Beating a dead horse?: the continuing presence of Frederick Jackson Turner in environmental and western history.
|Publication:||Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308|
|Issue:||Date: Spring-Summer, 2002|
|Persons:||Named Person: Turner , Frederick Jackson|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Name: American West (Historical region) Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
In a 1992 review of William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis:
Chicago and the Great West Roderick Frazier Nash observed that "as
the centennial of his controversial essay on the American frontier
approaches in 1993, Frederick Jackson Turner has apparently become the
whipping boy of every western historian." (1) Whether or not Nash
was intimating a sympathy with Turner's Frontier Thesis or pointing
out an inordinate amount of critical attention paid to an old essay, his
remark borders on understatement; for a long time, classes in U.S.
history (especially the history of the American West) have begun with
the express intention of refuting Frederick Jackson Turner. In most
cases, historical scholarship that is more than a century old would have
long ago been either roundly accepted or rejected. Yet, Turner's
Frontier thesis is a curious anomaly in that it has continued to be a
target of debate and continued criticism more than any other American
historical work. Turner, whether for his impact on American
self-perception or his unprecedented application of the scientific
method to history has remained an unshakable presence (or problem) in
The "Frontier thesis" promoted the role of western movement as the chief factor in the foundation of American political institutions and culture. Turner credited life in the wilderness with transforming European immigrants into a peculiar national breed. The wilderness necessitated a reversion to primitivism, thereby encouraging individualism and self-government and provided an "escape valve" for the jobless and landless to escape poverty and obtain free land. Moreover, he described the country's history as a process of settlement and civilization moving westward and always on the eastern edge of open land. Turner's impetus for the thesis was the 1890 census that had announced the official end of frontier conditions in the United States.
The "freedom of unexploited wilderness," as Turner would refer to it in an essay, changed Old World institutions (particularly British institutions which are invariably what Turner refers to) into distinctly American ones. Those institutions would have to be modified to deal with the recently closed supply of wilderness. Turner warned, "... the free lands are gone, and with conditions comparable to those of Europe, we have to reshape the ideals and institutions fashioned in the age of wilderness-winning to the new conditions of an occupied country." (3)
The bold claims made by Turner more than a century ago have since fallen into disfavor with American historians, particularly among western historians. Among the more notable proponents of the "new western history" is Patricia Nelson Limerick, a historian whose work embodies the primary departures from Turner. Limerick suggests that western historians focus on a geographically specific area rather than interpreting the West according to a uniform column of western movement. In The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick suggests that the frontier process has kept historians from viewing the West as a particular region, as with the South or the Midwest. Also, Limerick points out Turner's failure to criticize the violence and depravity involved in the saga of white, Anglo-Saxon westward encroachment. In describing Euro American westward expansion Turner described a closing rift between "civilization" and "savagery;" in contrast, Limerick prefers words like "imperialism" and "conquest." (4)
Indeed, Limerick's definition of western history is based on refuting Turner. "New Western Historians," by definition "reject the notion of a clear cut `end to the frontier,' in 1890, or in any other year.
Also common to the "New Western History" is a willingness to reject the traditional themes of progress and improvement and to "surrender the conventional, never-very-convincing claim of an omniscient, neutral objectivity." (6) To Limerick, Turner represents the mythologies that have pervaded the field and prevented a broader, more inclusive picture of western history.
In effect, one key element to the New Western History is a self-consciousness stemming from the remaining legacy of the Frontier Thesis. Although their motivations are different than those of Limerick, many western/environmental historians are driven by this same self-consciousness and write western history that is continuously a response to Turner.
Whether favorable or not, Turner has remained prominent in the memories of western and environmental historians like Nash and Cronon as well as numerous others. While the new western history takes issue with Turner's ethnocentrism and over dependence upon linear westward movement, the environmental historian claims a kind of indirect descendancy from Turner. Environmental historian Richard White has observed that environmental history's antecedents (namely Turner and Walter Prescott Webb) have been "clustered in western history," establishing an association between the western and the environmental that continues to the present with himself and numerous others. (7)
While the western aspect of history may have obvious ties to Turner, why then should the environmental? Turner set a precedent by suggesting that the American physical environment was the most important determinant in shaping the United States and its institutions. The Frontier Thesis challenged the dominant humanist tradition that emphasized the cerebral over the physical by showing that environment played an active role in shaping culture, a theme that would appear much later in the works of European historians Arnold Toynbee and Ferdinand Braudel (although it is regrettably unknown whether or not either of them had read Turner).
