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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Patty Limerick, professor of history and founding director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. Limerick was a MacArthur Fellow from 1995 to 2000, the Colorado State Historian from 2016 to 2018, a member of the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2016 to 2019, and has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Studies Association, the Western History Association and the Society of American Historians. She's a founding member of the Benson Center's executive committee, and she's author of Desert Passages, The Legacy of Conquest, A Ditch in Time, and Something in the Soil, in addition to her many op-eds and essays. Our discussion today focuses on her classic book, The Legacy of Conquest, and its re-interpretation of Western American history. We explore her challenge to the myth of the West, her unexpected affection for that same myth, the social and political relevance of applied history today, and the role humor can play in public and academic discourse. Patty Limerick, welcome to the Free Mind podcast. Thanks for being with us.
PATTY LIMMERICK: Oh, thank you, I think that very name here, Free Mind, I think that gives me a sense of I'm in the right place.
SHILO BROOKS: I hope so, I hope so. I can't think of many freer minds at the University of Colorado at Boulder than yours. And I wanted to talk to you a little bit today about a book which is both famous, and as you point out in your introduction or preface to the book, you wrote a new preface some years ago, infamous, perhaps as well. And that is a book called The Legacy of Conquest, which by my math, next year, 2022, is the 35th anniversary of its publication. And so I'd like to talk to you today about the book, about its effect on the field, about your approach, what's changed, what stayed the same and Western American history more broadly.
PATTY LIMMERICK: I'm ready.
SHILO BROOKS: All right, well, let me ask you this. So I really loved your new preface to the book. And I think a lot about, in my own, being a Westerner, being a Texan, I think a lot about the myth of the West. And you said something in that preface which stunned me. You and I have talked about, one of my favorite authors, is Larry McMurtry, who, he famously wrote a book called Lonesome Dove, which he meant for it to demythologize the West. And he said once in an interview that all it did was cement the myth of the West even more. You say something similar. I wanna read this to you, and get your reflection on it. You say that, "Most disorienting for some who have puzzled over my change in methods is that I reverse my conduct toward the Western myth, the myth of the West prevailed over plucky challenges to it. After defeats beyond counting, a new strategy seemed in order. Why not try to co-op the myth and enlist its endless energy for good causes? Moreover, why not even have fun with it?" And then you talk about how you own a lot of Western wear, much more Western wear than you owned when you wrote the book. The purpose of which was to, as you say, in other places in the book, challenge the myth of the West, make the history of the West grow out its complexity and challenge the simplicity of the myth. So my question for you is, why did you choose to embrace the myth after having spent so much time bringing out its nuance and complexity?
PATTY LIMERICK: Well, that is a very interesting verb choice there, embrace the myth. Given the masculinity of the myth, that is quite a little bit out there, but I'm fine with that. I would almost go more with dance with the myth, because I did do, I did go to the Grizzly Rose and take two-step dancing. So that was literal, and I totally, I would so not want to be the male in charge of leading. I think that is really, really hard on the dance floor, I understand why men are so troubled because they do have this terrible burden of leading on the dance floor, and I never had to do that, but I think that's pretty close to what I decided to do, that I would rather try to adopt the rhythms of the Western myth, certainly adopt some of the clothing styles, but just see if I could do something that would be more interesting, and give me more engaging stories to tell, then when I met with opposition.
When I thought I was going to defeat the American belief in the West as a mythic place, well, that didn't work. So that was one reason to give it up. But I also think the stories that I generated then were kind of boring. I corrected this misunderstanding, or this is a misstatement that was often made, and it's "Oh, that's really great. You were a fact checker and that was that what you were." So the blood didn't surge with excitement over that. So I thought it was just a lot more interesting to try to, I guess it is co-op, but just cease the waste of energy in head-to-head combat, which I always lost. I don't mind losing. I was a fine with losing. When I was a kid, I was a great ping pong player. I always lost with grace, but this was just too many losses at a time. And then it was wonderful, I have to give tribute to the students at Fort Lewis College in Durango. I went to give a speech there, oh, I don't know what, 25 or 30 years ago. And I had a New York Times book review that I'd been reading, and the inside front cover had a book by a woman named Penelope Williamson. I think it was actually a committee and not a person, but she had written, or they had written, a book called The Heart of the West. And it was a very florid ad for this Western novel. And it had a beautiful sunset and it was, well, the title was The Heart of the West. It said, "No one knew whether the schoolmarm would be strong enough to stand up to the charm of a real Western man," or something like that. And then it said at the end, very pretend, as it said, "Montana was not the only frontier." So I had this ridiculous ad and I held that up to the students in Fort Lewis and I said, "How many? Okay, so here's The Legacy of Conquest. You had to read some of that, here's this ad for this novel, you have 100 points to distribute. How many points do you give to this book, The Heart of the West, for its influence and impact on popular culture, and how many points do you give to The Legacy of Conquest?" And the students all gave 99 points to the novel and one point to Legacy of Conquest." And then afterwards they were good students and honest, and they said, we only gave you one point 'cause we felt sad for you. So that was, I'm still grateful for that moment of just thinking, well, right, I mean, who am I fooling? "Montana was not the only frontier," I mean for heaven sake. So I certainly have had a far more interesting time. My stories are so much more interesting since I made this shift. There is a chance I've had more of an impact and made more of a difference. I don't know how to measure that, but the phrasing I used, it started going on forever. But the phrase I usually use is that I used to be contentious and controversial. And then I became congenial and collaborative. And for some people who knew me in the previous phrase for space, they were very disappointed and very sad to this day that I made the change. But the quality of my stories and experiences and quotable things said to me is so much higher since I made that shift.
