H. W. Brands is a historian who chooses big and familiar topics. Typically, he alternates between biographies of major American political figures and sweeping surveys of significant periods in the nation’s history. One suspects that much of his large, popular readership opens his books already well-versed in their subject matter. But regardless of one’s familiarity with the people and events covered, there is a good reason to keep returning to Brands time and time again: he finds a way to make distinctive and scholarly contributions to each topic he broaches.
Though his academic roots are in American foreign policy, Brands’s most impressive works have been focused on this continent. Lone Star Nation (2004) is widely regarded as the definitive history of the Texas Revolution. His biographies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (1997 and 2008, respectively) are among the most readable in those expansive fields. His studies of American business history, which include American Colossus (2010) and The Money Men (2010), track the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States with an even-handedness rarely found in the subject. It is one thing to declare that the transformation of the American economy in the nineteenth century was both a product of the labors and desires of ordinary people and of the insights and innovations of a uniquely gifted generation of entrepreneurs; it is another thing to demonstrate it, forcefully, in learned prose.
Following so many illustrious achievements, Brands’s latest, Dreams of El Dorado, may be the finest book of his career. Dreams is a work of synthesis in the best sense of the word. It brings together decades of scholarship—both his own and that of his contemporaries in political, social, and economic history—to offer readers a vivid portrait of the American West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and introduce them to the contemporary historiography on the subject. Brands’s West is a frontier of human agency: a landscape in which pioneers, American Indians, missionaries, treasure hunters, nation-states, and capitalists from across the globe asserted competing and often malleable interests in pursuit of their wants and duties. It was also a landscape without a Leviathan; the lack of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force made the West a profoundly violent domain.
Brands’s study is more than the sum of its bibliographic parts, a continuation of career-long interests rather than a mere recapitulation of past scholarship. This is a story of stories, of extraordinary men and women both familiar to readers, such as the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, and largely obscure, like the Methodist missionary Narcissa Whitman, who was one of the first American women to cross the Rocky Mountains. Dreams is also thoroughly engaged in the foreign-policy implications of the events in the American West and equally demonstrates Brands’s abilities as an economic historian. He is as comfortable discussing global markets as he is the microeconomics of the beaver fur trade. And one should add that the synthesis is personal: a native of Oregon and a longtime Texan, Brands writes that he has been interested in his environs as long as he can remember, a sensibility that colors his many writings on the region.
Much as in his other volumes, Brands demonstrates himself to be a master of the archives. In his account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Brands makes frequent use of their journals. Particularly striking in the chapters on Lewis and Clark is the degree to which the explorers’ misunderstandings of the customs of the various American Indian peoples they encountered helped to foster conflict between the party and those groups. This recurring theme is even more pronounced in the section on the doomed Astor expeditions to the Oregon Territory in the 1810s.
Dreams of El Dorado is a gorgeously illustrated book, as well. The detailed maps inside the front and back covers provide easy reference for readers who may not have a deep familiarity with Fort Mandan or the Adobe Walls trading post. The images in the book, which are beautifully rendered throughout, do the work of social history exquisitely. Whether of trappers, railroad workers, or fishermen, the pictures that Brands has selected depict the travails and pastimes of everyday life for the people of the American West.
One small problem with Dreams is its presentation of chronology. Dates and their sequence occasionally get hazy when Brands is juggling multiple events. This may be a product of the author’s desire to keep the tone breezy and conversational. Brands’s style, however, caused me to reach for my phone on several occasions to reorient myself, which distracted me from the masterful narrative. Nevertheless, Dreams is already on its way to becoming the gold standard for twenty-first century scholarship on the American West.