Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 39-54.
HISTORIOGRAPHY: MYTH FOR ENLIGHTENMENT
Noted historians Will and Ariel Durant have outlined the importance of knowing, understanding, and celebrating history as a valuable heritage. They call historiography "an industry, an art, and a philosophy-an industry by ferreting out the facts, an art by establishing a meaningful order in the chaos of the materials, a philosophy by seeking perspective and enlightenment." A true evaluation of the history of the American West is an important consideration for Americans, because as the Durants claim, there is much to gain from a proper understanding of it. In order to gain perspective and enlightenment from an understanding of the peoples of the past, particularly Native Americans, whose way of life had been all but obliterated by the coming of white settlers, we must delve into past events and consider their impact on the culture and norms of contemporary society. If we are to gain a philosophic understanding of history, as the Durants insist that we must, then there must be those historians among us who diligently produce a reliable manifestation of that understanding.
Robert Dorman categorizes what Mari Sandoz does in this regard as "myth-making." His conception of myths is that they are "not make-believe constructs debunked by 'true' life ... [but] instead, ordered, value-laden symbols and narratives communally shared and transmitted, that interpret an irrational world and provide guideposts for action within it." He considers Mari Sandoz a regionalist in the sense that she was able to take the events and substance of the western frontier and make them accessible to readers. He writes: "Regionalism, simultaneously an art and a religion, recovered the folk from the past as pure myth: the 'high traditions' of the regionalist civic religion. This myth-making recovery was ... a self-conscious procedure of cultural reconstruction." Sandoz provided a manifestation of historical events for her readers that went beyond a mere recitation of facts and ideas; in fact, her works consciously sought, as the Durants have noted all historiography should, to bring enlightenment and perspective to history. Her biographical books took liberties with standard elements of historical writing by partially fictionalizing conversations and events so that the symbols of culture could be read and evaluated. Betsy Downey points out that other historians considered these fictionalizations to be "serious flaws" in that they lacked the normal documentation needed for academic writing, that Sandoz was "terse" about providing bibliographies, and that only she could track the sources of her writing. Despite these criticisms, Julie Des Jardins acknowledges that Sandoz and other women like her had produced, from the margins of historical writing, "the hidden pasts of western women and native groups whose lives were irretrievable through traditional records alone." Downey acknowledges that Sandoz "deliberately sought to correct the biases and to eliminate the omission that characterized traditional Western histories, particularly in her Indian histories," and in this respect her writing could be valuable because of this "interpretive approach."
Sandoz's works were produced to bring about a new perception of the events of the past and to shape the attitudes and actions of those who would read her work. Downey contends that Sandoz's agenda was such that she exhibited a "bias" that reflected her social conscience identified with the "Populist/Progressive/New Deal political tradition."
The criticism of Sandoz's works alleged, according to Downey, that they were "perspectivist" and "one-sided," sometimes "distorted, by time and by language problems," and dominated by the ideas of historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who believed that "complete scientific objectivity could not be reached and that historians naturally interpreted the past in light of their own experiences and the issues of their day." Sandoz confronted social injustices experienced by women, cultural minorities, and the poor, including farmers in the Great Plains, and in a broader sense her interpretation of the past was influenced by the atrocities of two world wars, a catastrophic economic depression in the United States, and the diminishing population and marginalization of American Indians. Her fictional and historical works championed the marginalized and dealt with issues that were important to her within the context of the events of the early twentieth century.