While these assertions are not accepted without reservation by modern historians, Roderick Nash's "whipping boy" remark does not do full justice to his relationship to environmental historians like William Cronon. In fact, the relation is considerably more complex and explains why a supposedly outmoded historical theory is still on the minds of historians. Although the ideas expressed by Turner have been refuted for decades, no one has suggested that continued polemics on his writing have constituted "beating a dead horse." This essay attempts to find a common thread of Turner's influence among prominent western and environmental historians, highlighting their criticisms as well as their acknowledgments, while determining the reason that Turner has remained a subject of discussion and debate more than a century after the introduction of his Frontier Thesis.
The Twentieth Century Evolution of Turner
Although the Frontier thesis was met early on with public and academic enthusiasm, it had fallen into question well before the intellectual and activist ferment of the 1960s and 1970s that established environmental history as a field and revitalized western history. Turner's essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was presented at the 1893 Columbian Exposition to little immediate reaction. However, as the development of sectional identity emerged among western and midwestern historians over the following decade, the Turner thesis was presented as a bedrock for the new school. A new western identity was forming on a broader scale as well; the Populist and Free Silver movement had stirred up considerable antipathy toward the East and the trend was reflected as a cultural rebellion in the academic realm as well. Essentially, the bankers and magnates of the East represented the coastal adherence to European ways while the West formed the tree American character. (8)
Turner's thesis marked a departure from the prevailing trends of his time in two ways: first, it refuted the "germ theory" that portrayed the American political tradition as having been planted in the New World as a continuation of Anglo-Saxon custom. Second, it sought to replace the post-Reconstructionist opinion that the national discord brought about by slavery had been the chief motivating factor in American history. More dramatically, it was considered the first work of history to look at human events in terms of economic and sociological processes, giving form and precision to history and virtually making history a science. (9) The concept of environment acting on man, rather than the reverse, interpreted society as an organism evolving in stages of hunting, agriculture, urban manufacturing and so on. Turner described society as an organism that would, in the Darwinist sense, adapt to meet the rigors of its environment. (10) Interestingly, Turner would later protest both critics and followers who pointed out his applications of the sciences to history, saying that economics and geography played such interlocking roles in America that they were too intricately enmeshed to separate them. (11)
Early followers of Turner, primarily historians that were still products of the nineteenth century's enthronement of science, commended Turner not only for his methodology, but also for his apparent ability to explain the process of American history within a single theme. Late in his career, most criticism could be termed as nothing short of glowing. One unnamed reviewer of Turner's 1920 essay collection heaps an almost embarrassing amount of praise on Turner for "his personal magnetism and scholarly attainments."
Liberally using words like "charming" and "perfect," the reviewer goes on:
Strangely, the only complaint "C.W.A." had was that Turner failed to mention Buffalo Bill Cody.
The almost sycophantic tone taken by this reviewer is a testament to the following Turner generated in the nearly forty years between his introduction of the Frontier thesis and his death. Known more for excellence in teaching rather than writing, Turner left behind a significant number of students more influenced by his revolutionary momentum than the writing that actually started the momentum. Besides being first to distinguish the United States from its Anglo-Saxon origins, Turner was virtually first among American scholars to find the means to study history by way of economics, sociology and possibly psychology. It would not be impossible to recognize the misleading principles of the Frontier thesis while appreciating Turner's unprecedented viewpoint. Often, Turner's followers remained followers not for his findings, but for the methodological model he established. (14)
The growth in criticism of Turner had its own "germs," one of which was the burgeoning skepticism toward exceptionalism in American history brought about by the emergence of Marxist history in the 1930s. Marxists objected to the disregard for universal laws of development inherent to exceptionalism and pointed to the Great Depression as evidence of America's confinement to a common system of world events. What could be inherently different about America and Americans if they were caught up in the same economic disaster as the rest of the world? (15) Exceptionalism continued to lose general favor with the advent of World War II since the concept of a national peculiarity seemed repugnantly kin to the belief in a national superiority associated with Nazism. (16) The idea that all members of a nation-state could share a coherent similarity mentality would also have run head-on into the growing influence of existentialism. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., one of the preeminent historians of the early twentieth century back-pedaled from his earlier acceptance of the Frontier thesis in 1942, espousing the older view that America resulted from "Old World heritage and New World conditions." As then president of the American Historical Association, Schlesinger's reevaluation was symbolic of the relatively anti-Turner stance that American historians would retain for decades to come. (17)
In a peculiar coincidence, Turner's death in 1932 was almost simultaneous with the beginning of the Great Depression and the emergence of criticism it inspired. More significant to the realm of environmental studies, Turner's death also coincided with the early years of the Dust Bowl, a central subject in environmental and western history.
