Update, 30 Aug 2016: This post became the starting point to the essay “Canada’s Best Idea?” that’s been published in a great book, National Parks Beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on ‘America’s Best Idea.’
American national parks’ best idea may well have been laying claim to the idea that they are “America’s best idea.” (As one blogger puts it, “Take that, Jonas Salk.”) It’s a saying that has been around for some time, but it gained a lot of traction when Ken Burns called his documentary series on American parks by that name. After attending the National Parks Beyond the Nation workshop last month, I got to wondering about the phrase’s provenance. And since the best part of being an academic is simply the freedom it occasionally gives me to indulge my curiosity, I spent a couple of hours trying to figure this out.
Like many others, Burns in the series and in the accompanying book credits Western historian and nature writer Wallace Stegner with having coined the phrase. But like many others, Burns provides no exact reference. Many who cite Stegner mention his 1983 Wilderness article called, sure enough, “The Best Idea We Ever Had: An Overview.” And yet that post-colon “An Overview” and the fact that Stegner didn’t use the “best idea” phrasing in the text itself suggest that he assumed readers would know he was referencing an older expression rather than creating a new one. (Complicating the matter further, William C. Everhart in his 1983 book The National Park Service recalls conservationist Mardy Murie “a few years ago” saying of national parks, “I wonder if it is not the best idea the U.S.A. ever gave the world.”) Perhaps because he was becoming associated with the line, Stegner took the trouble in a 1990 Smithsonian article – subsequently reprinted in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs – to attribute it: “If the national park idea is, as Lord Bryce suggested, the best idea America ever had, wilderness preservation is the highest refinement of that idea.” Stegner’s deference to James Bryce, the early 20th century British ambassador to the U.S., diminished his claim on the saying but simultaneously bestowed on it a much longer and even noble lineage.
Here the trail takes a twist. Bryce seems to have written only once about national parks; certainly there is only one specific text by him on the subject that is ever cited. That is his 1912 “National Parks – The Need of the Future” lecture to the American Civic Association, which was then published in The Outlook the following month and a collection of his speeches the following year. In it Bryce does commend Americans on their parks: “Fortunately, you have made a good beginning in the work of conservation. You have led the world in the creation of national parks. …. [I]t has had the admirable effect of setting other countries to emulate your example.” But this is as close as he comes to calling parks America’s “best idea”; those two words never even appear in the same sentence. More to the point, Bryce’s address is intended not only to congratulate Americans for their parks but also to urge them to protect even more nature by creating more parks and by outlawing automobiles within them – Bryce’s personal bugaboo. No matter how sincere Bryce was in his flattering appraisal of the American park system, it can’t be ignored that he was softening up an audience he was about to instruct. If this is indeed the ur-source of “America’s best idea,” there is a rather delicious irony that Bryce’s compliment has been remembered – and polished till it shone – while the rest has been forgotten.
Coincidentally, in the same 1990 Smithsonian piece in which Wallace Stegner credits Bryce, he writes, “The tracing of ideas is a guessing game. We can’t tell who first had an idea; we can only tell who first had it influentially….” In terms of “America’s best idea,” that would be Stegner himself. Although a few subsequent writers have cited Bryce alone, more often they cite both Bryce and Stegner. Still others, such as Ken Burns, continue to mention only Stegner. It is hard to imagine that Burns and his researchers were unaware that Stegner credited another with the line. Maybe they found Bryce’s 1912 address too obscure, too nuanced, or too thorny. (Even if he was a Brit, Bryce’s description of a love of nature as something that you couldn’t have enough of, “as the old darky said about the watermelon,” may only bring to mind America’s worst idea.)
Or maybe it just seemed more appropriate that “America’s best idea” be an American’s idea.