both a place and a state of mind. Now one of the most knowing observers of the Western scene offers a monumental cultural and historical analysis of how ideas of wildness have shaped the ways Euro-Americans have perceived, reacted to, and acted upon the West for nearly five hundred years. Bringing the sensibility of a poet to a sweeping discussion of place, Michael L. Johnson considers how that obsession originated, how it has determined attitudes toward and activities in the West, and how it has changed over the centuries.
Investigating views of Western wildness from pre-European times until the present, Johnson tells how explorers and settlers bent on exploiting the West brought with them Old World ideas, full of muddled and even bizarre contradictions, that have defined the region in its most fundamental aspects. And he shows how those contradictory ideas were woven into an ambivalent ideology of conquest that has given us today's degraded wilderness areas, overtaxed water supplies, and sprawling suburbs.
Brimming with word-play, personal anecdotes, and telling vignettes, Hunger for the Wild provocatively addresses a cornucopia of Western personalities, phenomena, and events. Invoking a vast array of writers and thinkers-from Claude Levi-Strauss to Black Elk to Richard Etulain-Johnson casts his critical eye on conquistadors and cowboys and revisits myths of Noble Savage and "red devil" alike. His kaleidoscopic text examines Dust Bowl woes and Wild West shows, and whether contemplating the Disneyfied frontier or the Ralphlaurenized range, he takes readers on an intellectual romp through the wilds of the contemporary West, with its UFO fanatics and postregional cowgirls.
Emphasizing his call for seeing the West as "a place of roots as well as routes," Johnson's tour de force marks a major contribution to the deeper history of the region and points toward a more sustainable West for the future. It should interest not only Western historians but also art and film buffs, ecocritics, cross-cultural specialists, and rodeo fans—anyone fascinated by the wild, Western-style.