Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Frontier in the 19th Century, An Incomplete Review

The role of the frontier in American history has been explored in great depth, and from many different perspectives. I cannot here undertake a comprehensive genealogy of the field, so I have selected certain key figures and scholars who I take to be, in their own ways, vital acquaintances for one attempting to understand the history of the frontier in the American imagination. To that end, the 'original' frontier scholar, if such a thing can be said to exist, would undoubtedly be Frederick Jackson Turner; it is with him that I shall begin my review.

Turner, an historian and professor at the University of Wisconsin and later Harvard University, read a lecture before the American Historical Association at the 1893 World’s Colombian Expedition in Chicago - the Chicago World Fair - entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in which he posited that the frontier was, as of that moment, closed, and that this signaled the end of an era of American history. This lecture became the bedrock of a 1920 book, The Frontier in American History, a collection of his writings on the frontier.

His central argument is that, as of the end of the 19th century, the frontier had disappeared, with the conclusion of efforts to settle and civilize the continent. Positioned within a historical perspective of the United States, this narrative gives crucial insight into how Americans conceived of the frontier at the time of his writing (or speaking, as it were). Turner provides a first-hand source for how the frontier of the American West was considered and conceived of at the time of its existence, a timely glimpse that other, more recent scholars could not offer. 1

Turner’s history of the frontier in America is, very fundamentally, a history of flux and flexibility. This flexibility is cast within a mold of multiplicity, insofar as each of the different frontiers that he posits – the coal frontier, the gold frontier, the fur frontier, et cetera – is considered to be distinct from the others. He makes the claim that, as the years progressed, the number of frontiers, their location and their nature, was constantly changing. Importantly, though, despite the number and variety of individual frontiers, all were wrapped up under a larger umbrella of ‘the frontier.' In this flexible, multiplicitous frontier, Turner saw both westward progress and American individuality.2

This vast and grand frontier, in Turner's outline, had immense power and importance in the creation of both America and the American character. Simply put, without the frontier, there would be no such thing as the American. The frontier, according to Turner, finds "a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought" who must accept the fundamentally different conditions which the frontier forces onto him, or perish.3 With this acceptance, he begins a process of change that sees him engage in whatever this new world requires of him, from different methods of dress and transportation, to entirely affected moral and ethical frameworks.

In Turner’s words, the wilderness:

takes him [the settler] from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is first too strong for the man.4

The settler cannot deal with the American wilderness by being European, and must adapt, react and overcome (a Marine saying made famous by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge and adopted into widespread use in the Corps). It is this inability for European-ness to deal with the wilderness that leads Turner to describe the frontier as “the line of most effective and rapid Americanization.”5

What comes out of the wilderness is not Indian - it is a combination of the Indian and the European that finds its definition as "American." This American, according to Turner, has some distinct characteristics, which he describes as traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.6

In my estimation, there are few articulations of the imagined and ideal American character more apt than Turner's here. Putting universality aside, this description encapsulates and summarizes very well a particular conception of an ideal American character.7 The contemporary envisionings and adaptations of this ideal will be discussed in the second part of the thesis. For now, the take-away point is the extent to which the frontier is ingrained in this imagination; Turner's conception of the frontier was so intimately interwoven with what it was to be an American that the two could not exist without one another, such that even those traits that are not explicitly drawn out in the frontier are called out elsewhere because of it. However, there is also much more unpacking to be done of the specific strengths and weakness of, and ingrained within, the conception of this particular American character.

The reader can chew over this description on his own, and I suggest and hope that he will do so, but there are a few phrases in particular to which I would like to draw special attention. These are his articulations of ‘that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients,’ ‘that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends’ and ‘that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil.’ These three things, in total, bring on a picture of American character that, simplistically stated, has a “go-get-’em” attitude — that gives primacy to energetic and decisive action, as opposed to loyalty to orthodoxy and pre-defined courses of action. Turner’s articulation of that dominant individualism that works both for good and for evil can be especially apparent to us in retrospect; it is the ability and willingness to act that matters, and which produces such ‘great ends.’ This approach is reminiscent of a Nietzschean will to power that finds its form and influence not in the quality or effects of actions, but in the fact that they occurred.8

For all the focus on the effect of the frontier on the character, it must be said that the transformative experience of going to the frontier was not a one-way street. At the same time as the wilderness transformed the man, the man likewise transformed the wilderness. The outcome of these interactions was nothing like what existed before they met – the man who comes out of the wilderness of America has not reverted in his transformation back to his roots. Rather, the unique combination of that environment and his character has created something new, something inimitable. In the same way, the outcome of man's effect on the wilderness is not old Europe, not wherever that man came from, but something entirely different. Whether one is examining a man who survives the crucible of the frontier, or the new space and place that he has formed there, “the fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”9 With this, we can understand the mutually constitutive nature of the frontier in America, wherein one enters into it not simply to be transformed, but also to transform; not simply to become an individual and a man, but to prove the reality of that transformation with dominance over nature.

