Hal Rothman intended The Making of Modern Nevada to be a comprehensive history of the state, organized around a forceful thesis: That, until very recently, Nevada was controlled by forces outside of the state. But his worsening medical condition prevented him from completing The Making of Modern Nevada. He wrote to the University of Nevada Press on Nov. 11, 2007: "I have become so sick so fast that I will not be able to finish the Nevada history. I am attaching eight chapters and an introduction. I would like you to find someone to finish the book." He added, "I really wanted to finish this one."
After much reflection and conversation, the publisher decided, and rightly so, that asking someone to finish the manuscript would, while making it more complete in its coverage, have made it less clearly and definitively a testament to the bold arguments and strong narrative voice of its author. As it stands, The Making of Modern Nevada is Hal's unique interpretation of Nevada's history. It is one of the last pieces of writing by a historian and public intellectual whose work influenced many specialties within history -- the history of the American West, of environmentalism, of national parks, and of Las Vegas history and the Silver State, the adopted home which he grew to care deeply about.
Hal's legacy is evident in The Making of Modern Nevada. Never one to mince words, he describes Nevada, at the tail end of the Comstock era, as "the equivalent of a medieval fiefdom, where a few possessed not only wealth but power, and everyone else simply existed, many harboring grievances against the power structure." His driving theme of the exploitation of Nevada finds particularly clear expression in the coverage of Hoover Dam: "[a]s did every previous venture in the state," Rothman wrote, "the dam in Black Canyon benefited interests outside the state ahead of Nevada residents ... Boulder Dam was located primarily in Nevada, but it served California above all else."
The dam, Hal is quick to point out, was built by six non-Nevada companies, but it was the federal government, he emphasizes, that really directed the fortunes and fate of the state, through the provision of work programs and other forms of federal assistance and through the purchase of silver. On the whole, New Deal colonialism benefited the state, Rothman suggests, even if, he wryly notes, its residents "had to swallow a little government assistance." But when federal colonialism was less beneficial to the state, its residents revolted against colonial authority in organized and effective fashion, as evidenced in the now more than two-decade-long struggle against the plan to store the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, north of Las Vegas.
Northern Nevada gets the bulk of its coverage in the first half of the book; the second half belongs to Clark County, which for him was the future of the state, the nexus of its demographic growth, and increasingly the barometer of its national significance.
Rothman was a booster for Clark County and an ambassador for both the region's normalcy and its exceptionalism. He worked hard to transform common national and international perceptions of Southern Nevada as the weirdest, most anomalous, most conspicuous center of capitalist consumer excess on earth. He preferred to view the region as a center of cultural innovation, the "last Detroit" -- the last haven of opportunity for working-class Americans to secure their piece of the American dream. But he also contended that the region was becoming more like the rest of the United States, in part because of its profound influence on the nation.
In The Making of Modern Nevada, we see the shift from colony to colonizer, from blank slate in the desert to postindustrial, postmodern pacesetter, not just for the nation, but for the globe. Only Rothman could have finished this book, and only the bravest of souls would seek to finish it for him.
Nonetheless, the occasional comments from members of the UNLV history community suggest that Rothman had his finger very squarely on the pulse of the Las Vegas metropolitan region, the state, and the nation in his last months of life. One doctoral student recalls Rothman advising him in spring 2006 to sell the condo he had purchased at the beginning of his studies, in the early 2000s, and avoid the bust that would inevitably follow the remarkable housing boom. The real estate bust that followed has been quite astonishing, with many properties in Clark County by 2010 losing more than 50 percent of their peak value in early 2006.
Once again, the southern part of the Silver State has been at the cutting edge of national trends; once again Las Vegas dominates the national headlines as the recession focuses on the excesses of the real estate boom, the dangers of overbuilding of new housing subdivisions, shady mortgages, and enormous expectations. Long the national symbol of American consumer cultural excess, Las Vegas has now become the symbol of speculative excess that is not casino-related.
It would be good to have Hal's perspective on today's real estate bust and on the issue of whether a more reliable set of structures for generating state revenue might emerge from the current economic crisis that the state of Nevada is suffering from; and whether Clark County, Nevada which comes close to topping the nation in the unenviable area of unemployment rates at the end of 2000s will ever again regain its mantle as the "last Detroit." We can only speculate on what Rothman would have to say were he still with us, and be grateful for the voluminous body of work that he left us, including The Making of Modern Nevada.