SHILO BROOKS: I wanna stick with this line of questioning for just a moment, 'cause this is so interesting to me, what you say about the way in which your own message has been received, perhaps more widely after this dancing, not an embracing as you put it, that's my term and I'll stick to it, but I'll use dancing for now, with the myth of the West. I have the following thing in mind that this is getting at something interesting to me, theoretically, about historiography and history. And by that, I mean this. I just read an essay and wrote a little bit on an essay by a philosopher named Frederick Nietzsche. And the essay is called "The Use and Disadvantage of History for Life." And in the essay, Nietzsche distinguishes between three kinds of history or historiography. And I wanna run these three by you because I was thinking of you, or rather I was thinking of him, as I read you. He talks at first about monumental history and he says monumental history is primarily ancient history, Tacitus, Thucydides, Plutarch. These are histories of great human beings, larger than life. And monumental history is monumental precisely because it makes its subjects greater than they were, and it's by no means concerned with accuracy. It's concerned with, in fact, accuracy is repugnant to it. It's concerned with erecting a monument or a portrait to the greatness, even at the expense of historical accuracy. So that's monumental history.
Second would be antiquarian history. Antiquarian history is the kind of history that's concerned above all, he says, with the dust of bibliographic minutiae. It wants accuracy. I suspect that you're well aware of this, I would say many history departments, scholarly history is antiquarian history. He calls this history in decline. It's usually the history of a people who's not great any longer, the way monumental history is the history of the great people. And then he says there's a third type, which is critical history. And critical history is really a kind of history which destroys our vision of the past. Monumental creates it, antiquarian preserves it. And then the critical historian comes along and completely destroys what we thought we knew about the past in an effort to pave the way, Nietzsche says, for a new past.
The reason I thought of this when reading your book is that the myth of the West is monumental history. You point this out in your own book. It never happened that way. It's more complex than cowboys and Indians on the frontier. There are these groups of, I mean, you write about the Chinese and the place of the Chinese in the West. You write about the fact that the whites, they had the sort of victim complex, and they were not these great independent people, but in fact, they were dependent on the federal government. There's all these nuances and complexities, in other words. You talk about Indian culture and the Indian struggles in the way that they're not simply the upright noble savages, that there's a great deal more complexity between and among them. And so when I was thinking about your book, I noticed that the myth of the West is sort of monumental history. It's not accurate at all. Nietzsche says that monumental history is in fact meant to inspire the reader to go and be great, like those people were, at the expense of accuracy. Young people in particular need to pick this up, read a history of Lincoln and be him. And then I thought, well, what Patty's doing here is she's engaging in critical history. She's tearing down the monument and in a way she is destroying this myth. This came up again for me.
And I apologize for going on at length. I suspect you'll have quite a response, when you were talking about Ronald Reagan's second inaugural, and you said, "Look, here's some things Reagan says. He talks about the West. He says that it's a place of great progress. He talks about the men of the Alamo and how they should encourage one another. And these beautiful images, the settler pushes West, sings his song. It echoes out forever, the American sound, idealistic, daring, decent." And then after you say that, you say, "Well, this image of Western history is ethnocentric and it's tied to a simple notion of progress, and professional Western historians have explored the conflict and unintended consequences and complexities in Western history. Whereas presidents continue to see only freedom, opportunity in abundance." And that was a point for me where the critical historian in you comes out, you take this big, beautiful thing that I want to believe, that all these Americans want to believe. Maybe it's not true, but it's gonna give us inspiration, and say, "You know what? That's not really how it happened." And I guess the presidents haven't heard that yet. So I'm interested, given what I've just said about these three types of histories, well, whether you envisioned yourself at the time as a critical historian and whether you see any importance in monumental history, which is in a certain sense mythological history, given your retaking in of the myth of the West.
PATTY LIMERICK: Then, we have another hour and 45 minutes. There's a lot to be done with that. And the first thing has to be, I don't know if I'm gonna apologize to Thucydides, but I am going to say that I am a Herodotus fan and I don't know how anyone could really be anything else, because Herodotus is certainly my role model, whatever stance I've taken. He's just got this mad cap curiosity, and sometimes really okay with sources, sometimes not. It is said that the Egyptians [inaudible] really so, so I figured that I had a wonderful, [inaudible] for the moment. I'm very glad that I had a wonderful Western Civ class my freshmen year in college, you're better for it all kinds of ways. And Herodotus was, I don't wanna think what life would have been like if I hadn't had him, 'cause that sort of, see it's not just me, it's this guy from 2,500 years ago, I'm in his tradition. Thucydides I thought was dull, but I'm not gonna say that anymore because I think I just stopped reading too soon. And I gather his stuff on the plague is, if I haven't read that, I'm deficient in big ways. So I apologize to all the people I've offended over the years by saying, "Oh, Thucydides I could do without him." But Herodotus is my kid and I'm not sure he gets around to celebrating much of anybody. I mean, he's just, it's just, well, the people they're really quite something. And so I think I may have just come back around to my Herodotus roots on this, but to go back to this wonderful framework, this Nietzsche guy, I think, I don't think he appeared in our Western conquest anywhere near as much as he should have. So, we'll have to have a reunion 'cause that is really interesting, those three forms.
