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The mythic power of western land has long dominated narratives of American history. Lisi Krall seeks to challenge this myth, untangling the narratives into their component parts of philosophy, economic systems, political decision making, and spiritual awe. Her slim volume, Proving Up: Domesticating Land in U.S. History, successfully argues that the frontier myth was constructed foremost from a capitalist imperative superimposed on material circumstances.
The book has two starting points, one anecdotal, one philosophical. The anecdote concerns the author’s paternal grandfather, a homesteader in southwestern Wyoming, who was shot by his neighbor in 1920 in a dispute over water rights. Krall’s grandfather, according to the federal government’s homesteading regulations, was required to dig canals to irrigate his dry land in an impossibly short period of time. In the short term, he did what he needed to do for survival, and thus impinged on the water rights of his neighbor. The grandfather’s downfall illustrates what the author explains to be the mismatch of nineteenth-century agricultural homesteading expectations with an arid landscape more suitable for ranching.
Krall presents this episode with her grandfather as a consequence of what happened when the “agrarian ethos” shaped federal land policy. Thus, she introduces the main focus of Proving Up: to trace the origins and tenacity of the “agrarian ethos,” how it evolved in tandem with market capitalism, how it came to shape federal land policies, and, more broadly, the relationship of Americans to land over more than two hundred years.
The philosophical roots of this ethos lies, Krall argues, in John Locke’s understanding of property and Thomas Jefferson’s view of the human relationship with land. Locke’s view that property status devolved on those who made use of the land supported Jefferson’s agrarian ideal and an understanding of property rights in the new republic.
Hat tip: bookforum