Machine in the Desert

As scholars from Franklin Turner to Henry Nash Smith have explored exhaustively, the idea of free and open land is a crucial factor in the American conception of national identity. Thomas Jefferson believed the ideal society was one entirely agrarian, and encouraged his people to embrace the yeoman ideal while avoiding the European evil of factories and urban life. Crevcoeur's Letters from an American Farmer explored the importance of land ownership in the American ability to recreate oneself outside class and society constructs. American stories of Manifest Destiny, cowboys and indians, and homes on the range all rely on the belief that land--and lots of it--is available for the taking. Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land discussed the draw of the Garden; America would be an ideal society if the necessary cultivation of the Puritan's "howling wilderness" took place. Nash's student, Leo Marx, discussed the entrance of the Machine in the Garden, the idea of technology inevitably entering into the Edenic space for better or worse.

The Hoover Dam, as an American icon, is inevitably a part of these discussions. It is the machine, the unshielded face of technology, entering into the natural space. What is different, however, is the setting. This is not Crevcoeur's landscape of upstate New York, nor is it Jefferson's lush Virginia. Rather, the Hoover Dam is situated in one of the most inhospitable climates in the United States, the nearly uninhabited land around the Colorado River that marks the boundary between Arizona and Nevada. This is not the garden of Henry Nash Smith's imagination; rather, dust storms blind and shadeless summer days produce temperatures in excess of one hundred and twenty degrees. Few had attempted habitation of this land since the native American tribes had been pushed into reservations. The harshness of this landscape would discourage even the most enthusiastic yeoman, and hence, only the garden's castoffs survived: Las Vegas's bootleggers and prostitutes held down a desolate stop on the Union Pacific railroad line as it headed towards California.

In the American imagination, the Hoover Dam can be conceived as the machine in the desert; it is the technology that would wake the hoped-for garden from the howling wilderness, and thus, allow the continuation of a major American narrative. Its presence vastly extends the usable landscape. The dam provides irrigation for farms in California's Imperial Valley while protecting the area from devastating floods; Lake Mead, the repository that the dam holds back, provides crucial water and power for vast sections of the southwest and Pacific coastline. The Hoover Dam vitalized an entire section of the United States; perhaps more importantly to Americans during the Great Depression, it asserted the ability to fulfill a national ideal with the tools at hand.