Our readings this week focus on the role that water, particularly in the form of rivers, has played in the history of American attempts to exploit nature for economic benefit. The authors of both the main book and the supplementary reading look at the interplay between water, the historical process of mastering nature to the point of harnessing its resources, and the American capitalist system. Interestingly, both books choose to open their introductions by examining a different work by Henry David Thoreau (a famous lover of nature who campaigned emphatically against industrialization and the accompanying loss of natural spaces). However, both books ultimately differ on the ideas of how Americans have controlled nature.
In Nature Incorporated, Theodore Steinberg looks at how New England mill owners in the nineteenth century would vie for control of the area’s rivers, whose currents they used to power the ever-growing number of factories. He places those struggles in the context of a larger overall process of man slowly but surely gaining control of nature. In Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster makes a longer (and I would argue more complex) argument about the role of water in the settling of the arid western regions of the United States. He challenges the pattern in American historiography that claims the American west was a bastion of freedom and individuality highlighted by its people’s struggles to tame the wilderness. Instead, he uses the history of western irrigation projects to argue that the old west was more characterized by authoritative systems designed to keep power in the hands of a small elite. While the books make different arguments, they do not ultimately oppose one another because they are each case studies of radically different areas of the country. In fact, both works succeed in their arguments by making logical arguments based on strong analysis of credible primary sources.
In Nature Incorporated, Steinberg uses the power struggles between mill owners for dominance over New England’s rivers (and the energy they could generate) to reveal links between American economic history and the gradual process of gaining control over nature, the latter of which he sees as the driving force behind all of human history. Thus, Steinberg’s argument centers on the process by which people were able to advance enough to obtain power from New England’s rivers, and the subsequent battles over which mill owners could exert the greatest amount of control over those rivers. The coverage of those battles represents a significant piece of Steinberg’s argument. For example, in one section early on, Steinberg discusses an instance in the 1820s in which the Merrimack Manufacturing Company had its power over a section of the Merrimack River challenged when a nearby landowner built a dam in opposition to the one already operated by the company. After some grappling, all of the property and rights to use of the river were transferred to a larger company by 1830. In his telling of these events, in which he cites both business records and legal documents, Steinberg goes to lengths to emphasize the level of control man has managed to impose on the river, to the point that it is now just a commodity to be fought over by business owners rather than an entity with substantial agency or power.
In Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster takes a firmly Marxist view of history in examining the process of irrigating the arid, desert-like regions of the American west in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the beginning of the book, he lets you know that he is arguing against a common thread of thought in American academics and culture that paints the American west as a uniquely individualistic place where a farmer could move to and succeed in if they worked hard and were willing to tame the wilderness of the area without any help. Instead, Worster argues that the west was what he calls a hydraulic society, one with a rigid social order determined by “large-scale manipulation of water” in which a small power elite with “ownership of capital and expertise” were at the top. Worster’s argument hinges on the idea that the task of irrigating the arid western region of the U.S. was such a hugely expensive, and technologically demanding undertaking that powerful Americans had to set up a system of social order (in which the poor were exploited) and “indigenous bureaucracy and corporatism” in order to complete the task. Worster frequently notes in the introduction that his argument is in opposition to most prior scholastic work, which is best embodied by Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis. However, he cites later work in which Turner himself admits that the more desert-like, far flung western regions would not be conquered by “old individual pioneer methods” and would require high levels of “cooperative activity” to solve the water issue. By citing work by an author who is a notable part of the scholarship he is writing against, Worster strengthens his argument greatly.
Worster’s treatment of the passage of the 1902 National Reclamation Act is a great example of his overall argument. The act allowed the government to sell 160-acre parcels of arid land to individuals and use the proceeds to set up irrigation projects on the land, with annual payments for the land creating a refilling fund for more irrigation projects. As Worster points out, scholarship has generally characterized the passage of this act as a progressive move, one in which the government was empowering its citizens to take on the individualistic endeavor of moving out west and setting up a farm. However, Worster’s examination of the congressional debates leading to the passage of the bill reveal a different story. Congressmen voting against the bill tended to argue that by effectively subsidizing western agriculture in this way, the government would be hurting the already struggling eastern farmers. They believed that western expansion should occur at the pace it would naturally based on population growth. On the other side, the congressmen voting for the Reclamation Act focused on all the money that could be made by irrigating and populating the west as quickly as possible, what with the possibility of future railroad projects and new markets to be opened. This line of argument leads Worster to conclude that the Reclamation Act was part of a large-scale implementation of an “established social order” that did not include poor eastern farmers. The section on the National Reclamation Act is a useful microcosm for Worster’s overall argument.
Nature Incorporated and Rivers of Empire each provide excellent narratives of the history of water politics in New England and the American west respectively. Both use thorough analysis of relevant primary sources to successfully make their arguments, though they have somewhat different takes on the way humans controlled nature in the cases each looks at. Steinberg argues in Nature Incorporated that water politics history in New England was a story of the gradual development of mankind’s control over the region’s rivers. Worster, on the other hand, argues that the scarcity of water in the arid west led to irrigation projects that allowed America’s elites to develop the west in a way that economically benefitted them and exploited the poor. In that way, water as a natural element actually exerts control over those many exploited people. However, one can accept both authors’ arguments because each is quite specific to their particular geographic region.
Steinberg, Theodore. Nature Incorporated. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1991.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.