So yes, in the 1980s writing Legacy of Conquest, I was young, but I was fatigued with and tired of the enshrinement of Western heroes that was often called the triumphal narrative of Westward expansion and so on. I just thought, "Well, that doesn't work." And if people, I guess what I used to say is that if people who read science fiction novels about Mars, put them down and said, "Well, now I know what the Martians are like." You would say, "Oh actually, no, you just read fiction about Martians, you don't actually know anything about Mars or Martians if you read science fiction." And sadly, when people read romanticized exaggerated versions of Western history, they think, "No, I know what the West was like." No more than you would know about Martians and Mars if you read science fiction. So I was trying to, well, I used those kinds. I had beautiful phrases. Oh, goodness, I was so good and I was feisty. I was really good. I had a wonderful phrase about how the Western myth will use you before you can use it. I used to say that, "Oh, be careful what you say because things might change on you." So I did that and it was very satisfying and I could have gone to law school, almost. I did apply I guess, and didn't do that. So I really do have a streak of argument that needed to come out, and so I did. So it was really fun.
Oh, then there was kind of a reckoning of just thinking after all the adrenaline that had coursed through my system of just thinking, "Well, now what?" And I'm proud of the fact that whatever the stereotypes of women might be in the 1980s or whatever, and whatever stereotype I had held on myself, I was not fraudulent, I was not frail. Just as for heaven sake, more women proportionately survived the Donner Party than men. So we think of women as frail? What's that about? So I liked the fact that I was not wimpy and that I enjoyed a good argument, good fight. And I held my own and so on, but I really did have to say, I just don't know that this is accomplishing much, and that to this drive to have good stories to tell, I'm not sure it's generating particularly interesting stories. When some of the older Western historians were enraged, and they were not artful. They just said clumsy, condemnatory things that weren't in any relationship to what I had written. So they would say Limerick is prejudiced against white men. She has a terrible bias against white men. I think, well, then why did I dedicate the book to my white husband and my two white nephews? Huh? What kind of failure of a prejudiced person am I with that? So it was irritating to me that I was rarely getting what I considered to be a good fight with people actually saying what I had said and responding to that. And to this day, when someone takes something I actually said, and says, I was totally wrongheaded about it, I think, oh yay. I said that, let's talk about it. It's really good. But I had a long spell where people were just agitated and not making sense. So that's not truthful. And sometimes I began to think I was losing my audience in ways I didn't necessarily do that, in terms of outside the university audiences. Why would I not want them with me and listening and interesting experiences? This was an odd one at the California Studies Association, I gave some kind of plenary speech in the late '80s and this nice man came afterwards and he said, "Oh." And I'd done my whole Legacy of Conquest. We have to be realistic that was [inaudible] and he said, "Oh, well that was a good talk and well delivered." He said, "But you know, since I'm not an academic, everything you said was obvious to me." That's not totally gratifying. So for thinking people who were really looking at where they were, I mean, I was in Sacramento, Sutters Fort. You can't get romantic about John Sutter. That was not a good man. That was not a pleasant man, John Sutter. So anybody like this man living in Sacramento had, he was way down the road, of realistic appraisals of Western history.
So there were those people, there were the diehards who were so determined to believe in a soft focus lens version of Western history and I couldn't reach them. So it was really fun to just say, "I think it's time for a different approach." And then speaking of the free mind, there being no example or model for me to follow, that's a great, okay, good. So I'm not gonna do what I did before, the debunking thing. I'm not gonna do that 'cause that hasn't really been very fruitful. So what am I gonna do instead? And that was really one great exercise in improvisation. I'm really lucky that in college at UC Santa Cruz, I was a member of the Banana Slug improvisational theater. So that was probably the best training I had for being a storyteller and trying to engage with wider audiences. So I went off into all kinds of experiments. The upshot of all this is that yes, I am credentialed in critical history and destroying, or attempting to destroy, I never actually got anywhere in that and taking a tiny chisel and trying to shake the monuments, but not really getting anywhere with that. And maybe a little bit glorifying myself for my bravery in taking my tiny chisel and working away at the monumental history, but not having much impact.
Then I'm totally devoted to the fact thing. The document it, provide evidence. Don't say, "I just have the feeling that this is the way it was," but totally supportive of that whole project of show me your evidence, and really aware of the fact that the people of the past were not thinking of us, and did not leave utterly detailed records that told us everything we wanted to know about them. So we can say, let's only go with the evidence, but the evidence sometimes only goes so far. And then we have to, with integrity, try to figure out what we can from jumping off from that evidence. Then the part that I didn't see coming, and still, I work on getting familiar with this, with the monumental history, is that well, okay. So it does no good for any cause to take a person who did quite a number of things that were right and admirable, and then turned out to be, with further examination, a flawed human being. It does no one any good to carry that person to the trash heap of history and bury him or her in the landfill. At that point, we have enough stuff to put in landfills and we don't need that.
