Reading, Writing, And History

Half-Horse, Half-Alligator

Central to the American experience is the fact that in this land men have had to create their own traditions. Out of a past still too close to be fully understood have come legends which turn into articles of faith before they are even complete. And no article of faith has had greater force with us than the one which centers about the era of the great frontier and its part in forming the American character.

The precise formulation of this article of faith was probably best undertaken by Frederick Jackson Turner, who saw the distinctive quality of American character and institutions as deriving from the frontier experience. What we believe in, do, and are, Turner suggested, can be understood only with reference to the western experience, which has been much more important than any heritage we have from European culture. Indeed, Turner saw American democracy itself as coming “stark and strong and full of life, from the American forest.”

Recent historians have found many faults with Turner’s thesis, but that he expressed what a great many of his fellow citizens devoutly believe is undeniable. No American legend has been stronger than the one which finds great virtues and a powerful faith centering about the heroic pioneer. Somehow, we feel, natural man himself came into his own on the frontier—untaught and unvarnished, and with many rough edges, but grandly free from the accumulated errors and constricting shibboleths of the Old World. Under everything else, natural man was good , and his goodness abides with us to this day.

Upon this belief Arthur K. Moore casts a skeptical eye in a stimulating new book, The Frontier Mind , which is less a discussion of the Turner thesis than it is an examination of exactly what went on in one particular part of the legendary frontier, the state of Kentucky. Here, he suggests, the whole frontier tradition has its base; from Kentucky, according to the books, the pioneer bravely and with much vision stepped off toward the Pacific; in Kentucky he built a culture which was both peculiarly American and extremely successful. During the formative period, Kentucky was the frontier. Put it under the microscope and what do you see?

What Mr. Moore sees is not exactly in line with the grand tradition, and he suggests that the reality and the myth began to part company at a fairly early stage. Yet the myth, somehow, was fated, almost as if the belief in the virtues of frontier life antedated the frontier experience itself. For among men of European heritage, as Mr. Moore points out, there existed, generations ago, a millennial belief in an attainable earthly paradise, and this obviously was going to be found, if anywhere, in the American West; specifically, late in the eighteenth century, in Kentucky.

The Frontier Mind: a Cultural Analysis of the Kentucky Frontiersman, by Arthur K. Moore. University of Kentucky Press; 264 pp. $5.00.

Moving to the frontier, thus, the settler anticipated something like a paradisaical existence—which, among other things, meant a life without any particular restraints; and among people touched by this illusion, Mr. Moore remarks, “a keen sense of social responsibility is not to be expected.” Personal freedom and physical satisfaction are expected, and frequently attained, but the primitive masculine virtues are exalted and there is created a society “mature enough to plan and execute but not to reflect.” The epic Indianfighter and forest-tamer of legend can look a good deal more attractive at a distance than at close range.

Thus Kentucky had not advanced far along the road toward full settlement before it had created that legendary character, the “half-horse, half-alligator” roughand-tumble fighter embodied in scores of myths. Grotesque caricature though he was, this horse-alligator did embody the cult of primitivism at its worst. The antithesis of civilized man, he nevertheless represented something civilized man had in him; the literary tradition might transform him into a Daniel Boone or a Deerslayer, who has scant use for civilization but nevertheless stands as an agent of progress, but he continues to speak for an anarchic tendency in the mind of the well-tamed inhabitant of the city.

What Mr. Moore is getting at here, clearly enough, is a deep-seated cleavage in the American mind. For much more than a century we have been developing an urbanized society in America, yet somehow we have always had our doubts. And we have from the beginning turned to the frontiersman as a type figure to prove to our dissatisfied subconscious that natural goodness, natural law, and natural humanity, untouched by the restraints and teachings of a tightly-knit society, are good and proper guidelines for our faith and conduct. The noble savage of frontier society, transplanted into a culture whose frontier has long since evaporated, may be a defective guide for a people undertaking to make moral judgments; in such case, says Mr. Moore, the noble savage “understandably loses much of his protective coloration and reveals lineaments of the alligator-horse, another name for unshirted barbarism.”