One of the most important aspects of the relationship between the frontier and the American is the (perceived or actual) uniqueness of that relationship - the creation of the American is considered to be a process that can occur nowhere else but the American frontier. It is the frontier that separates us from Europe, from being European; the frontier that allows us to distance ourselves from our colonial legacy; the frontier that allows us to claim something unique, something wholly ours, based on a perception and concordant claim that no other country has had the same sort of expansion as we have had. That claim is crucial in form as well as in effect. In form, it is such that it completely reshapes history as we would today consider it — painting, for example, Indians as a part of nature and not as another people — thus preserving the uniqueness of American expansion. In effect, it centers the agency and the presence at the frontier entirely on Americans, on those for whom the frontier is imagined as a crucial step in the formation of their character.

This habit, of constant movement Westward and upward, continued, for Turner, through to the closing of the frontier. At that point, the frontier as physical place was on the verge of disappearing, and the American identity, so interwoven with the experiences and imaginations of the West, was faced with a crisis. For what was it to do without that formative space, wherein it could craft itself into new generations of Americans? Could the pioneer's children even be called 'Americans,' if they did not have anything against which to test that claim?

The utter centrality of the frontier to the ‘American,' as outlined by Turner, would seem to necessitate a continually present frontier, in order to allow for each generation of Americans to test and craft their selves such that they could fall in line with the ‘American.' It would seem to follow that, upon the closing of the frontier, its influence would begin to die out in this country. With no frontier, without the crucible that is necessary as a formative rite of passage, that American character could not exist; if that character is forged through testing oneself in the liminal space of the frontier, and there is no liminal space to be had, the forging becomes impossible.

Turner's anxiousness about this closing and its consequences pervades his 1893 speech and his later writings. It is crucial to understand that Turner's lecture at the World Fair came at a turning point in American history; at the intersection of the close of the century and the close of the frontier, Turner found himself attempting to reconcile the country of Manifest Destiny and Western expansion with the increasingly imperial country that seemed to be materializing. ‘From sea to shining sea’ had been fulfilled, and with the accomplishment came an implicit end — having been tasked with manifesting its destiny to expand over the continent, the United States could now rest. We had done the duty assigned. This rest was not to last long, though; the United States would intervene in the Philippines within six years, an involvement that would takes its place among the first of American military actions outside of the North American continent. These expansions into non-Western frontiers shall be discussed in more detail later.

This 'later,' to be more precise, will be next week's Sunday post.

Anyways. That's it for now. Hope to hear your comments.




1. Before beginning my discussion of his work, it is important to note that I will be utilizing phrases that Turner himself used, and that these will occasionally come into conflict with modern terminology. I do not, though, intend that my use of his terms stand for an acceptance of, or a sympathy for, all that they have come to encompass. Rather, I feel that one cannot engage with a thing fully and fairly if one neuters or censors contact with that thing; if I, for instance, co-opt the title of his book (as I will below, and throughout this discussion), I do not intend to ignore the vast scholarship that has identified the phrase 'American history' as acting to repress and silence those outside of the United States who yet have long resided in places that are referred to as part of 'the Americas.' Return to reading

I simply contend that only through maintaining language can we access the object of study fully, and that only through consciously being aware of how we engage with that language can we understand that it can serve, in its own ways, to influence our study. With that approach in mind, we can understand that this thesis is attempting to occupy a space that is neither censoring nor embracing the work that it studies, instead working to engage with it in a full and honest manner that does not necessarily subscribe to the views of past academics who have also studied the work. It is Turner's history that I am studying, so it is Turner's terms with which I will engage.

7. For, despite the critiques levied against Turner by historians of the movements of the 1960s, not being able to apply a particular articulation of a particular character universally is not worthy evidence of its irrelevance, nor does it somehow automatically ensure that the thing being critiqued will disappear from the world immediately, and thus cease to be worthy of study. Return to reading

Source Notes

2 Frederick Jackson Turner. The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920). Note: The edition of the text that I accessed for this is a Project Gutenberg e-book that does not make use of page numbers. Quotations will be referenced by chapter throughout.

3 Ibid. Chapter 1.

4 Ibid. Chapter 1, emphasis added.

4 Ibid. Chapter 1.

5 Ibid. Chapter 1.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche. On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

8 Turner, Chapter 1.

9 Howard Zinn and Ronald Takaki are fitting examples of this school. Cf. Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Takaki’s A Different Mirror.