So then I got gradually more interested in what might we have as a system of reflection, and calibration, and attention paid, to the whole of a historical episode, to the whole of a particular individual. And, this is a very strange, this, I'm not sure this works at all, but I keep using it, that it's a little bit like refining a mineral. A lot of that happened in Western history. How can you get the tailings out and keep the valuable resource? How can you filter out the character traits and the actions you would never want to have repeated, and still keep the inspiration when that is in the package? So I'm still kind of working on that part, that I have no, so I guess I've done, does Nietzsche have a fourth thing that I could try? Is there a fourth, I've got, I'm still on the, okay, so what if we tried, basically I'm doing that. What if we did all three at once. If we don't, what kind of muddle are we fated to live in? Because the people of the past are never gonna be 100% collaborative with monumental history. They're never going to be 100% collaborative with that, now, I can read my own writing there, antiquarian. And they're not gonna be 100%. They're certainly not gonna comply with the critical history that dismantles them and shows them to be, oh, jerks. So that's not going to work. So how do we bring those three together? And that's what I'm really enjoying about life now is to think, how do we do that in a way and this gets back to one of the things I said right at the start is, how do we not lose our audience? Because to a significant degree, academic history has lost its audience. So I never had an audience. So I guess I couldn't lose it, but how can we gain a substantial audience?
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, this is interesting to me because you stand at such a height with respect to the question of criticism of the past, because you did it in 1987 and now in 2020, this is not merely the exercise or activity of your discipline, but almost every discipline has become a critical discipline. And by that, I mean, a discipline, which looks back at the founding or the origin either of Western civilization or of America and says, "All the things that you thought were true, aren't true. And not only are they not true, they're harmful and dangerous to believe." And this came to a head of course, this summer. I think there's no, I mean, we're talking about monumental history for gosh sakes. And as I mentioned to you, Nietzsche says that's the erection of a portrait of a human being, which is perhaps greater than they really were, but it's meant to inspire future generations. And it's okay if they believe a false thing. We've of course now said, at least we seem to be gesturing in the direction as a culture, that that's not okay anymore, that these things should be criticized and torn down. So one of the things that's most interesting to me, to get your perspective on, is the academy in general has become critical to the point where, in the exercise of teaching undergraduates, they can find almost nothing inspirational from someone who teaches Shakespeare and then who immediately tears Shakespeare down as a white, biased, privileged man, or the same way feel very near and dear to my heart, the American Founding to say, "Well, now Jefferson and Madison just really aren't worth it anymore because they were hypocrites, because Jefferson wrote this document, but clearly he didn't believe it, because he held slaves and this sort of thing." And so it seems to me, in a certain sense, your goal in The Legacy of Conquest was to inject nuance into the conversation, yet remain critical. But one could argue that the overly critical character of the academy in being overly critical or hypercritical loses precisely that nuance in the way that you were saying. In other words, we're sure Jefferson was a bit of a hypocrite, and yes, in fact, he knew it and isn't that weird? We should really talk about that, that he knew it. And so I just wanna kind of get your perspective on, from 1987 to 2020, this thing that you were doing has really exploded and has become the way to get tenure. And where do you stand, having been a kind of trailblazer of this, and now in a certain sense, having turned on it, what's your view of this?
PATTY LIMERICK: Oh, what an interesting question of life experience to have here, because as I used to say, I really was one great young Turk, and then I suddenly became the established old bird and it happened really, really fast. And it should not have happened that fast. And I wouldn't have minded a few more years. I was a very good young rebel, I was really good. And then suddenly I had become established, and some very humorous things happened to bring that to my attention, which I was raised by. So I would say that in terms of my own positioning here, I was born at just the right time to synthesize a bunch of studies in Western American history that required a different container than the Western-moving frontier and the white people. So that had reached critical mass of specialized studies, that did not fit in the existing or celebratory model of Western expansion. So lucky me to have parents who brought me into the scene just at the right time to be out of graduate school and a little bit licensed to take that on and to bring it together and be, I guess, a little bit of a flag bearer. I mean, I don't even know what I was really. All I know is that synthesizing is hard work because you were doing something that you're supposed to do, monographs, you're supposed to do specialized research. You're supposed to do university press books on a single subject, approached in depth and articles and so on. And I wanted to do that. Let's bring it all together because we were always told that everyone's research was like a brick. And those bricks were to be assembled into something until everyone worked away at their specialized topic in history. And then we would have these pieces and parts, and then we would have a whole, but nobody put the whole together. It was just like, "Well, wait, we have a brick yard where we have an incredible collection of bricks just spread out in our brick yard." And they are certainly not becoming a building on their own. They're just sitting there. And so I was really lucky to be a parasite, really, to just grab that opportunity and to say, "Look at all those bricks. Let's see what happens when we put them together." So that was, my contribution was, to do that in the field. But again, remember all these other people made all those bricks. So there's a lot of footnotes and legacy and a lot of, so that is not, look what I've come up with. This is really, look what I found in the brick yard, put together by the other brick makers here. And now I brought it together.
