Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West


Zhihui Zou
published on 26 August 2022
Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Title: Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West
Author: H. W. Brands
Audience: General Public
Difficulty: Easy
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: 2019
Pages: 544

Through "Dreams of El Dorado," H. W. Brands retells the story of American westward expansion during the 19th century using a novelesque writing style that suits mainly the general reader. Brands turns historical characters such as former legislator of the Oregon Territory, Joseph Meek, and James Marshall, who found gold in California, into three-dimensional figures.

El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, is used as an allusion by H. W. Brands in his recent book to describe how 19th-century Americans viewed the land west of the Mississippi River. One could describe the history of the United States with one word: expansion – expanding from Europe to the American East Coast, and from the East Coast to the West. Brands' Dreams of El Dorado tells the history of the 19th-century American West through entertaining writing that might not satisfy professional scholars but will suit the general public who are looking for a leisure non-fiction read.

H. W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, probably knows more about engaging the general public than many other traditional history scholars. Brands first earned his reputation through writing 20th-century American history and biographies of figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. With this background, it is understandable how Brands gives Theodore Roosevelt special attention regarding the American West, mentioning the 26th President of the United States in the opening and ending of the book.

Brands argues that the American West represents dreams and hopes for a better future. In Brands' words:

In American history the West had always represented opportunity; the West was the peculiar repository of American dreams. (479)

This premise influences the historical stories Brands includes in his book: mainly white middle-class American Easterners. Native Americans, the people suffering because of the chase for opportunity, receive comparatively less attention in the book. Such a scholarly approach to the history of the American West has been criticized by historians such as Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick's book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, disproves many premises set by Frederick Jackson Turner, whose 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History marked the beginning of the scholarship on the history of the American West. However, due to flaws such as the lack of attention to Native Americans and one-sided ideology favoring Easterners, Turner's scholarship is now obsolete.

Dreams of El Dorado's shining point is its enjoyability. Divided into 53 short chapters, the book is A research in a novel's clothing.

'Opportunity' is a sensitive word in modern research on the American West. Opportunity for American Easterners led to the dispossession and killing of Native American communities. Brands does not quite balance out the different perspectives behind 'opportunity.' To middle-class Easterners, the West was their treasure; to Native Americans, the West was their homeland; to poor Easterners, the West was a gossip topic. Brands mostly just develops the first one.

The book spends much time reciting existing scholarship on the American West; thus it is not as helpful to professional history scholars as some comparable titles like the work by Limerick or The American West: A New Interpretive History (co-authored by Robert V. Hine, John Mack Faragher, and Jon T. Coleman). These two books offer a more diverse range of perspectives. Books focusing on specific events or themes in the 19th-century American West are also good alternatives for scholars, like those by David M. Wrobel or William Cronon.

Dreams of El Dorado's shining point is its enjoyability. Divided into 53 short chapters, the book is a research in a novel's clothing. Brands extensively uses direct quotations – sometimes even dialogues – and movie-like descriptions to replay the lives of historical figures such as John Jacob Astor and Brigham Young. If a reader is looking for a light history read for entertainment purposes, Dreams of El Dorado fits that goal.

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About the Reviewer

Zhihui Zou
Zhihui Zou is affiliated with Duke University. His research mainly covers American history, the American West, and digital humanities. He is currently World History Encyclopedia's book review editor.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Zou, Z. (2022, August 26). Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/review/272/dreams-of-el-dorado-a-history-of-the-american-west/

Chicago Style

Zou, Zhihui. "Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 26, 2022. https://www.worldhistory.org/review/272/dreams-of-el-dorado-a-history-of-the-american-west/.

MLA Style

Zou, Zhihui. "Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 26 Aug 2022. Web. 11 Jun 2024.