Volume 76
Number 3

The Romance of the West

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Burden of Proof

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PREEMINENT WESTERN HISTORIAN and former Yale University president Howard R. Lamar ’45C has garnered many honors for his sweeping, million-word work, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, among them the 1998 Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and selection as one of the top ten reference books of the year by Library Journal.

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, author of Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, described Lamar’s opus as “a monumental achievement in the historiography of the American West. Howard Lamar has rendered our nation a great service by compiling this magisterial and indispensable reference volume.”

And this fall, Yale honored Lamar’s contributions to the field when it dedicated the Howard Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders, devoted to the study of the frontier experience, the American West, and Native American history.

But for Yale University Press editor Charles Grench, who led a staff of five editors in editing the thirteen-hundred-page book, the most memorable aspect of his involvement with the project came when he accompanied Lamar to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

“I walked into the elevator, and there was this tall guy in a Western-style leisure suit,” says Grench. “The door closed, and he said something to his wife. And the hair just stood up on the back of my neck. I would have known that voice anywhere.”

Grench drops to a whisper.

“It was Clayton Moore–the Lone Ranger.”

Howard Lamar shares Grench’s fascination with the West, “the most American part of the country,” and his awe for its legends.

“I’m a dude turned Westerner,” the dean of frontier scholarship says from his home in New Haven, Connecticut.

Born on an Alabama cotton plantation, Lamar graduated from Emory College in 1945 and received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Yale, where he has spent most of his academic career. He is perhaps best known at Emory for his service as chair of an external committee of educators that helped define the University’s path to preeminence in the years following the 1979 Woodruff gift.

Lamar says the romance of the West first lassoed him as he watched Tom Mix and Gene Autry serials on long-ago Saturdays in his hometown of Tuskeegee. He was drawn in by “the [triumph] of justice over injustice, the code of honor, and the sheer action, . . . even though three-quarters of the action is due to the horse.”

Later, the scholar Lamar would recognize the movie cowboy as the archetypal American, “young, a man of action, in control.”

The siren song of Western mythology, first heard in childhood, has remained as alluring to him as it has to millions of his countrymen.

“One wishes for a romantic past, and that’s where the legends begin, Western legend has no kings or noblemen. It’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things. You have a large congress of pioneer heroes.”

Lamar’s comprehensive reference is chock-full of such heroes: Cochise, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone. In entries that range from A (A&M colleges) to Z (Zuni Indians). The New Encyclopedia of the American West also recounts historic events, enduring myths, cultural phenomena, and such larger-than-life concepts as Manifest Destiny.

“The dominating theme in American history is geographic expansion. The idea that there was ‘another West’ out there was a consuming passion. It meant there was a second chance. . . . The West was a synonym for the future until the end of the twentieth century. . . . Every state in the union in some way had a kind of Western experience as the frontier moved across the country.”

Lamar’s fascination with Western legends was nurtured at Emory by professors who were legends in their own right: J. Harvey Young and the late Prentice Miller. He continued to pursue his interests as a graduate student in history at Yale, where an adviser told him, “Young man, go west for your dissertation.”

Serendipitously, New Yorker William Robertson Coe, a wealthy “professional buff” who’d bought Buffalo Bill Cody’s ranch in Wyoming, had recently enriched Yale’s Western studies department with a vast collection of material including diaries, maps, newspaper articles, letters signed by famous figures, and a trove of original Western art. He also endowed the collection with a budget that made Yale one of the four top sources for Western research materials in the country. Lamar found the collection had “a friendly curator,” and soon he had his dissertation subject: frontier politics in the Dakotas.

In the summer of 1951, Lamar took a three-month trip to explore the Black Hills country. Realizing that the story of the West offered “a window on American history,” he found more than a dissertation subject–he found his life’s work. “I fell in love with the West,” he says.

After Yale offered him a Western seminar to teach, he says, “I went back every summer.” His dissertation was published in 1956 and his teaching duties grew.