Historians of the Plains
The year before Turner's death Walter Prescott Webb published The Great Plains, a regional history that followed Turner's lead in basing its findings around the environment. Webb pointed to the aridity and treelessness of the Great Plains as an impediment to western expansion though one that prompted innovations for adaptation.
While making associations between environmental factors and cultural/political developments as Turner did, Webb included technological innovations like the revolver and barbed wire as adaptations to the Great Plains. (19) Unlike Turner, however, Webb's Great Plains were a cohesive region of the United States rather than a phase of western movement.
Webb's application of environmental determinism went further to establish the permanent association between western history and the environment. In 1959, Webb downplayed Turner's influence on his work, saying that he had not read Turner before writing The Great Plains but acknowledged the similarities of their respective theories. "If Turner's thesis is true, then mine is true; if his is a fallacy, then mine is also fallacious," he announced, well after Turner had lost a strong following. (20)
Webb would not escape criticism any more than Turner had. As James C. Malin would later point out, Webb failed in the same way that Turner did: acknowledging the land's change on humans while mostly ignoring the humans' change on the land. Malin (whom Robert P. Swierenga would include with Turner and Webb in the "triumvirate" of historians who "have provided the basic theoretical constructs on which rests virtually this entire field of knowledge" in western history) applied his knowledge of ecology to a historical understanding of the Great Plains that emphasized physical changes in the land, both natural and man-made. Malin postulated, as Richard White and other environmental historians would later, that culture plays the active role on the environment rather than the reverse. (21)
Aside from Webb, Malin explained Turner's overly deterministic approach as a product of the time in which it was composed.
Interpreting Turner within the context of his time (as all historians eventually are) is a reasonably mild criticism compared to most of the attacks from the 1930s to 1950s by political and social historians. Malin's point seemed to be that the continuous onslaught against Turner was unnecessary if the Frontier thesis was so outdated. In fact, Malin's main targets of criticism were the Progressive and New Deal members of the "Turner cult" that used the vaunted close of the American frontier as a "justification" for what Malin called "totalitarian planning." (23)
Despite his bluntly expressed political motivations, Malin was the first historian to incorporate ecology into historical narrative and accordingly the virtual founding father of environmental history. (24) Many of the more prominent environmental historians would also make the American West their chief focus and would also take on the task of reassessing Turner according to their own ideas. Three of these, Richard White, Donald Worster and William Cronon have given special attention to Turner, a fact that speaks to the latter's endurance after decades of dismissal.
Environmental Historians Addressing Turner
Why is Turner's influence so strongly felt by environmental historians? If the Frontier thesis was wrong, why does it not go away? Richard White, for one, has a checkered relationship with Turner. Having written numerous criticisms of Turner, he has been accused (along with Cronon, Worster and Patricia Limerick) of "Turner bashing." White has nevertheless acknowledged Turner's role as a predecessor to environmental history. (25) The attention White has given to Turner demonstrates that the Turnerian frontier is a common subject of interest for environmental history. White makes no bones about sharing the focus of Turner's attention (the American "wilderness"); their divergence comes from White's interpretation of the findings. Chief among White's complaints is Turner's ethnocentric and misleading assumption of untouched wilderness:
White delineates himself from Turner and Webb in simple terms of "New" and "Old" western historians, pointing out that the old western historians portrayed a positivist process of westward wilderness conquering that took only Anglo-Americans into full account. White sees a clear difference between current scholarship on the West and that which was strongly influenced by Turner.
In White's view, the major break between the old and new schools comes out of defining the West. Turner defined the West by its supply of free land, a definition that was associated with the region sometime after his passing. White's argument against this would begin with the fact that the West was not free but had been inhabited by an indigenous population for thousands of years. Moreover, White joins Patricia Limerick in emphasizing that western history continued unabated after the 1890 U.S. Census, particularly in the unique racial situation that was produced in the region. By focusing purely on white Americans, Turner subordinated Indians as well as other minorities into passive roles rather than the active roles that White shows. (27) Ironically, the environmental historian is most critical of Turner for over-emphasizing the environment and ignoring the human element.
