The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993 Page: 306

Southwestern Historical Quarterly

Who, he asked rhetorically, including the vaunted Tocqueville, was better
qualified to report on the "American national character" (pp. 595-596)? Olm-
sted's own reports were of "squatterations," "sojourning habits," and of the
"Slipshod"-"that one grand characteristic quality of the frontier" (p. 627). He
was prepared to extend a dichotomy suggested by Henry Mayhew for Victo-
rian London to the American frontier of "two distinct and broadly marked
races, namely, the wanderers and the settlers-the vagabond and the citizen,
the nomadic and the civilized tribes" (p. 659). In Olmsted's judgment, the fron-
tier held too many of the former and too few of the latter in each pairing.
Still, his reports are ambivalent. For this self-confessed "honest growler"
could in the same pages describe himself as "a vagabond" (p. 207), of a "truant
disposition" (p. 327), and "born a pioneer-worker" (p. 226). In a word, Olm-
sted's frontier is as complex as was this unique individual who traversed, de-
scribed, and analyzed it. This handsome and ably-edited volume is a fit reposi-
tory for Olmsted's final word on the American frontier.
Emory University DANA F. WHITE
Fleeting Moments: Nature and Culture in American Hzstory. By Gunther Barth
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pp. xxii + 222. Acknowledg-
ments, introduction, maps, black-and-white photographs, illustrations,
notes, index. $29.95.)
With an anecdote about Petrarch's enjoyment of the Rhone Valley from
Mount Ventoux, Gunther Barth introduces the theme of harmony. "Fleeting
Moments" are those occasions when "nature and culture [are] in harmony"
(p. xix), he argues. In Barth's view, Petrarch's experience was a fleeting mo-
ment as he realized guiltily that nature distracted him from praising God, ar-
chitect of the scene.
Petrarch reified nature. More frequently, Barth informs us, notably in the
New World, newcomers have regarded nature as a commodity, the "servant"
(p. xiv) of an expansive civilization. Barth correctly maintains that moments of
equilibrium between nature and culture are rarely documented or analyzed,
and has formulated a 222-page book around such momentary happenings. His
premise is that civilization ought to be measured by balance with nature, not
hegemony over it.
Three long chapters (averaging fifty-eight pages each) detail these short mo-
ments in American experience. The first, "On Nature's Edge," explores the
quest for the Northwest Passage and its terrestrial counterpart, the Wilderness
Passage. The author shows how explorers and their patrons tackled "wilder-
ness" and travel within the unknown continent. Lewis and Clark are the focus
of chapter two, "On Culture's Edge." Their expedition invented rhetoric ap-
propriate to new vistas and new people, and defined a new geography. "Engi-
neering Nature-Engineering Culture" is Barth's third chapter, addressing
the establishment of urban parks and cemeteries. Wildness is banished in
such plans, nature is safe and attractive, and culture appropriates space for


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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993, periodical, 1993; Austin, Texas. ( accessed December 15, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Texas State Historical Association.