So that was really lucky. And it happened probably in other fields. What happened in Southern history and happened in other fields before it got to Western history. So we were a little bit late, which is good news for me, So I write that and it's still precarious. I'm living here in Boulder. I have a book contract. I don't have tenure. I'm thinking, weight every page of this book, with few pages existing, because it was so nerve wracking for so long. So there wasn't too many pages to worry about there, but just thinking when there are pages on every page, I am saying things about a subject that 21 people know in depth and I do not. So they are going to just come after me, whatever they think about my overarching point of view. They're going to know as specialists that I was out of my field on every page, because I don't have a field, just this broader thing. So that was nerve wracking. And I would say, I spent maybe, I don't know what, 19 15-minute units just staring at a living room while thinking I am really in trouble. And I don't have tenure. I had my first book out, but oh boy. And I did not know, that's what I think, we so have to remember about the people the past is that they live on the edge of a future that they cannot see, which we will see because time has rolled on and they did not have that privilege. So for me, sitting in 1985, looking at my living room wall, thinking this could be it, I'm trying, I'm really trying here. And the overarching view will anger a number of people and I have to do that. And the intrusion on specialists, I have to do that. And I'm, so here we go.
So I was scared from time to time. And then when the book was done, I mean, but I didn't have anything else to do. I had to write another book and there it was. And also let's say that, so I went to Santa Cruz as an undergraduate and in hippie years ambition was a form of sin. So if we had been in Hawthorne's novel and we had scarlet A's on our tie-dyed shirts, the "A" would have stood for ambition, not for adultery or anything like that. So ambition had been a sin when I was a kid. And so I would never have said I was ambitious. I would have gotten an attorney to defend myself against such a terrible charge, but I was ambitious. And I was hoping, I'm sure that there was quite a heartbeat of wanting to have an impact and so on, but also the fear at the same time. So anyway, the book comes out, nothing much happens for a little bit. And then my editor called me and tells me The New York Times book review is not very positive. And then he says, he's trying to be nice, but he says, "You know Patty, I think your next book is going to do a lot better." I think, "Okay, it just got published this week. And it's just a tiny little toddler of a book and it's already, it's over." And so I was very sad. Well, he was wrong. And the book still generates royalties, regular people read it. Public officials read it, all kinds of people read it. You have, if you go to graduate school really in American history, sometimes you just have to have to read that. I run into young people at conferences who say, "Oh yeah, I was reading that, that made me decide I wanted to be. I mean, it's really good."
But nobody knew that, least about me at the time. And the upshot of that is that I got to whatever I had in the way of professional academic ambitions. I arrived at the success rating level on that much sooner than I'd expected, to the point where I then had to say, this is finally getting back to your question here. Oh, I then had to say, "Well, now what? If I have climbed the ladder of academic achievement in a very eccentric and unorthodox way, but I haven't done that, and I have a few people trying to pull me off the ladder from time to time, but they're not getting anywhere with that. So now what do we do?" There's more to the ladder. I got to be president of a lot of professional associations. I mean, it didn't make sense to me to keep trying to move further up that ladder. So that's when I got to have the opportunity, incredible privilege of going sort of lateral over sending American West public engagement, wider audiences spending as much time, well, going out to give speeches to public audiences, but then spending more time going out to dinner or lunch or breakfast with my audiences and listening to them, learning about Western communities through hanging out. Sometimes they would put me in pickup trucks and drive me around and show me forestry practices that I had read about but never seen, it's exciting.
So I just got this incredible opportunity to move outside the walls and to discover that just a unit of discretion, of thinking about what I was gonna say before I said it, and thinking about how I could say it most persuasively, which also means thinking about how I could say it most off-puttingly and then choosing to the degree every once in a while, the off-putting thing was too appealing, and I had to give that an old try just for old time's sake, but mostly just thinking I will have better conversations before and after giving this talk, I'll do the talk later. I'll be better set up to learn more constantly about what is going on in the world and what it would mean to bring historical perspective to bear on contemporary dilemmas. And that then became the slogan, at the Center of the American West, "Turning Hindsight into Foresight." So that turned out to be a form of satisfaction and stimulation. And I mean, other people, when they get to my age, they have to do crossword puzzles to keep their minds nimble and not to be, not me. I mean, I had to learn about hydraulic fracturing. That's what I did instead of a crossword puzzle, which, there are moments where you think, I think I could really prefer a crossword puzzle to wellbore casings, and so on, but I never knew much about wellbore casings. Now, I know more about those things. So, I think it's a direction that the history profession is gonna move in. I really do think that, I think it might almost be gearing up in that direction, but I will say there was a long phase where I did not seem to be doing what a normal, accomplishing, historian should be doing.