Speaking for his generation of western historians, White once remarked, "... let's face it, none of us will ever be as influential as Turner." (28) As many times as Richard White has directly addressed Turner's legacy, his conception of "Old" and "New" western historians makes it plain that he does not see a Turnerian predominance among his own generation of historians. In his textbook of western history It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, White does not give Turner a single mention, neither in acknowledgment nor criticism. As pervasive as his theories might have been decades ago, in Richard White's view Turner has become little more than a historiographic artifact. Turner serves as a symbol for the "Old" western historian so that those of the "New" school have a comparable point of contrast.
In this respect, Donald Worster differs slightly from White. Worster has suggested a number of times within the last twenty years that Turner still holds sway over western history, although he would prefer that he did not. Frontier historian John Mack Faragher expressed surprise that Worster (and others) still considered Turner a major player in current historiography. The idea that Turner would remain present in western history "like a Holy Ghost" surprised Faragher, who considered Turner antiquated as far back as his graduate school days when instructors "read Turner as a primary source" rather than a usable model for western history. (29) In fact, Worster, like White, has recognized the development of a post-Turnerian school of western history. However, he has also complained that western history has failed to shed the overly positivistic tone established by Turner. Other fields, Worster argued, were able to form a more critical approach long before western history.
A belief in the essential positivism of American institutions runs head long into Worster's theories of ecological degradation caused by agricultural over-production. The evolutionary process that comprised Turner's thesis mirrored the commonly accepted ecology of the day; plant development and adaptation followed a linear process of migration. The two theories had more to do with each other than their proponents realized, according to Worster. Westward expansion by Euro-Americans was actually causing this ecological phenomenon as new plants and animals were introduced to new environs that were not necessarily conducive. (31)
Although Worster has expressed dislike for the idea of the West as a process rather than a single well-delineated place, the westward movement of flora, fauna and technology is key to his postulations on the causes of the Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, Worster emphasizes that the arid Great Plains, his primary area of study, is not necessarily representative of the trans-Mississippian West as a whole and the portrayal of the West as a homogenous monolith has been harmful to historians' understanding. Worster concedes that Turner's Frontier Thesis might still hold true for the humid Old Northwest, the territory from Ohio to the Mississippi River in which Turner grew up (he was a Wisconsin native) and gathered most of his data. In Turner's time, this was not a severe fallacy; born in 1861, he still considered his part of the United States a part of the greater West, not taking into account that his theory might be misapplied to other areas further west. Worster has also pointed out that, with data from the 1900 census, the frontier increased slightly due to urban migration. (32)
Worster's decidedly declensionist interpretation of the history of the Great Plains holds capitalism and centralized control of farm production to blame for the ecological deterioration of the region, institutions that are entangled with the same ideals that Turner credited the frontier for creating. Whether or not these ideals were created by the frontier is irrelevant; what is important is that these ideals changed the land and broke frontier individualism down into the "hierarchy, concentration of wealth and power, rule by expertise, dependency on government and bureaucracy" of the modern West. (33) In essence, the bulk of Worster's work does not so much refute the theory of westward expansion as point out its tragic results that have been otherwise overlooked.
William Cronon does not accept Turner unequivocally anymore than White or Worster but his work provides a more visible link to Turner. In Nature's Metropolis, Cronon brings Turner up frequently, usually to contrast his own findings on the development of Chicago to Turner's gradual process of wilderness to city. The city did not conform to Turner's theory of development, Cronon found, as the process happened considerably more rapidly than Turner had said. "Turner's Chicago rose to power only as the frontier drew to a close, whereas the boosters' Chicago had been an intimate part of frontier settlement almost from the beginning," a conclusion Cronon also reaches. (34)
However, Cronon's environmental chronicle of Chicago's reciprocal relationship with its surroundings is a kind of frontier process in its own way. From east to west, Turner showed that rural pastoral lands made up most of the division between civilization and wilderness. Instead of a linear path between the two, Cronon suggests concentric circles of farming and lumber lands surrounding the city and gradually expanding outwards, with Chicago and its surroundings in a state of constant interdependence. Instead of the frontier giving way from a single direction, Cronon shows it happening omni-directionally from a central source.
Unlike most western historians, Cronon does not completely abandon the idea of a frontier process. The West is a "place" as Worster and Limerick have insisted, but the conception of this place has changed as the "Great West" receded westward, leaving the Middle West behind.
