Neglected Book

Sauer, Carl O., Seventeenth Century North America (1980).

So much hoopla over environmental history lately, yet so little recognition of one of the field's true masters. Carl Ortwin Sauer is well known to geographers. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for three decades and rose as high as he could in his field. Anyone spending time in environmental history will run across his name and books and will feel his influence. Still, in even a slightly wider market Sauer shows up at most as a tiny blip on the screens of reader awareness. Amazon.com lists fifteen of his books. Six are tagged "limited availability." The other nine are out of print. Maybe that's because some of his books--and there were plenty of them--seemed narrowly focused, and in writing them he had a fondness for detail not everyone shares. But he was also a determined generalist who spent part of his presidential address to the Association of American Geographers speaking about "On Being Unspecialized." And Carl Sauer had a true gift for one of the most difficult but essential jobs of environmental history, the reconstruction of historical landscapes on a grand scale. He plowed relentlessly through the sources, pieced together observations, and puzzled it all out to create a picture of the likely lay of the land and the spread of its creatures. At his death in 1975 Sauer had just completed the manuscript for Seventeenth Century North America. His publisher and friends ushered it into print five years later. "Tour de force" is an overused term, but it applies here. Sauer brilliantly sews together French and Spanish accounts from the Southwest, Texas, Mississippi Valley and lower midwest, the maritime provinces, St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. The result is a remarkable mosaic of physical and cultural geography and, for its time, a sophisticated analysis of human interaction with nature. It's quite a book, and it's out of print, and that's too bad.

Recommended by Elliot West, University of Arkansas

Elliott West, distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas, teaches and writes on the history of the American West, environmental and Native American history, and the history of childhood. His most recent book, The Contested Plains, won the Francis Parkman Prize in 1999.