In 1957, Walter Prescott Webb, a historian from the University of Texas who is well-known for his blunt, straightforward approach, wrote a classic article for Harper's called "American West - Perpetual Mirage." In it, he suggested that half the nation's land area, comprising 17 states, is made up of a desert, the overriding influence that shapes the West.
"That is its one unifying force. It is the great design of the West. The heart of the West is a desert, unqualified and absolute. The influence of the desert from the center outward is comparable to the effect of a fire."As Webb said, "by 1835, the school maps showed the Great American Desert in block letters east of the Rockies. By 1850, such men as Daniel Webster and Jefferson Davis conceded its existence and staked their political fortunes on their belief. After the Civil War, the G.A.D. was abolished. It has hardly been mentioned in polite Western society since and never by the Chamber of Commerce."
Webb's article brought a howl of protest around the country, especially from Western senators, governors, Chamber of Commerce officials and newspaper publishers.
Sen. Frank Church of Idaho admitted the impact of desert conditions upon the region but felt that Webb had slighted every Westerner by calling attention to it.
Former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona could not deny the presence of a desert in his state, but he objected to Webb's suggestion that the desert slowed down Western development. He said his own state was leading the country in percentage of population growth, bank deposits and the expansion of manufacturing.
No Western newspaper was so angry in denouncing the article as the Denver Post. Righteously indignant, the editor reacted as if the very word "desert" was synonymous with something sinister and foreboding.
This was a natural result. For more than a century, Americans had been arguing about the desert - either denying its existence or proclaiming that some day it would "bloom as the rose" and become "the garden spot of the world."
In Utah, the Mormon pioneers worked to transform the terrain into that mythical concept. It was a big order, but it gave hope to the New England pioneers who left lush scenery behind to come and settle what appeared to be a barren wilderness.
Nevertheless, the trend in the 20th century was to leave the word "des-ert" out of the vocabulary entirely. It could be applied to isolated stretches like the Mojave Desert of Southern California or the Painted Desert of northern Arizona - but usually it just seemed bad for business.
Until Walter Prescott Webb.
Interestingly enough, by the early 1960s, Webb's ideas took hold. More and more frequently, Westerners were not only willing to use the term "desert" but tended to use it in a positive sense.
Although water still represented the key to the future, the advent of super highways and air conditioning helped the West become a more pleasant place to live. More and more people noticed an ethereal beauty about the desert that could compete with the forested Northeast.
Besides, aridity was more comfortable than humidity.
Eugene Hollon, a student of Webb's, wrote a book in 1966 called "The Great American Desert," in which he built on Webb's foundation. He suggested that the stereotype of shifting sand and the Sahara needed to be adjusted when talking about the American West. Instead, he mentioned common characteristics of deserts, such as aridity, low rainfall, high temperature during the day, low temperature in the evenings, high-velocity winds and high rate of evaporation.
Hollon said, "Snow-covered peaks, great natural forests, bracing cool air and beautiful green valleys in the summer somehow do not fit the image of a desert. Yet mountains are the chief cause of deserts, since they act as barriers, cutting off the moisture-laden clouds that otherwise would sweep across and deposit rain upon the land."
So today we admit that we live in "The Great American Desert" - a beautiful, exotic place - and we're proud of it.