Although Cronon recognizes the ethnocentric implications of the frontier idea, he also recognizes that he is speaking from the same Anglo-Caucasian perspective that Turner did. Cronon's environmental history is a "natural modernization" of Turner's theory. (36) Cronon, along with George Miles and Jay Gitlin, has said that the act of "ceasing to be west" has been one of the core occurrences in every region of America. (37) In a statement that addresses Turner more directly, Cronon said: "To jettison Turner's frontier in favor of an apparently less problematic `regional' definition runs the grave risk of abandoning the cross-regional and national emphasis he sought to establish for the field. (38)
The endurance that Turner has lies in his narrative, says Cronon, who has otherwise stressed the importance of historical narrative in interpreting events. (39) The story of westward movement as the defining American character-builder has been impossible to replace, even when expressed in terms of imperialism and conquest. For Cronon, Turner is the reason that environmental history has dealt so often with western America. Western movement in America was generated by the consumption and exploitation of natural resources, one human action that has remained central to ecologically motivated history along with urbanization--Turner's result. (40) The modern historian can see Turner's failings as products of the time in which he lived. The frontier is still of use to the environmental historian as a meeting point between "touched" and "untouched" or, to others, the division line between one culture's land usage and that of another's.
Frederick Jackson Turner has retained a presence in modern historiography because of environmental historians, since he is useful to many of the subjects they study. Richard White's interest in the relationship between culture and land has Turner's environmental determinism as a foil and ancestor; Worster demythologizes the agrarian myth that is inherent to Turner's theory; Cronon distills useful elements from the Frontier thesis while using the rest as an illustrative counterpoint. Rather than beating a dead horse, these historians have revitalized Turner even by opposing him.
Though the environmental historian's invocation of Turner is often less than positive, the two have, in their respective time periods, parallel goals. Turner was part of a late nineteenth-century regional movement that attempted to create an American historical identity with a more western, rural perspective to verbalize portions of American history that had otherwise been overlooked. He, and Walter Prescott Webb, were westerners and therefore regionally isolated from the American academic settings of their respective times. (41) In their chosen subject, they were publicizing an aspect of American history that was unseen in traditional American history, just as environmental historians do in theirs.
Turner and the environmental historians also share a present-based impetus for writing history. The Frontier thesis was composed because of the apparent close of the frontier, a force that Turner said needed to be replaced as a driving force in the United States. The country had eaten away the thing that had created it and conditions and policies would have to change in order for the country to adapt. Having been spawned by the environmental movement, the findings of environmental history seem strikingly similar.
(1) Roderick Frazier Nash, review of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, American Historical Review 97, no. 3 (June, 1992): 939.
(2) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1920), 38.
(3) Frederick Jackson Turner, "Western State-Making in the Revolutionary Era," The American Historical Review 1, no. 1 (October, 1895): 70-87, 71.
(4) Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 25-26.
(5) Patricia Nelson Limerick, "What On Earth is the New Western History?" in: Toward a New Western History, Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II and Charles E. Rankin, Eds. (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1991), 86.
(7) Richard White, "Historiographical Essay, American Environmental History: The Development of a New Historical Field," Pacific Historical Review 54 (August, 1985): 297.
(8) Richard Hofstadter, Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier, Seymour Martin Lipset and Richard Hofstadter Eds. (New York and London: Basic Books Inc., 1968), 3-4.
(9) Ibid, 5. See also Joseph Schafer, "Turner's America," Wisconsin Magazine of History 17: 448.
(10) William Coleman, "Science and Symbol in the Turner Frontier Thesis" American Historical Review 72, no. 1 (Oct. 1966): 28-30.
(11) Wilbur R. Jacobs, Turner, Bolton and Webb: Three Historians of the American Frontier (Seattle and London: Univ. of Washington Press, 1965), 15-16.
(12) "C.W.A.," review of The Frontier in American History, in Mississippi Valley Historical Review 7, no. 4 (March, 1921): 404.
(13) Ibid., 404.
(14) This is best demonstrated by Richard Hofstadter's The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard and Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968).
(15) David Noble, The End of American History: Democracy, Capitalism and the Metaphor of Two Worlds in Anglo-American Historical Writing, 1880-1980 (Minneapolis: 1985), 141.
(16) Carl N. Degler, "In Pursuit of an American History," American Historical Review 92, no. 1 (February, 1987): 3-4.
(17) quoted in John Mack Faragher, "The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West," The American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (February, 1993): 110.
(18) Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931), 507.
(19) Ibid., 170-171, 298-299.
(20) Walter Prescott Webb, "History as High Adventure," The American Historical Review 64, no. 2 (January, 1959): p. 279.
(21) James C. Malin, History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, Swierenga, Ed., (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984), xiii, 107; White, 335.
(22) Ibid., 83.
