- Historic Sites
From The Frontier
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Both Parkman and Melville looked for and found the authentic frontier. Parkman saw it at first hand on the western plains, and then went back to an eastern frontier (“mousing in the archives”) and breathed life upon it. Melville found it on the high seas, on whaling ships and on the Navy’s cruisers, and struck sparks from it, making a light for more settled folk in the eastern cities. Each one touched base with something fundamental to the American consciousness, because the frontier for many generations laid its imprint on what the American people thought and did.
Not just the physical frontier, the untamed land peopled by wild beasts and men living in the stone age. The long shadow that comes down from the American frontier—a strange shadow, half darkness and half tantalizing gleams of light—was always more a matter of the emotions and the mind than of simple geography. As much as anything, it was perhaps an attitude toward life—a state of mind, even a state of the heart, a belief that life is both plastic and perfectible, an intense and often inarticulate feeling of kinship and unity with men facing a world which they can shape as they please. As the physical frontier vanished, this feeling declined, so that the truth that was seen beyond the border came to seem a marshfire, flickering with a wholly deceptive light. We got so that we knew too much, and the fact that a good part of our knowledge was itself an illusion only compounded the trouble. Losing the frontier, we lost a source of strength.
Consider, for instance, the case of William Jennings Bryan, who had nothing whatever in common with either Parkman or Melville except that he too saw the light from the frontier and preached about it to his fellow Americans. His “enemy” was neither the illhealth of the historian nor the penury of the novelist; it was the crippling disability of a man born out of his time, speaking earnestly from a text that people have begun to ignore, accomplishing much but never quite being or doing the things he might have been and done. In the beginning he frightened the respectables and in the end he made them laugh, and the respectables may have been somewhat mistaken both times.
Bryan comes out of the shadows in a thoughtful little book, The Trumpet Soundeth , by Paul W. Glad. More a biographical essay than a biography, this book presents Bryan as a man who “was fashioned with forceful affection by the rural society in which he lived and moved and had his being”—a man from the frontier, indeed, becoming a power in American politics at a time when the frontier itself was dead but when its approach to life still had much power.
He was the perfect reflection of the middle-border region; a region, as Mr. Glad remarks, which lived by a religion of the book and the tabernacle, its book being McGuffey’s Reader and its tabernacle the Chautauqua tent. It was intensely moralistic, touched with the still-virile evangelistic spirit of rural Protestantism; its values and its experience stemmed from an earlier and simpler day; and it had a powerful concept of the American mission. It believed in progress and in the improvement of society, and when the condition of American society in the final decades of the nineteenth century came to look like the negation of everything it believed in, it exploded. Bryan very nearly became President of the United States, and although he did not quite make it, he did leave a remarkable imprint on his times.
The Trumpet Soundeth, by Paul W. Glad. University of Nebraska Press. 242 pp. $4.75.
He was not, unfortunately, a powerful thinker. To the end of his days he spoke for rural America in a country that was becoming more and more urbanized, and he followed his emotions rather than his reason. He was, in short, a romantic, turned loose in a land that was becoming more and more cynical about the romantic values. Mr. Glad justly says that Bryan never tried to prove that the “gold ring” and the Wall Street bankers had set out to cheat the honest farmer; “He only saw that the stout-hearted pioneer men and women who had braved the elements in establishing homesteads on the plains were suffering, and relying on his intuition, he concluded that much of their suffering was the result of heartless and callous exploitation.” In this belief there was, to be sure, a certain measure of truth, and Bryan was as sensitive to social wrongs as a revivalist is sensitive to sin. Facing such wrongs, he adopted the revivalist’s solution: he tried to convert America. This was a little more than he or anyone could accomplish.
But he did accomplish quite a lot. Scaring the daylights out of the respectables, he compelled them to adopt a good part of his program. He failed to change the structure of American politics, but he at least changed its tone. Warring with the Republicans and with many of his fellow Democrats, he did a great deal to keep both parties from trying to carry the nineteenth century forward into the twentieth. As Mr. Glad points out, in his years in the opposition Bryan did, after all, raise and argue “some questions that were vital to American democracy—some questions that urgently needed raising.” His specific answers to specific problems might be meaningless, as was the case with free silver, but through “his incessant preaching of middle western moralism” he at least helped enable the country to make its adjustments to the new age without ruthlessly sacrificing all of the old values.
“The Commoner’s progressivism,” says Mr. Glad, “was founded not on political contrivances or on economic panaceas; it was founded on the faith that was his heritage as a son of the Middle Border. His appeal to the hearts of his countrymen, his doctrine of love, his emphasis on sacrifice as the measure of greatness, his belief in majority rule, his devotion to the common man, his conception of good and evil, his revivalistic approach to social and economic problems, his confidence in God’s purpose as he understood it—all these are traceable to a mentality that found the values of an agrarian environment completely satisfying.”
Considering everything that has been happening in the last quarter century, that mentality does not look quite as ridiculous as it may have seemed a decade or two ago.