Remarks to the Society of American Historians upon accepting the 2009 Francis Parkman Prize, 17 April 2009, New York City, for the book On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press, 2008).
What a pleasure to be here tonight among people who care about the craft of history! I feel honored to share this award with such a distinguished list of writers. Most meaningfully to me, the register of past winners includes my mentor, Richard White. Richard influenced my writing as well as my thinking. In particular, he helped me to appreciate the creative tension between literary expression and logical structure.
To be honest, a history book is less creative than a novel, for the novelist creates a whole new world. The historian, meanwhile, is restricted by this world—the extant sources, especially, but also the rules of the guild. However, much like a fugue or a sonata can be surprisingly creative and stunningly beautiful, an artful history book can be euphonically logical: it can play with the conventions even as it honors them.
The hardest part of composing On Zion’s Mount was the pre-writing—the landscape design, so to speak. My primary goal was simple: I wanted to write a local history that had national significance. I love local history—the fine points and the idiosyncrasies, the very wackiness of it. The danger, of course, is that the local can become parochial.
To get around this danger, history writers have developed different strategies. Microhistorians take a slice of life—a singular event or even a single day—and explore it in such depth that the piece elucidates the whole—a whole mentality, or era, or process. Social historians have written biographical studies of ordinary people as well as outlier figures, and longitudinal studies of villages and neighborhoods.
My strategy was different. My starting point was topography. I like to think of myself as an Earth-based humanist, and like to think of this book as a biography of a landform. For my local matter I deliberately chose a topographic feature that seems timeless and natural—a steep, high, rugged mountain. I wanted to show just how much cultural history could be found in the so-called natural world.
It would have been easiest to write about a well-known mountain such as Pikes Peak—a landmark people have actually heard about. In the early years of my project I agonized over my choice of Mount Timpanogos, Utah. It seemed foolhardy to be writing a thick book about a local landmark unpronounceable, unrecognized—even unrecognizable—beyond its locale. In Utah, Timpanogos may denote the state’s most beloved mountain, but in other parts of America the place-name has about as much currency as Mount Kosciusko, the highest point in Australia.
Besides lack of renown, Timpanogos has another seeming downside as a subject. In a mountainous western region glutted with scenery, this one mount is hardly exceptional—except for the fact that local people believe it is. So why, out of all the mountains in the world, did I choose this one? Because it’s there? No, there was a personal motive, as you might expect. I come from Utah. But as a scholar I was drawn to this mountain for the intellectual challenge. Because Timpanogos is not an obvious landmark like Rainer or Shasta, the sense of place surrounding it requires greater explanation. And since no one outside of Utah really cared about this invented landmark, I had an obvious benchmark for success. If I could convince my colleagues in U.S. history that Mount Timpanogos mattered—that it was the Martha Ballard of mountains—I would have met my goal.
To make my mountain work, to make it stand for something greater, I had to develop a multi-level narrative. I fashioned three layered stories that could, like sedimentary rock, adhere together to form something new. Each of these sections takes place at a different scale. All history, like politics, may be local, but the local is always connected to larger things. For clarity’s sake, I divided my book into three parts: the local, the regional, and the national.
On Zion’s Mount does not, however, proceed from the smallest to the largest scale. It opens with the regional. I did it this way to emphasize that even as Mormon settlers created a new local world in Utah, they displaced an earlier regional world—a Great Basin indigenous lifeway that centered on lowland water resources, especially the freshwater Utah Lake. I set up Utah Lake as the foil to Mount Timpanogos: water to rock, low to high, indigenous to colonial, displacement to place-making, production to recreation, history to folklore, memory to forgetting.
The middle part of my book—the most local part—shows how and why the post-pioneer generation in Provo, Utah, made an uncelebrated mount into the “Wonder Mountain,” and began telling fake Indian legends about it. Then, in the last third of the book, I move beyond the Great Basin and beyond Provo, Utah. I show how earlier settlers in eastern parts of America accomplished place-making projects essentially like Timpanogos. All over the country, settlers displaced natives, then bestowed pseudo-Indian place-names, and then told fake Indian legends about those named places. Despite Utah’s well-deserved reputation for weirdness, Utah history is weirdly typical when it comes to the outcome of Indian-settler relations. This third section functions as national history, but I composed it as a conglomeration of outside local histories. In other words, I reconceptualized the national as the extralocal or even the meta-local.
Historical fashions come and go: we have been admonished to remember the nation-state, to go beyond it, to embrace to transnational, to recognize the global, to return to the local. As a scholar and a writer, I’ve tried to creatively illustrate how the world turns in all these spheres at once. The best global histories will have some of the local in them, and vice versa. It’s a challenge to make room for these nested spheres given the constraints of researching and storytelling, not to mention the constraints of publishing. But it’s fun. There are so many ways to play with the concept of scale. It’s exciting to contemplate a literary analogue or complement to Geographic Information Systems or Google Earth. Our narrative histories can be maps of words.
Now that I’ve told you a bit about my own writing, I can’t resist saying something about Francis Parkman both as a writer and a commentator on the American West. Before he wrote the historical tomes that made his reputation, Parkman took a summer tour to the base of the Rocky Mountains. He rode the Oregon Trail the year before Brigham Young led his followers down that same path. Although Parkman was more at home in Paris than the Louisiana Purchase, he was not immune to the spell of the Wild West, nor a distinctively American form of wilderness nostalgia. In the preface to the fourth edition of The Oregon Trail, published in 1872, Parkman recalled a scene from the Front Range of Colorado:
I remember that, as we rode by the foot of Pike’s Peak, when for a fortnight we met no face of man, my companion remarked, in a tone any thing but complacent, that a time would come when those plains would be a grazing country, the buffalo give place to tame cattle, farm-houses be scattered along the water-courses, and wolves, bears, and Indians be numbered among the things that were. We condoled with each other on so melancholy a prospect, but we little thought what the future had in store. We knew that there was more or less gold in the seams of those untrodden mountains; but we did not foresee that it would build cities in the waste and plant hotels and gambling-houses among the haunts of the grizzly bear. We knew that a few fanatical outcasts were groping their way across the plains to seek an asylum from gentile persecution; but we did not imagine that the polygamous hordes of Mormon would rear a swarming Jerusalem in the bosom of solitude itself. We knew that, more and more, year after year, the trains of emigrant wagons would creep in slow procession towards barbarous Oregon or wild and distant California; but we did not dream how Commerce and Gold would breed nations along the Pacific, the disenchanting screech of the locomotive break the spell of weird mysterious mountains, woman’s rights invade the fastnesses of the Arapahoes, and despairing savagery, assailed in front and rear, vail its scalp-locks and feathers before triumphant commonplace. We were no prophets to foresee all this; and, had we foreseen it, perhaps some perverse regrets might have tempered the ardor of our rejoicing.
As one of the descendents of those fanatical outcasts and polygamous hordes, I feel some pride to have added a new layer of interpretation to the accretion of past authors—Parkman included—who have mythologized and demythologized the American West and the American past. From the base of Pikes Peak, Parkman looked ahead yet couldn’t discern the future we inhabit today. From the summit of Mount Timpanogos, I look backward in order to better understand our present; but the future of the West, and the wider world, is no less opaque to me. With curiosity, then, I await the time when my own historical writing becomes another relic of the past.
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