"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner

Readin' the West

A somnolent audience

In 1893, a year of crash and economic depression, The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. On July 12th, a young assistant professor stood to the podium to address the eminent historians there gathered, at a meeting of the American Historical Association. It was evening, and his was the last paper to be delivered. The delegates had just sat through a seemingly interminable reading of ‘Early Lead Mining in Illinois and Wisconsin.’ It was warm. Many were tired from having tramped round the exhibits all day. There were a lot of empty seats too, as not a few members had nipped off early to watch Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle, which was drawing huge crowds just outside the Exposition grounds. There was, frankly, general indifference. At the end of the paper, not a single question was asked. The speaker must have gone back to his hotel disconsolate.
A young Frederick Jackson Turner
A seminal paper

And yet that paper, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, was to become, as John Mack Faragher has called it, “the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history.” The young professor was Frederick Jackson Turner and he was to become the great guru of American historiography. Turner was a tireless promoter of his own views, a born publicist and a regular of the lecture circuit. By 1910, the year when Turner assumed a chair at Harvard and became President of the American Historical Association, his ideas had become the commanding view of the American past. According to William Appleman Williams, “His thesis rolled through the universities and popular literature as a tidal wave.” I can attest to that: I studied American history in the late 1960s and Turner was still regarded with reverential awe (I was quite surprised professors didn’t cross themselves when his name was mentioned).
It became the orthodoxy
What was it that Turner said that was so significant?

The Frontier Thesis

His ‘frontier thesis’ argued that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” He said that this frontier accounted for American democracy and character; and that at the time he was writing the continental frontier finally closed for ever, with uncertain consequences for the American future.

"American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried … in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier," said Turner.
Turner in his glory days
Turner was always interested in the effect of the past on the present and future. He stressed the changes that America was undergoing as it moved from a rural past to an industrial future. And he was concerned about how Americans’ ‘expansionist instinct’ would manifest itself, now that the frontier was closed.

Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who would assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.

Turner’s view was that the “advance of the pioneer into the wastes of the continent” defined our unique national heritage and that it amounted to the purest expression of American idealism. The master of ceremonies of this presentation was Buffalo Bill. He toured the United States and Europe, turning the notion of “manifest destiny” into a bankable asset and establishing it as an orthodoxy.
The master of ceremonies
Popular acceptance

And Hollywood swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Western movies were largely the story of ‘civilization’ gradually establishing itself in the West and of large projects which conquered (1) nature and the vast open spaces, and (2) the ‘red man’. Movies like The Iron Horse, Union Pacific, Western Union and Pony Express, among very many others, described how communications spread out to span the continent and unite Americans into one mighty nation; many films were the wagon train sagas, such as The Covered Wagon, that told of the movement westwards of settlers; and many too were the Westerns that told of the US Cavalry’s conquest (with the single rather embarrassing exception of the heroic martyr Custer) of ‘hostile’ Indians.
It was manifestly their destiny to span the continent
The new orthodoxy

It wasn’t only fuddy-duddy historians and makers of Westerns: politicians and business leaders also eagerly grasped the idea. Railroad president Stuyvesant Fish called Asia and the Pacific America’s “new West”. Woodrow Wilson (who had been a graduate student with Turner at Johns Hopkins) wrote that with the continent occupied “and reduced to the uses of civilization”, the nation must inevitably turn to “new frontiers in the Indies and the Far Pacific”. Theodore Roosevelt said that the winning of American colonies was the logical and necessary extension of continental westering, and he likened Filipinos to Apaches, and anti-imperialists to “Indian lovers”. In 1938 FDR said, “There is still today a frontier that remains unconquered—an America unreclaimed. This is the great, the nation-wide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier—the America—we have set ourselves to reclaim.” As late as the 1950s Nelson Rockefeller wrote, “With the closing of our own frontier, there is hope that other frontiers still exist in the world.” John F Kennedy used the language: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space…” Disney’s Frontierland of the late 20th century reflected the Turnerite myth of rugged individualism that celebrated American heritage. People talk about the Internet as an “electronic frontier”. Hell, even Star Trek V had the subtitle The Final Frontier.
Turner goes into outer space
Turner’s thesis, however, has not held up so well among historians. And where would the world be without historians? Answer me that, if you dare. Hah!

The naysayers

Part of the reason was certainly his language. He used terms which were doubtless perfectly acceptable when he was writing but which modern readers will find harder to accept. The whole notion of ‘empty’ or ‘free’ land does little service to the peoples who were already there. When Turner does talk about Indians he does so in terms of “civilization” meeting with “savagery”. He says that American evolution “begins with the Indian and hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization.” Western America was “a land without history”. Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.

