American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The American Mountain Series

  • Book Reviews
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1949

The American Mountain Series, edited by Roderick Peattie. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1942-48. Prices, $3.50-$5.00*

These books are designed rather to give the reader a general impression of the mountain ranges of the United States than to serve him as guides to the regions described. To this end, most of the volumes in the series are composite attempts on the part of a number of authors to delineate, each in his own way, the different facets of the different ranges. While all the volumes have a distinguishable common pattern, embracing a consideration of the geology, natural history, etc., of each range, there is considerable variation among them in the treatment of the other matters. Thus in the volumes dealing with the eastern ranges, the human element is stressed, the history of the early settlements and their development, and (in the volume on the Smokies) the characteristic residual culture of the 18th century. The recreational potentialities of all the ranges are brought out, but usually in a way calculated to stimulate the imagination, not merely in a dry recital of places and attractions.

In most of the volumes, a number of authors have collaborated, each contributing one or more chapters. One result, as might be expected, is a certain amount of repetition, but this has been reduced to a minimum by careful editing and is seldom tedious. The method has the great advantage of giving the reader a number of different impressions of the same range, and enabling him, when the contributors are well selected, to see it through the eyes of those men who are best acquainted with the aspects of it which they describe.

This is one of the strong points of the series, one of the charms of the books to the reader who already knows something of the territory under discussion. The one volume which violates this principle, that on the Rocky Mountains—which is entirely the work of one man—is by all odds the least interesting of the lot. In fact, this volume, written by a geographer and geologist, tends to become merely a series of personal reminiscences, and does not evoke for the reader the drama and romance of the great period of exploration and migration which swept over and through these ranges. It provides little inspiration to the reader to know the range better. On the other hand, in the most recent volume of the series, The Inverted Mountains, we have a splendid example of the effectiveness of a composite production of several authors in bringing the drama and romance of the canyon country of the West to the reader. In fact, this volume appeared to this reviewer the most interesting and most skillfully compiled of the series, although here there occurs considerable repetition.

As might perhaps be expected, there is a wide variation in the quality of the several volumes of the series. The first volume, on the White, Green and Adirondack Mountains, covers too broad a field to do justice to any one of the ranges. For example, although the history of the settlement and touristic development of the White Mountains is given in some detail, the story of the controversy over the Vermont grants is only briefly sketched, and the early history of the Adirondack and Katahdin regions is completely ignored. A somewhat better distribution of emphasis is made in treating other aspects of these ranges, but it is certainly very difficult to follow the reasoning which assigned all three of them to a single book, and then dedicated an entire volume to the Berkshire hills. We can only conclude that the original plan of coverage was abandoned in favor of more volumes, for the benefit of the publisher and the editor.

The volume on the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge covers only the southern end of the latter range, and this in a rather cursory way. The chapters on the early history of the mountain settlements are well-calculated to give life to what might otherwise be a rather drab account of an interesting region. While characteristic features—the backwoods population, old ballads, etc.—are treated as would be expected and the pleasures of summer travel are described, the mountains in winter are completely ignored.

Winter sports are not of course one of the advertised attractions of this region, but one who has not seen these mountains in winter cannot claim to know them fully.

The volume on the Rocky Mountains, in an attempt to delineate the delights of mountain travel, particularly pack-train travel, completely omits such matters as the historical development of the region; and it quite fails to bring out the significant variations in the scenic attractions of the area. Various ranges of the Rockies are mentioned with a nonchalance that is most disconcerting. Only casual reference is made, now and then, to the Canadian Rockies, though a large number of the illustrations is devoted to them. This is indeed a most uninspiring volume and will arouse little enthusiasm for the Rockies, unless perhaps in the breast of an embryo geologist. Nothing is said about these mountains in winter, despite their extensive development as a skiing and winter climbing area.

In marked contrast is the volume on the Coast Ranges. Here the history of the region from Indian days on is sketched in, giving the background for an understanding of some of the attraction of these ranges. Even economic factors, such as the wine-making in the California hills, are brought in. Here perhaps the attempt at broad coverage has been more successful than in other volumes, and a chain that to the mountaineer is of interest only at its northern end, in the Olympic Peninsula, is made to provide fascinations for all.

The Sierra Nevada is depicted, in its volume, quite completely, with sympathy, and in a manner to arouse interest. Historian, naturalist, botanist, geologist, mountaineer—each will find something here to hold his attention and goad him to further research. A book of this size cannot cover such a broad field completely, yet this one does succeed admirably in giving a sufficient concept of the various fields of interest to arouse a desire to learn more.

The task so well done in connection with the Sierra Nevada has been carried out even more brilliantly in the book on the canyon country of the Southwest, The Inverted Mountains. Here again the choice of collaborators was particularly fortunate and the results excellent. We can only hope that the remaining volumes of the series (and we must assume that the Cascades certainly, and probably the lesser ranges such as the Black Hills, the mountains of Texas and others, will not be forgotten) will be as sympathetically treated by the authors chosen for the task. These two volumes, and perhaps to a lesser degree the book on the Coast Ranges, are examples of what can be accomplished by the style of treatment adopted throughout the series. These are significantly better than the first attempts in the eastern ranges, and far better than the treatment of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, we would go so far as to say that the latter range should be the subject of three or four additional volumes covering the southern, central, northern and Canadian Rockies.

The illustrations range from very good to excellent; in the Sierra Nevada book, where a number of Ansel Adams’ pictures are used, they are superlative. Unfortunately, they are all bled and consequently do not appear to as good advantage as if they had been set off by adequate margins.* The format is pleasing, with large type and wide margins. Each volume is conveniently provided with an index. A number have bibliographies. Some of the volumes, however, fail to tell the reader where to find the maps or sketches. Everyone interested in mountains will want to read at least portions of all of these volumes, and most people will want them in their libraries.

Kenneth A. Henderson

* The Friendly Mountains: Green, White, and Adirondacks. 341 pp., 23 illustrations. 1942. $3.50.

The Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge. 372 pp., 29 illustrations. 1943. $3.75.

The Rocky Mountains. 324 pp., 32 illustrations, with maps and sketches. 1945.$3.75.

The Pacific Coast Ranges. 402 pp., 29 illustrations, 4 maps. 1946. $3.75.

The Sierra Nevada: the Range of Light. 398 pp., 26 illustrations, 1 map. 1947. $4.50.

The Berkshires: the Purple Hills. 416 pp., 35 illustrations. 1948. $5.00

The Inverted Mountains: Canyons of the West, 390 pp., 33 illustrations, 2 maps. 1948. $5.00.

*Which opinion compels us, in self-defence, to recall the words of Copperfield’s friend Mr. Waterbrook: “Other things are all very well in their way, but give me Blood!”—Ed.

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