Monday, May 15, 2017

What would a Greater America look like, anyhow?

In the fall of 1905, the editor of Outing magazine asked Ralph Paine to "get out among the real Americans" and report on the nation then bursting into life beyond the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The veteran war correspondent covered 15,000 miles on his quest, and over the course of a year sent twenty-three dispatches to the magazine. He wrote of homesteaders in sod huts, of men and women building towns and laying railroads across the empty prairie, of cowboys making their last roundup on the open range, of lumberjacks who scorned any tree less than six feet through, of the "health and pleasure resort" that was Los Angeles, and of alkali-coated prospectors in Death Valley. He rode trains and horses, a pilot schooner, a stage coach, and a desert jalopy, and he talked to everyone he met. Outing published Paine's dispatches in 1907 as The Greater America. 

Eastern readers were amazed. "To read the book is to get a new appreciation of the greatness of America, the greatness of her present and the possibilities of her future," wrote one reviewer. Another celebrated it as "a book to make a man hold his head high, to step high, to throw out his chest." That was important in 1907, in a country suddenly unsure of itself, with "muckrakers" chanting about the evils of capitalism as seen from New York and Washington.

When I married Ralph Paine's granddaughter — who was also the granddaughter of one of those Nevada gold miners! — I sat down to read his books in chronological order. The Greater Americawas by far my favorite. We tried to interest a publisher in bringing out a new version, but in those years the U.S. was great enough, thank you, just as it was. Today, however, seems a more propitious time. So here is the book again, in paperback and digital format — a bit shorter, with copious notes and some photos never published before. (Don't confuse it with facsimile copies of the 1907 book, put out by those who try to make a fast buck from the work of dead authors.)


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