But it isn’t just the language, and it wasn’t just Indians whom he viewed in this way (or didn’t view at all). Critics began attacking the basic thesis when Turner was still alive, and their voice has grown ever since. In Turner’s last years (he died in 1932) historians chipped away at his views. Turner’s “egalitarian and democratic” frontier excluded too many people. Turner ignored gender and race, downplayed class, and left no room for victims. John Dewey declared in 1922 that far from being the crucible of American democracy, the West was notable for its “depressing effect on the free life of inquiry and criticism.” Others argued that the idea of a vanished frontier was simply wrong, that there never was any “free land”, that Western democratic institutions had been imported from the East, that the West was not a safety valve for eastern urban discontent, and even that the whole notion of “frontier individualism” was a myth.

A different perspective

New ‘schools’ of American history began to emerge. Herbert Eugene Bolton at Berkeley pioneered the study of the “Spanish borderlands” of the United States and after World War II Carey McWilliams worked on the history of the Mexican-American people. The role of women in the West began to be re-examined (or examined for the first time). Historians studied the part that various ethnic minorities had played in the development of the West, Chinese-Americans, for example. And the huge – and often very negative – impact of settlement on the environment and on nature also began to be discussed. And, as we know, a whole new movement burgeoned which re-assessed the part played by ‘Native Americans’ (a clumsy term, so let’s say American Indians), pioneered in the 1950s by the likes of Jack D Forbes and A Irving Hallowell.

So the ground was well prepared for the growth of what Sarah Deutsch called “a new narrative form more appropriate to a pluralistic concept of history.” Patricia Limerick insisted on the continuity of Western history across the centuries to the present. Bernard DeVoto highlighted an urban West, as New Deal measures and World War II industries brought prosperity.

My favorite survey of this “new history” (it isn’t very new actually) is Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (1991), which you can read about by clicking the link. Among other things, White argues, unTurnerishly, that the West, “more than any other region, has been historically a dependency of the federal government.”
Richard White
Hollywood takes note

And, to be fair, Hollywood has made some effort to follow suit. Western movies (on the big screen and TV) have started to feature strong, independent women or look at how they were exploited (think of The Missing or The Homesman, just as examples), they have begun to present the story from the Indian perspective (Dances With Wolves, say) and they have even treated the case of Chinese women sold into sexual slavery (Broken Trail). Clint Eastwood, who was not in his early days as the grunting spaghetti-man with no name or Dirty Harry exactly a paragon of new liberal values, began to make Westerns which highlighted the rape of the land by exploitative capitalists (Pale Rider) and empowered women hiring men to avenge one of their own (Unforgiven).
Clint about to dynamite the hydraulic mining operation in Pale Rider
Rereading, rehabilitating Turner?

What has prompted these doubtless rather superficial musings of mine on Frederick Jackson Turner and how he has been regarded was the gift by a generous nephew of a book, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, a collection of Turner’s essays with an introduction and an afterword by John Mack Faragher (Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1994). Mr. Faragher is professor of American history at Yale and has written an acclaimed biography of Daniel Boone.
A good (re)read
Professor Faragher
I must say I enjoyed the book, and it was interesting to read Turner again but in a more critical way than I had as a green student all those years ago. And Professor Faragher’s commentary is very perspicacious and thought-provoking. Although he gives a thorough and convincing critique of Turner, it is also clear that he admires the historian in many ways. He sums up by writing:

Turner studied the frontier not merely because it was his special area of interest, but foremost because he believed its history could illuminate the broader story of America. The power of the frontier thesis derived from its commitment to the study of what it has meant to be American. That is part of the Turnerian view we would do well to preserve.

And he adds:

But the Turnerian interpretation of western expansion read back into the past both the assurance and the arrogance of the victors of a centuries-long campaign of conquest. Turner made that victory seem inevitable, but the history of the American West now being written serves to remind us that there was nothing smooth about it at all – that the victory of one people was usually at the expense of another. The deeper history of the frontier that now opens to us is rich with the stories of the diverse peoples who tried to find a place in the American West. It offers cautionary tales as well as ones of inspiration. Just as Turner’s frontier thesis responded to his perception of the needs of the America of a century ago, so this new history of the frontier speaks to the issues and struggles of our own time.




  1. This is excellent. I haven't read Turner in years (decades?), but this will make me pull it from the shelf and take another look.

    1. I thought the best essays (and the most Turnerish) were The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893) and The Problem of the West (1896). It is curious, isn't it, that such a significant writer never produced a single key book; his reputation rests on papers and talks.