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James P. Ronda

Rival visions of the range

The pioneer Western artist George Catlin once described the country between the Mississippi River and the Rockies as "a place where the mind could think volumes." In that single phrase Catlin captured something essential about the relationship between space and the human imagination. Distinguished American historian Elliott West extends that insight when he writes, "Places are defined in part when people infuse them with imagination."

Modern sensibility often connects what Western historian William Goetzmann calls "the West of the imagination" to the vertical thrust of the Rockies. Marlboro Country is always set in the mountain West. But both Catlin and West remind us that imagination and human creativity found (and continue to find) far more room to stretch and expand on the grassland table that rests on a tilt from Kansas and Nebraska to the Front Range. At various times humankind has called that expansive country a garden and a desert, the promised land and a wasteland. We now call this part of North America the "Great Plains" recognizing its sweep and power, its offer of possibility and its guarantee to humble human pride.

Walt Whitman, who crossed the plains by rail to Denver in 1879, declared this the most clearly American of all landscapes. Ever alert to the relationship between landscape and the power of words, Whitman called on writers and poets to fashion a new vocabulary—one that could match the promise of the plains. Catlin, Whitman, West, and a whole host of plains explainers know that to recount the stories of the Great Plains is to tell the fundamental American story. The Contested Plains takes one moment in the long history of the plains and makes that moment a revelation of human struggle, adversity, and the will to survive.

Conventional wisdom has it that the authentic history of North America's interior province be gins when Europeans—first the Spanish, and then in succession French, English, and Anglo-American newcomers—ventured into ...

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