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, no, that makes sense. And I think that that's a really good account of what makes you different. And I say, I hope the history profession is moving in that direction very, very much. One of the things that struck me when reading this book, and sort of certainly in light of the comment that I made a moment ago, about criticism being the fashion in the academy, perhaps to a fault, and you having begun there, but then having avoided it. And you're now certainly known at least at CU as much more of a creator than a critic, much more of a builder than a tearer down. Was the book, I'm a Westerner, the book doesn't, I don't find your criticisms of the West off putting. And I'm sitting there trying to think, "Why am I not mad at her?" The same way as I said, a moment ago, when someone criticizes Jefferson or Madison or Lincoln, I'm not mad at them either if it's a great historian. And so I was trying to think to myself, what is it that Patty does in her criticism, that many contemporary critics of the West, or whether it's the American West or the American Founding or Western civilization, don't do, such that I'm willing to listen to her? She meets me somewhere in the middle. And there was a line that really struck me where you say, this is where you're talking about the historians' job with respect to the people that they investigate. And you say Indian people can and should write their own histories, according to their tradition, just as pioneers and their descendants have every right to publish books enshrining their own version of the past. For the sake of national and regional self-understanding however, there should be a group of people reading all these books and paying attention to all these points of view. In that process, Western historians will not reach a natural omniscient objectivity. And so you point out that you're not discouraging the creation, if Indian peoples want to write their history, in terms of the creation myths of themselves coming out of the ground and kind of genesis of their being, a mythological genesis, you're not opposed to that. And if Western pioneers wanna write stories about gun-toting cowboys and the heroes who came West, you're not opposed to that either. What you wanna do is take those points of view and put them into conversation with one another. And so, while you were back then a rebel, as you put it, I would argue that the seeds of who you are now are present in your claim that look, somebody should pay attention to all these viewpoints. And even that person by doing that, you're so moderate as to say, they're not gonna be God either. They're not gonna have the definitive account, the objective account either. And so it occurs to me that that's why Legacy of Conquest, maybe that's why it's persisted, but that's why it's different from some of the other kind of critical history going on today. I wonder if you see these things yourself.
PATTY LIMERICK: Well, of course, I have forgotten a bit share of what appears in that book. So thank you very much for reading that passage because that's it, I mean, that's still what some American West does. Listen and maybe a little bit more than I might have thought when I was writing, because I hadn't really done much of it in '86, that at some point the historian who's attempting this high wire act needs to say to some people, could you not shout now, where we're listening to this group now, and then your moment will be coming. We're certainly going to do that, but could you not interrupt them now? Would it be, may I ask you just to, well for now, and then we'll have you come up. So I'm not sure I really got how much the opportunity would be there for historians to be the moderators, which I will say I enjoy doing privately. If you ever wanna see me just perishing with unhappiness, put me in the back of a room where I have no authority, where a public conversation is just going off the rails. And I just have to sit in the back and watch the moderator get ruled, have me watch a presidential debate. Ahh, no, stop, wait, the moderator, the moderator's dead, someone get life support in here. The moderator died and no one seems to have noticed that we need CPR. We need something here very fast 'cause we have a dead moderator and that's not gonna help bring him back to wanna moderate, but we need… so I get wild as you can see 'cause I'm getting wild even in this fantasy of just saying "Get the moderator breathing again. This is very bad to watch this person perish in front of us."
So I have loved the fact that this turned out. I don't think I really knew that when I was writing that passage, but I know it now. That yes, someone who listens and then the one place where I think I do remember this, because this is a really silly story, but the last two sentences of Legacy of Conquest, I do remember those because a quite unpleasant man, a story you've written about [indistinct] wrote a review of Legacy in the Philadelphia Inquirer. And he said, quoted those, the last two lines. Which I do remember because he mocked them. So I will tell you he said that Legacy of Conquest was a cream pie of a book. Well, who knows what that meant, but banana cream pie, I guess, or something like that. Anyway, so this man though, did get onto a more cogent point where he quoted these last two lines, which are, a list of a bunch of diverse groups in the West. And it says, "We share the same region and we wait to be introduced the serious exploration of the process that made us neighbors provide that introduction."
So I remember that because this unpleasant man quoted those two lines and then he said, "Limerick thinks history can be therapeutic. When she's been in the business for a while, she'll realize it is too depressing to be therapeutic." So that was an interesting thing, I mean, I was 37 years old when that appeared and I'm not sure that I quite knew what to make of. I think I seem to have a nudge more irritation over the cream pie comparison [laughs]. Still, even though I'm like mud pie, I would feel flattered by that. It'll be really good if you could have the chocolate layers, and so well, that didn't happen. So I think that gives it all away. Those last two lines and the passage you read is just, what do you know? We were trained as historians to read a diverse range of sources and the Puritans, I'd read the Puritans a lot. They make no sense. The first time that you read a Puritan sermon, it makes no sense because, I mean, it can't because we are sinners and yet some of us have grace and what could all this mean? And then you read it again and maybe the third time you think, "Oh, if you lived in that world, if the world you viewed it in those terms, then these actions those." So you get that, oh, no then some of the dissenters go to Rhode Island. So oh-oh, you have to go to Rhode Island with the dissenters and try to figure out why these people, why they had left puritanism. So we were just figuring out the Puritans. Now, we have to go to Rhode Island deal with these people and halfway. So then we get them and then, oh-oh, now we have to do the Pequots. We better do that because the Pequot are really important if we don't pay attention to their point of view. Oh no, now that they are against it, so my goodness.
