Jared Farmer: Extralocal History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Remarks to the Society of American Historians upon accepting the 2009 Francis Parkman Prize, 17 April 2009, New York City, for the book On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard University Press, 2008).]

What a pleasure to be here tonight among people who care about the craft of history! I feel honored to share this award with such a distinguished list of writers. Most meaningfully to me, the register of past winners includes my mentor, Richard White. Richard influenced my writing as well as my thinking. In particular, he helped me to appreciate the creative tension between literary expression and logical structure.

To be honest, a history book is less creative than a novel, for the novelist creates a whole new world. The historian, meanwhile, is restricted by this world—the extant sources, especially, but also the rules of the guild. However, much like a fugue or a sonata can be surprisingly creative and stunningly beautiful, an artful history book can be euphonically logical: it can play with the conventions even as it honors them.

The hardest part of composing On Zion’s Mount was the pre-writing—the landscape design, so to speak. My primary goal was simple: I wanted to write a local history that had national significance. I love local history—the fine points and the idiosyncrasies, the very wackiness of it. The danger, of course, is that the local can become parochial.

To get around this danger, history writers have developed different strategies. Microhistorians take a slice of life—a singular event or even a single day—and explore it in such depth that the piece elucidates the whole—a whole mentality, or era, or process. Social historians have written biographical studies of ordinary people as well as outlier figures, and longitudinal studies of villages and neighborhoods.

My strategy was different. My starting point was topography. I like to think of myself as an Earth-based humanist, and like to think of this book as a biography of a landform. For my local matter I deliberately chose a topographic feature that seems timeless and natural—a steep, high, rugged mountain. I wanted to show just how much cultural history could be found in the so-called natural world.

It would have been easiest to write about a well-known mountain such as Pikes Peak—a landmark people have actually heard about. In the early years of my project I agonized over my choice of Mount Timpanogos, Utah. It seemed foolhardy to be writing a thick book about a local landmark unpronounceable, unrecognized—even unrecognizable—beyond its locale. In Utah, Timpanogos may denote the state’s most beloved mountain, but in other parts of America the place-name has about as much currency as Mount Kosciusko, the highest point in Australia.

Besides lack of renown, Timpanogos has another seeming downside as a subject. In a mountainous western region glutted with scenery, this one mount is hardly exceptional—except for the fact that local people believe it is. So why, out of all the mountains in the world, did I choose this one? Because it’s there? No, there was a personal motive, as you might expect. I come from Utah. But as a scholar I was drawn to this mountain for the intellectual challenge. Because Timpanogos is not an obvious landmark like Rainer or Shasta, the sense of place surrounding it requires greater explanation. And since no one outside of Utah really cared about this invented landmark, I had an obvious benchmark for success. If I could convince my colleagues in U.S. history that Mount Timpanogos mattered—that it was the Martha Ballard of mountains—I would have met my goal....

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