Susan Lee JohnsonMay 7, 2021
Writing Kit Carson
Fallen Heroes in a Changing West
University of North Carolina Press 2020
The only constant in Western history is change. Susan Lee Johnson, Harry Reid Endowed Chair in the History of the Intermountain West at UNLV, knows this better than most. Author of the Bancroft Prize Winning "Roaring Camp," (2000), Johnson's new book is a testament to the changing nature of Western history. In Writing Kit Carson: Fallen Heroes in a Changing West (UNC Press, 2020) Johnson writes about shifting ideas about the region's meaning across the span of the twentieth century through the lens of two mid-twentieth century "minor historians" of Kit Carson: Quantrille McClung, a librarian at the Denver Public Library, and Bernice Blackwelder, a former CIA employee and radio entertainer. Johnson tells the history of these two women's often mundane, quintessentially American, lives in the urban 20th century West, and their fasciation with Kit Carson, the 19th century explorer (if you ask some historians) or colonizer (if you ask many others). Johnson's intensely personal book is less a history of Carson, and more a history of how history is written, and the practical facts of life - an uncomfortable desk, a pesky spouse - that go into creating knowledge and what happens when new knowledge hits the mainstream. As Kit Carson's tangled legacy shows, once knowledge is created, it's difficult to keep it corralled.
Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.