This is a masterful work of biography, "the history not of a personality but of a career," as Stegner writes in his introductory note. As such, not onThis is a masterful work of biography, "the history not of a personality but of a career," as Stegner writes in his introductory note. As such, not only does Stegner follow John Wesley Powell down the frightful canyons of the Colorado River and into the even more fearsome halls of the national capital, but the author dwells on Powell's companions and antagonists, his allies and his would-be emulators. He devotes long admiring passages to Powell's associates Capt. Clarence Dutton and Grove Karl Gilbert; he is almost rhapsodic about William Henry Holmes, who provided meticulous grand-scale scientific illustrations for Dutton's geological writings. He explains the dry, hard-rock conditions that Powell found in the west, and makes the connections to Powell's scientific report of 1877, which argued for a pattern of settlement arranged by geology and watersheds and governed communally.
Stegner is wittily cutting about Capt. Samuel Adams, failed explorer of the same Plateau Province of western Colorado, eastern Utah, and northern Arizona. Adams was convinced that the Colorado offered a navigable passage from the ocean to the Rocky Mountains, the author calls him "a preposterous, twelve-gauge, hundred-proof, kiln-dried, officially notarized fool, or else he was one of the most wildly incompetent scoundrels who ever lived." (p. 201) And the account of feud between Powell and Othniel C. Marsh on the one hand and Edward D. Cope on the other is an eye-opener.
Stegner is also a writer of fiction, and he brings a novelist's command of language to this work. The conceit of human geological understanding being directly reflected in the rocks of the Province is particularly fine (p. 120).
New Mexico's tagline is "Land of Enchantment." There's not much to separate enchantment from delusion, and part of the history of the west is the story of that delusion. Powell's virtue was in seeing clearly through the enchantment. Much of his work was truncated, at least in his lifetime, but "the only thing clearer than the failure of his grandiose schemes of study is the compelling weight of their partial accomplishment." (p. 264)...more