By the time John M. Faragher arrived at Yale in 1971, Lamar’s classes had become legendary. Faragher says his first Lamar lecture “knocked my socks off.” The subject–pioneers’ recollections of the Overland Trail and how memory highlighted some experiences and hid others–became Faragher’s dissertation topic, and later, his first book. Another former student, Clyde A. Milner II, now executive editor of the Western Historical Quarterly and a professor of history at Utah State University, says Lamar’s “Survey of the American West” course was “a tour de force, famous at Yale. Students flocked to it.”

“I trained sixty graduate students and Ph.D. candidates,” says Lamar. “Many are now teaching in the West.” Over the span of his career, he would also publish six more books about the region.

One of those works was an ambitious project launched in 1965 and published in 1978 as The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the West, which Library Journal praised as not only “a useful reference tool, but [also] a delight to browse in.” Almost immediately, Lamar started to update it.

By 1991, Lamar was immersed in what would become The New Encyclopedia of the American West. Yale University Press had bought the rights, and Lamar estimated it would take about two years to revise and expand the volume. Circumstances conspired to interfere with that schedule, however, when in 1992 Lamar became acting president of Yale after a leadership crisis. (Lamar was retroactively given the full title of president as a measure of gratitude for his term in office.)

In 1994, Lamar again was able to take up work on the book. The scope of the project was daunting. He contacted six hundred scientists, archivists, geologists, and cultural historians, three hundred of whom became contributors. Fifteen graduate students did legwork in the library, updated old material, and contributed some of the twenty-four-hundred entries. Lamar wrote about one hundred essays himself and revised another five hundred. Every word of the original work was reviewed and updated, and more history of the urban, twentieth-century West was added.

At Yale University Press, Charles Grench assigned five editors to work on the five-thousand-page manuscript. Photos were supplied from repositories around the country and contemporary Western photographers. The Coe collection provided scrapbooks, stereopticons, and Carleton Watkins photography.

“Artists and photographers traveled with explorers, and printed these images very inexpensively,” says Lamar. “People had a way of seeing the West from the earliest days. The romantic images of the period tell us a lot about the times.”

“Western artists provided imagery that became pictorial gospel,” says Peter Hassrick, professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma. “They told how and why the West was being won.”

Published in October 1998, the book received strong reviews and has sold around twelve thousand copies.

“It seems to me to be a kind of representation of the best work we’re able to do,” says Grench.

Still there were objections. Texas novelist Larry McMurtry wrote a review grousing about the lack of an entry for chili.

Others, however, have weighed in about the book’s larger contributions to the body of knowledge about the West. “This book offers you the opportunity to check the facts,” says Faragher. “History has a peculiar power, in that it purports to tell the truth. People are hungry for that, especially in this age of TV and the Internet.”

More significantly, the New Encyclopedia incorporates recent scholarship on the contributions of women, minorities, and native people while building on previous historians’ groundwork.

“Howard’s encyclopedia is a benchmark of all the great works,” says Milner. “It’s in touch with not only the most recent work, but grand older traditions.” He notes that Western scholars’ differing philosophies have created heated debates: “It’s not one big happy bunkhouse.”

The book “tracks how much the field has changed in the last generation,” says Lamar protégé Faragher, who went on to publish a prizewinning biography of Daniel Boone and later took his mentor’s teaching post as Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History. The emphasis on ethnic traditions and Indian and oral history “stands as a monument to new scholarship.”

Perhaps the only subject to bring higher praise than Lamar’s book is Lamar himself.

“I’ve known a lot of scholars,” says Milner. “Many are good people. Few can match Howard for his kindness and decency.”

The new Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders will offer fellowships and research grants on Western studies, establish a collection, and hold lectures and an annual conference.

Says Faragher, “We’d like to make some waves and keep Howard’s name before the public.”

Krista Reese is a frequent contributor to Emory Magazine.










© 2000 Emory University