Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Susan Lee Johnson's "Writing Kit Carson"

Susan Lee Johnson is the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Writing Kit Carson: Fallen Heroes in a Changing West, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Writing Kit Carson makes sense of the book’s subtitle, Fallen Heroes in a Changing West. The book as a whole weaves the life stories of two obscure white women, nonprofessional historians, who researched and wrote about the frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson in the 1960s and 70s just as western folk heroes like Carson were tumbling from their pedestals. Both Quantrille McClung and Bernice Blackwelder were westerners themselves, having grown up in Colorado and Kansas, respectively, and the book reveals how their origins shaped the histories they wrote. It explores the relationship between women historians and male historical subjects and between academic and amateur historians during an era when the field of western history professionalized: Blackwelder and McClung published on Carson in 1962, the same year that the Western History Association was founded. The book also examines the seductions of gender in the context of racialized power—how white women have given gendered selfhood shelter, letting their racial selves run wild, untended and too often malign. Underneath these stories runs a current of thought about how what we know about the past depends on the conditions of our knowing. Necessarily, then, I’m also a character in the book, not an omniscient observer, since my own production of historical knowledge, my own relationship to the West and its once-celebrated pioneers, must be at issue as I examine those of McClung and Blackwelder.

Page 99 marks a crucial turning point because it begins my narration of Kit Carson’s fall from grace, which followed the publication of Blackwelder and McClung’s work. While criticism of Carson had long circulated in Indigenous and ethnic Mexican communities, given his role in American Indian dispossession and in the U.S. conquest of the Mexican North, now those criticisms burst onto a wider stage, prompted first by an Indigenous anthropologist’s complaints about a Carson portrait displayed in a Colorado College ROTC exhibit and then by the campaign of a Mexican American civil rights group to change the name of Kit Carson Memorial State Park, in Taos, New Mexico, to Santiago Lujan Memorial State Park, which would honor a Native soldier from Taos Pueblo who perished in World War II. On page 99, I explain that even though “the decline in Carson’s reputation was a century in the making,” it was “the effects of political gravity that pulled him down to earth . . . in the 1970s.” But the gravitational pull did not originate in the Navajo Nation, which had “the gravest historical grievance against Carson, given his role in the brutal 1863-64 Navajo campaign conducted by the U.S. Army,” a campaign that ended in the Long Walk of the DinĂ© to a reservation far from home. Instead, I explain on the following page, “the outcry against [Carson] arose along a corridor that he had known well, stretching from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado south into the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico.” The response of both professional and nonprofessional western historians to this outcry, including the reaction of McClung and Blackwelder, and the way social movements more generally shaped the field of western history going forward, inform my arguments about how we know what we know about the past and how that knowledge is shaped by the conditions of our knowing. While scholars have considered such questions, I contend that critical and reflexive biography allows us to ask questions about identity and subjectivity, about knowledge and politics, more difficult to pose in traditional hyperopic histories.
Learn more about Writing Kit Carson at the University of North Carolina Press.

--Marshal Zeringue