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Tucson Weekly Unmeaningful History

A Sweeping Look At The American Southwest Suffers From Garbled Details

By Gregory McNamee

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Legends Of The American Desert, by Alex Shoumatoff (Knopf). Cloth, $30.

A DOZEN YEARS ago, Alex Shoumatoff, a New Yorker magazine staff writer and sometime visitor to the American Southwest, set out to write a "sweeping hydrohistory" of the region. He abandoned the project at about the time two such large-scale studies appeared: Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, and Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire.

It's probably good that he did. On the evidence of the book he eventually wrote about the Southwest, Shoumatoff's projected hydrohistory would almost certainly have been found wanting in comparison to the other two, which were hailed as instant classics.

The book we have, Legends of the American Desert, recounts Shoumatoff's adventure-seeking forays into the Southwest and offers an historical overview of the region. It's well written, as all of Shoumatoff's books are. It's also glancing, disconnected, vignette-driven and impressionistic, advancing a view of the Southwest, "the least American part of the United States," as the abode of The Other--namely, Indians and Hispanics, who stand largely as ciphers in his argument that the Southwest is still-contested territory.

Shoumatoff is more interested in the divergence of Hispanic, Anglo, and Native worlds than in the ways in which these worlds come together to form a regional culture; one that makes the Southwest recognizably different from any other place. That these worlds indeed diverge--and sometimes collide--is an old and ultimately not very interesting trope in writing about the region. How they blend and merge is a much more subtle matter, one that few writers have addressed.

Shoumatoff's book cleaves into two rough categories, the first historical, the second journalistic. In the first area, his narrative is shot through with problems: The chronology of Southwestern prehistory is a jumble of misinterpretations, the understanding of ethnography at best partial, the reading of historical facts and trends off by a matter of degrees.

In writing his sweeping historical overview of the region, Shoumatoff relies heavily on other published histories. His bibliography, however, does not mention some of the most important works--the ones to which professional historians turn. He haughtily dismisses such scholarly books as mainly "unreadable." He may be right, but, like it or not, they demand consultation nonetheless.

What's worse, Shoumatoff doesn't consult Spanish sources. To attempt a history of the Southwest without a command of those sources and at least some knowledge of the Spanish language--and when Spanish words appear in the text they are as often as not misrendered--is to court disaster.

In contemporary matters, Shoumatoff yields better results. He's a skilled journalist with a number of good books of reportage (The Mountain of Names, The World Is Burning) to his credit. When he gets into the territory and pursues stories at first hand his book shines. A substantial part of Legends of the American Desert, for instance, documents the tale of Clayton Lonetree, the hapless Navajo marine who fell in love with a Russian girl while pulling embassy duty in Moscow and gave away a few state secrets in the bargain; Lonetree served a long term in Leavenworth as payment for his infatuation. Shoumatoff's alternately sympathetic and no-nonsense account of Lonetree's unfortunate story, in which racism and cultural misunderstandings come heavily into play, would have made a good book in itself.

At other turns, Shoumatoff does a good job of unbaring the weird atomic subculture of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and an even better job of exposing the trendy pretenses of nearby Santa Fe, a place true Southwesterners love to hate. Santa Fe, which Shoumatoff rightly pegs as "the capital of the ersatz Southwest," is, as it happens, absolutely fair game for an outside observer. Unlike most other venues in the Southwest, here it's possible not to know much about the past, even the recent past, and still get the present right.

However unsuccessful the book, one has to admire Shoumatoff's ambition in writing Legends of the American Desert, the kind of omniscient, big-picture narrative that's rarely attempted these days. And Shoumatoff's skills as a writer are certainly admirable. Unfortunately, his skills and ambition have not yielded any meaningful understanding of the region. Best to return to the yellowing pages of, say, Paul Horgan's Great River, and hope for a better synthesis in time to come.

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