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Lauren Winner

What's So New About the New Western History?

Well, maybe it's not so new any more. Sometime in the late 1980s, the "New Western History" became a widely circulated term of approbation or abuse, depending on the observer's perspective. From the cheering section, we heard that the New Western Historians—scholars such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, William Cronon, and Donald Worster—were boldly reshaping a field of study that had long been captive to the potent national mythology. Hecklers said that this was merely another manifestation of the trendy revisionism everywhere apparent in history these days.

Both sides were wrong, and both were right. The cheerleaders exaggerated the deficiencies of the "Old Western History"—a habit that continues even today. On the other side, the naysayers underestimated both the ideological diversity and the achievements of this new scholarship, which is far richer than its critics allow.

In fact, the New Western History is now decades old. In their introduction to Researching Western History: Topics in the Twentieth Century (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1997), Gerald Nash and Richard Etulain list five ways in which the study of the American West changed significantly between 1960 and the end of the century. First, most Western historians in 1960, still under the spell of Frederick Jackson Turner, wrote about the West primarily as a frontier—a frontier that shifted repeatedly with westward expansion—and concentrated almost exclusively on Western history up to 1890 (the year in which the U.S. Census director officially proclaimed that there was no more frontier in America). In the decades since, the emphasis has shifted markedly to the West considered as a specific geographical region, like the South, and to the century after the closing of the frontier.

It is important to add that for many New Western Historians, this was not merely a change in orientation toward a regional perspective but rather a conscious rejection of the notion of "the frontier." ...

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