Okay. All ready. So it's this guy, I got it, I had it. I know who these people, I get some glimpse of how the world look to them. Oh, no, this, this is, I get comfortable. Here's another group. So that's what you have to do just to do a couple of, well, this is not fair to New England, but a couple of square miles of New England. You're exhausted [laughs]. Kelly's points of view and the American West and the Spanish colonists and different, Texas is so different from Mexico. And so I'm just Russian colonists and Fort Ross and Alaska, French Canadians, and so many different tribes. There's really a low what you think, could you all just homogenize for a moment just to make my life easier. Could you just all pretend to agree just so that I'm not so tested, but no, they won't be homogenized. And so you just have to stay in there and keep doing that. So if you're doing that with dead people, you should be able to do that with living people because the dead people were once fully alive. And that's part of what you try to do as an historian is lend your own life to bring them back as much as you can as living voices it's on. So if you get that down, then you should be able to walk into a contentious public hearing in your own moment of life and think, "Okay, I think I can see what's going on that group. Hmm, now, a county commissioner is speaking and not making any sense to me. So I must listen more closely and see if I can get that." So it is exactly the training we got in history graduate school, but for whatever reason, that is not the pattern among our people to say, "Okay, now, let's take what we did for the people of the past and do it for our contemporaries."
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's the same. I mean, as you were speaking it occurred to me that the same thing is true, at least in theory of preparation for what I studied, political theory, political philosophy and so far as what you try to do is put into dialogue, competing alternatives about the deepest and most fundamental political question, disagreement about what the best regime is, disagreement about what justice is, disagreement about what love is. Put those authors into conversation with one another. And that will train you to be able to put people in a conversation with one another. And yet, as you see in history, this is not being done. I would argue that in the field of politics, certainly at the academic level, but even more, even worse at the public level, this is not being done. And yet there are people who spend their lives trying to put, as you say, dead people who had a position in a conversation with one another, or in my case, people who are philosophers or statesmen who disagreed in a conversation with one another. So it's a shame that this doesn't happen more. My hope is that that your center, perhaps ours, will be able to do a little bit more of that on the CU campus.
One thing that I absolutely wanna ask you about, before in the next few minutes is The Legacy of Conquest. I've just said and we've had a conversation about how disarming the book is, and I've tried to draw out of you and give my own account of why I think the book is disarming. And we concluded that part of the reason it's disarming is that you're permitting everyone to speak, and you're putting them in a dialogue with one another, and you're not simply critical, but the book also carries with it a second disarming feature. And that is its humor. You begin the book with this humorous story of this woman who meets a tragic end, but by gosh, she's coming west to Christianize the savages. And it's just, it could be a comedy. Many of the stories you tell in the book are people who are kind of out of their minds. You know what I mean? You have to be a little out of your mind to go west and do these things. And it's a place, I mean, as you point out many times, where there's a lot of people who are sort of out of their minds in the West, or at least were doing things in a very unconventional way. And so you approach the criticism with a certain grace and a certain humor. And that's something that I think anybody who knows you, who reads your op-eds, your public work today, sees immediately. And so I'm curious to get your take on something that I think has been lost in the academy, as we begin to take ourselves so seriously as professors and we demand that we be called doctor, and we say, "You will respect me. And this is my classroom. And I look at my footnotes." You inject humor into the entire enterprise of learning and dialogue and research. And so what is it? This seems to have always been a part of you, or at least this is one of the earliest books, and it was a part of you. Why have you felt compelled to do that? And why do you think it's so effective and so needed today?
PATTY LIMERICK: Good questions. So I grew up in a small town in California and you get to see more people than you might have chosen, and they can just be a chronic source of irritation to you. They even have that capacity, or you can find them amusing. So that is the fork in the road that every day in a small town, you can either think I can't live in another day with these insufferable people, or you have to say, "pretty funny," and may not mention that it's funny to this person because that person may not see it's funny, but it's really funny. And then I had parents who certainly had caught on to this, probably my father had grown up in Brigham City, Utah. So he had his own trading program and in this. And so I think I, I should say this at my parents were quite stern in lots of ways and the enforcers of standards and rules and so on. And if you had do something that was regrettable that you yourself regretted and you knew they were, they're going to go way beyond regret with it, your only hope was to tell them a funny story and distract them from their rightful anger, I guess, would be the word because you had done something like that, but if you begin in there fast with a funny story, they could be distracted from their really appropriate and valuable intentions to discipline and set up consequences for bad behavior. So I certainly got trained in that early on, and I just have a conditioned mind that won't stop, that things that other normal people would not see. But I was just thinking the other day about a ridiculous experience and reminiscing with some people about cars we have had and troubles we've had with them. Well, Jeff Limerick, my late husband, my first husband and I were driving across the country in 1973 in a Volkswagen bug, my Volkswagen bug. And it threw a rod outside of town. And the town that in Pennsylvania was called Cranesville. And you just have to think, oh no, that's funny. Our car's broken down outside Cranesville. That's pretty funny.