(23) Ibid., xxiii.
(24) Allen G. Bogue, "James C. Malin: A Voice from the Grassland," Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians, Richard W. Etulain, Ed. (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1991), 233; White, 297.
(25) quoted in William G. Robbins, "Laying Siege to Western History: The Emergence of New Paradigms," Trails, 187.
(26) Richard White, "Trashing the Trails," Trails, 29.
(27) Richard White, "Race Relations in the American West," American Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1986): 397.
(28) Robbins, 188.
(29) Donald Worster quoted in Faragher, 107.
(30) Donald Worster, "Beyond the Agrarian Myth," Under Western Skies (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 10.
(31) Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), 218-219.
(32) Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 11-12, 131.
(33) Donald Worster, "New West, True West: Interpreting the Region's History," Western Historical Quarterly, (April, 1987): 153.
(34) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Comp., 1991), 47.
(35) Ibid., 379.
(36) Michael P. Malone, "The New Western History," an Assessment," in Trails, 101.
(37) William Cronon, George Miles and Jay Gitlin, Eds., Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (New York: Norton, 1992), 26.
(38) William Cronon, "Turner's First Stand: The Significance of Significance in American History," in Writing Western History, Richard W. Etulain, Ed. (Albuquerque, Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1991), 93.
(39) See William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative," The Journal of American History 78, no. 4 (March, 1992): 1347-1376.
(40) William Cronon, "Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner," Western Historical Quarterly (April, 1987): 171.
(41) Earl Pomeroy, "Environmental Interpretations of an Environmentalist: Walter Prescott Webb," Reviews in American History 5, no. 3 (September, 1977): 400-401.
T.R.C. HUTTON is a graduate student in history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, the ever-retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history. (2)
The story of the region's sometimes contested, sometimes cooperative, relations among its diverse cast of characters and the story of human efforts to `master' nature in the region are both ongoing stories, with their continuity unnecessarily ruptured by attempts to divide the `old West' from the new West.' (5)
It is a pleasure for the reviewer, trained in a very different school, to acknowledge his indebtedness to him, after he began research in Mr. Turner's chosen subject. The writer's correspondence files contain many long letters from him; these are filled with references to various knotty questions, and they represent only one of his many acts of kindness. How generously does he give! (12)
His emphasis on the frontier, his analysis of its conditions, his insistence on its influence on the building of American character, his history of its movement across the continent and his proof of its weight in politics and national issues have formed the vantage ground for his new outlook on American history, the value of which his students and followers are further proving. (13)
It has been pointed out that the ninety-eighth meridian separates the United States into two equal parts, that the Anglo-Americans who approached the Great Plains from the east came with an experience of more than two centuries of pioneering in the woodland environment, and that when they crossed over into the Plains their technique of pioneering broke down and they were compelled to make a radical readjustment in their way of life. The key to an understanding of the history of the West must be sought, therefore, in a comparative study of what was in the East and what came to be (Webb's italics) in the West. (18)
As a product of his time and of the Middle Western environment, Turner was expressing both himself and his generation; he was teaching history in terms of unconscious propaganda. His themes were nationalism, democracy and individualism, with the frontier as his instrument of instruction. Acceptance by his contemporaries, plus fifty years of worship at the shrine of the significance of the frontier in American history, are irrefutable evidence that he had given a full and accurate expression of the genius of his own generation of Americans, but it is not proof of the soundness and adequacy of his interpretation of American history. (22)
There is no sharp line between culture and nature. Wilderness--that is, land unaffected by human use--is rarely to be found. There is no obvious frontier except in the sense that in some places you run out of white people, which is of no particular concern to environmental historians. (26)
Graduate students were not expected to emerge from their seminars with a critical perspective; on the contrary, they were commonly taught to be positive and hopeful, to believe in the essential goodness of their institutions, to avoid any expressions of radical discontent, and dutifully they did so. In that moral complacency, if not in all their theories, they remained true to their own spirit, and the history they wrote remained an exercise in blandness. While the rest of the world's historians were facing up to the horrors of the Holocaust, the infamy of southern slavery, the satanic mills of global industrialization, western historians continued to wear a cheerful face. (30)
As the expanding market economy sheared hinterlands away from the gateway city that had helped create them, Nature's Metropolis and the Great West both passed into oblivion, joining the ghost landscapes of tallgrass prairie, white pine forest, and shortgrass bison range as past places no longer a part of a living memory. But before these things disappeared, they created a good share of the world we inhabit today. (35)
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