Stegner's subtitle to this non-fiction history/biography is "John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West." It was published in 1954, and I picked up a copy at a used book sale after I had rafted through the Grand Canyon three years ago.
Because leading the group that first ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869 is how Powell is best known. It was an extraordinary three-month adventure into unknown wilderness, one so punishing that three of the party left just before the last major rapid to try to walk to an Indian or Mormon settlement and were killed by Indians. At the time, Powell was a 34-year-old, one-armed, former Civil War veteran. (He was Major Powell to men under him.)
But while Stegner gives a stirring account of that river exploration, his larger purpose is to put Powell's life into a larger context—that of the settlement of the West. After all, as William Gilpin, an old Western hand had pointed out in 1868, "The semi-arid plains between the 100th meridian and Rockies...were no desert, nor even a semi-desert, but a pastoral Canaan.... On the more westerly plains, though there was little surface timber, a beneficent Nature had so disposed the rooting system of the low growth that settlers were able to dig for firewood and find plenty." Water? Artesian wells would supply plenty, and anyway "rain follows the plow."
Powell—Stegner's hero—spent his life trying to bring some reality to this fantasy. He became second director of the US Geological Survey
(1881–1894) and proposed policies for development of the West
which were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He was
director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.
He might have been prescient, but neither Powell nor any of the scientists he was able to engage were strong enough to resist enthusiastic homesteaders who wanted free land, monopolists who believed in free enterprise, land barons, water companies, Western congressmen and senators, and more. The West has been a patchwork of competing interests with incredible waste, spoilation, and litigation as smallholders fought the monopolists, the states fought the Federal government, and Federal agencies tried to reconcile the irreconcilable.
The problem was, and remains, water. There isn't enough rain to grow crops, so they must be irrigated from water flowing in streams and rivers. But who controls the water? Can a homesteader upstream dam the river and keep the water for himself? Can a state? A country? (There was talk of damming the Rio Grande.) Why not? In the East where there is plenty of rain, who cares? In the West, they care.
Because Stegner is a novelist, he is able to tell Powell's story—the political infighting, the struggle for government appropriations, gossip and misinformation—engagingly and enthusiastically. I can only quote Ivan Doig who said, "This book goes far beyond biography, into the nature and soul of the American West. It is Stegner at his best, assaying an entire era of our history, packing his pages with insights as shrewd as his prose."