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Know the West

The more the West changes, the more it stays the same

  Bernard DeVoto, a man with few sacred cows, wrote a monthly column on the West for Harper’s magazine from 1946 until 1955. From "The Easy Chair," he expounded on everything from how cattlemen destroyed Western watersheds to why the West is "systematically looted and has always been bankrupt." Now, history professor Edward K. Muller has collected 22 of DeVoto’s magazine pieces in DeVoto’s West — and they are just as timely today as they were last century.

Born in the West and educated in the East, DeVoto didn’t go easy on any of his countrymen. With equal parts glee and vitriol, he wrote that Westerners who perceived themselves as rugged individuals were, in fact, being ripped off by Eastern businessmen eager to take advantage of the region’s natural resources and gullible inhabitants.

Today, energy companies still treat the region as a colony to exploit, and businessmen and politicians still try to privatize public lands and resources in the name of "patriotism." The region’s inhabitants still struggle in an arid climate — and it’s a shame that no one heeded DeVoto’s advice in 1954 that, when it comes to water, "from here on out we cannot afford to decide anything wrong."

It’s hard to decide which is more unbelievable: that Harper’s magazine once had a monthly column dedicated to Western issues, or that the American Livestock and the National Wool Growers Associations read it as closely as they did in 1947, when they gave DeVoto and the magazine "a thorough working-over" after his column about their "assault" on the West’s public lands.

The Eastern press pays even less attention to the West than it did 50 years ago. But maybe the region doesn’t need the Eastern media’s attention. As DeVoto wrote in 1927: "We are healthier and saner and less trusting than our neighbors on either side, and we live in the sun."

DeVoto’s West
edited by Edward K. Muller, 312 pages, softcover: $18.95: Swallow Press, 2005.