07 March 2008

Montana's Cheshire Cat: The Anaconda Company

What has become of the era when college presidents were scholars that set a high bar for their faculty? How did we get to the point where college presidents are far more likely to -- at best -- be glad handing fundraisers or -- at worst -- meddlesome micro-managers?

As president-scholars, I'm thinking of Frank H. T. Rhodes, president of Cornell Univeristy from 1977 to 1995. While president, he authored the classic "Golden Guide" series book Geology (1972), edited another big seller Language of the Earth (1981), and technical monographs such as Conodent Paleozoology (1973). Hell, as a grad candidate at Cornell I thought "Dusty" (?) was a historian, given that he would occasionally wander the hallways, visit my Doktorvater L. Pearce Williams, and engage in an intelligent conversation about European history or the history of science. Here's a nice pic of Rhodes in China:

And I'm thinking about Michael P. Malone, president of Montana State University from 1991 until his untimely death in 1999. While president, he completed the standard work on Montana history, Montana: A History of Two Centuries (1991) and several new works such as Montana: A Contemporary Profile (1996) and the biography James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest (1997). Here's a Malone book near and dear to my heart:

For years, I have been puzzled about the origins of a historical metaphor comparing the Anaconda Copper Mining Company with the Cheshire Cat. The ACM's influence on Montana lingered long after the company disappeared. I thought this metaphor came from University of Montana-Missoula historian Joseph Kinsey Howard or his successor K. Ross Toole. And maybe Howard or Toole did originate the phrase. Here's the Cheshire Cat with Alice in an illustration from Carroll (1865):

Nonetheless, I recently found it used in a brief historical commentary, "The Close of the Copper Century" (1985) by Malone. Paradoxically enough, Malone argues in this essay that we should not regard Montana history as unique or a case of exceptionalism. Instead, Montana (and its black heart, Butte) was typical of the Amerian era of robber barons, western states as economic colonies of capitalism, and rapacious anti-environment mining. Likewise, Montana (and the Anaconda Company) fell victim to the rise of third-world nations such as Chile, thanks to cheap labor and no environmental protections, in exporting raw materials to the United States.

In this sense, I suppose, the Cheshire Cat is a paradigmatic cat, a cat-signifier that can represent the ACM as well as Standard Oil, United States Steel, or General Motors.



Frank H. T. Rhodes at a graduation ceremony in mainland China with the country's vice minister of education Wu Qidi, www.asu.edu/ .

Malone, Battle for Butte (1981), www.his.state.mt.us/ .

Cheshire Cat and Alice, from the original John Tenniel illustration in Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) , thewhiterabbit.net .