Then we had an amazing cognitive experience as we looked to figure out. So we opened the back of the Volkswagen, we lifted the at the engine compartment. And we were both very determined to think that we weren't really having a serious problem. The car had kind of guide, but we didn't know why. So we looked in there and our engine compartment looked fine, just truly did look fine to us. So we got back in the car and we tried to start. It didn't start. So then we got out and this time we had to be realistic. We opened the engine compartment and we looking it, And now there's a bulk head we can see it there, there's oil splashing on this boat. And we had so not wanted to see that. It was just cognitively really interesting that we had, no, we didn't wanna see that, but then it wouldn't start, so then we had to see it. So we're sitting there and then right at that point, it starts to rain. So with my, and I'm like 22 years old there, but very conditioned in this. And so we're standing there in the rain and we're quite poor. And our car has broken down, really broken down and it's rainy. And I say to poor Jeff Limerick, I say, "This is going to be a really funny story later on. And it's just, it's not one now, it is not one now." So it was just, and it got funnier because then we went through this interesting repair, it got towed to a repair place and it was a trashed Volkswagen. Then they put the engine in from that. We drove off in the early summer and the nice mechanic whom we came to like very much, this grandson, we liked him very much. He left the heat valve on and you couldn't close it because of that. So we drove all the way from there into Chicago or past, I guess, with the heat on full, hot and humid and raining, so we couldn't really open the windows. So anyway, so it was a really funny story. And I knew it was a funny story, even when it was just a terrible experience.
So I've always done that transmuting for my own sake. I mean, if it helps other people fine, but it certainly keeps me happy. And so I don't know of any memorial service where people just sit solemnly for an hour and if somebody doesn't tell a funny story about the person we're grieving for, there was something just wrong in the whole situation at that person. So at memorial services, everyone's very sad. And then everyone laughs and laughs over a story from that person's life. And so the notion that we have to literally quarantine humor, and when we were talking about serious things, we can only, we could just be very solemn. And as you really saw, that's just not, that's not our, it's not our worry. So I have always thought it's really, it will work more often than it doesn't to find something that. Well, it's the WD-40, it takes the tension and the things that are grinding together, they loosen up and it was wonderful to have here at CU. We had Vine Deloria Jr., the most important American Indian intellectual. And he, in his book Custer Died for Your Sins, which is a funny title. He has chapter seven on Indian humor and his remarks there about how, "Oh, that's what's lost." And when you think of Indian people as the cigar store, solemn figures, you're really missing a lot there. And his whole point of beginning and ending of that chapter is that's how you know what people will survive when they can laugh, laugh at themselves, laugh at others.
So it's lucky that Vine and others have written so beautifully about that. 'Cause I can't really stop myself. A lot of things that are not funny. I thought it was incredible. I mean, at least at the Civil War, that's not funny, but I just, the one line in Legacy that I just love. I love every time I think about it. So Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated, and Lincoln-Douglas debates are very serious and the nation is at stake and the union will rise or fall. So they're giving their speeches and then Stephen Douglas is arranging compromises so that the nation could expand. So I was reading, what is that guy's name? Jacobson or Johanson, is it Johanson? I was reading his biography of Stephen Douglas, which has a lot of photographs, or I mean images, in it and reading about how Stephen Douglas kept negotiating compromises that would allow the nation to expand through its middle. And he's expanding through his middle at the same time. And I'm looking at his photographs and I'm thinking, "Well, you oughtta know buddy, because your tailor is really doing for you, what you were doing for the nation." And so that still strikes me funny. And I get that the nation was on the brink of calamity and as even Douglas was not in good health and was not. So this context is not funny. And it's really funny that he is allowing the nation to expand through its middle and he is expanding through his middle. And I don't know what conditioning exercise you could put me through that would make me finally not laugh at that. And I'm sure you could do that, because you could make it as if I needed that, but you could tell me more about the full tragedy of the deaths in the Civil War and so on. You can do that with me and I might, but I still would think, I don't know how I could turn that down. I mean, it just, I had to say that, I had to write that cause, just like that, where I couldn't help myself.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, there's so many passages like that. And to conclude, I would just say, that trait is not one that is rare in the history of the West. I mean, Socrates is notoriously hilarious. Of course, Shakespeare wrote so many comedies and Lincoln was said to be a very funny man. And of course, Frederick Douglass is in fact, if you read his autobiographies, has all kinds of humorous things to say, even in the depths of describing the worst institution you know the West has ever seen, American slavery. So I would say you are taking a page out of the book of some of the greatest teachers when you do this. So, but anyway.
PATTY LIMERICK: Yeah, I did not invent that. I'm very proud to say that I did not invent the power of humor to take desperate, dark situations and say, "Well, we can do something like that."
SHILO BROOKS: Sure.
PATTY LIMERICK: We are not defeated. We are not defeated. So I would be very proud if I had invented that. And I'm really pleased to be in the footsteps of so many distinguished practitioners.
SHILO BROOKS: Absolutely, and the academy could certainly use more people like them and more people like you, Patty Limerick., I want to thank you for being on the Free Mind podcast. It has been a pleasure talking to you today, and I hope we get to do it again sometime.
PATTY LIMERICK: Drop of a hat, I'll be here, drop of a hat.
SHILO BROOKS: All right. The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.