Thursday, February 19, 2015

            This semester, I am conducting research for a paper that examines the National Park Service (NPS), particularly between 1950 and 1970. I am really interested in how the idea of nationalism is infused in the NPS’s very existence. Following World War II, many of the nation’s parks were in disarray. Due to lack of funding, high visitor rates, and lack of national concern about its future, some questioned the longevity of what the historian and novelist Wallace Stegner had once considered “America’s best idea.”[1] In 1953 Harper’s Weekly published the historian Bernard DeVoto’s “Let’s Close the National Parks.” [2]

DeVoto was alarmed by the state of the nation’s various parks, and cautioned that if Congress would not increase funding, the Parks should close down. I was fascinated by this plea because I had assumed that there would in fact be a more impassioned nationalism to maintain the Parks in place. To analyze DeVoto’s motivations, thoughts, and word choice, I created a word cloud of his appeal.

        I selected a brown, yellow, and green theme because simply, it represents the colors of the NPS. But on second thought, it’s much more complex. The colors that the NPS chose for itself was a form of branding and by extension, nation-building. Furthermore, the word cloud revealed that DeVoto may not have been a believer of his own words that the NPS close down. Rather, it was a dramatic attempt to call Congress’s attention to the issues of the NPS. I contend this because of the lack of words with negative connotations within the word cloud. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the national and the federal government. I organized the cloud so that the smaller words on the left appeared to be feeding into the larger words on the right. I hoped that this would create the effect of DeVoto’s words (“budget,” “Congress,” “housing,” “money,” “job”) servicing and financing the NPS through the large words of “Service,” “national,” “National,” “one.”

            Just a few years later, Conrad Wirth, director of the NPS, approached Congress with his Mission 66 plan. Essentially, he asked for a large budget between 1956 and 1966 in time to commemorate the revamp the NPS in time for its fiftieth anniversary. To compare Wirth’s Mission 66 plan to DeVoto’s plea, I created a word cloud of Wirth’s plan.[3]  

While DeVoto’s essay did not mention the word “Americans,” Wirth’s statement mentions quite a bit the plural and singular versions of “American(s)”.” Wirth invokes similar language to DeVoto, but Wirth’s use of the words “government,” “benefits,” and “business” suggest a more concerted effort to remind the federal government of its power and responsibility to build the NPS in a time of major national growth.

The United States entered a new period following the war that required it to revise the very terms of its nationhood. As the new global leader, it was in a process of rebranding and nation building. Mission 66 and the NPS in this period reflect these growing changes. These word clouds help us to see that the NPS had a direct role in redefining and strengthening American nationalism in this period. It was not only affected by the nation’s growing nationalism post-1945, but it was also contributing to and defining it.  

[1] Wallace Stegner, “The Best Idea We Ever Had,” Marking the Sparrow’s Fall: The Making of the American West, Page Stegner, ed (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 137.

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