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A Tent On The Porch
First heard just a century ago at the Chicago fair, Frederick Jackson Turner’s epochal essay on the Western frontier expressed a conflict in the American psyche that tears at us still
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Moreover, Turner’s essay reflected a more general intellectual challenge, at the close of the nineteenth century, to the individualistic values that had appeared dominant in earlier American history. For example, Edward Bellamy, in his wildly popular Utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), condemned the individual life as an arid “grotto” and extolled the virtues of national solidarity and self-sacrifice. The philosopher Charles S. Peirce proclaimed that “individualism and falsity are one and the same” because “reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community.” Such language was a far cry from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s defiant antebellum assertion that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” For some Americans the once-rushing stream of self-reliant individualism had, by century’s end, slowed into a socialized trickle.
Turner’s essay could hardly have done otherwise than reflect this looming sense of a historical watershed. With the closing of the frontier, the material factors that he believed had hitherto controlled American development were now gone. Turner was understandably reluctant to speculate, before an audience of historians, about what the future might bring. Yet the essay’s abrupt ending, with its bold proclamation that “the first period of American history” was over, inevitably raised questions about the second period presumably getting under way. Would the American individualism nurtured by the frontier become a thing of the past now that the frontier was gone? Would the loss of this “field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past,” lead the American character to contract and ossify and become like that of Europe? Or would the precious elements of American national character persist even without the frontier’s magical effects? One could but wonder.
The ambivalence in Turner’s thesis was interestingly mirrored in his own life. A native of the remote central Wisconsin village of Portage, Turner was an unmistakable partisan of the West, and he was speaking in Chicago, then the great metropolis of the West. He seemed to exemplify representative Western virtues in his person, as a handsome, outdoorsy young man of robust simplicity and optimism. Yet Turner was a complicated man who sometimes felt acutely burdened by his provincial origins, especially when among genteel Eastern academics like those in his Chicago audience. As is so often the case with self-perceived provincials, he carried a bit of a chip on his shoulder; it was visible in the regional bias of his paper. He was intent on showing that the West, far from being marginal to American history, as Easterners and Europeans had always facilely assumed, was in fact the most American area.
The frontier, he argued, had shaped “the expansive character of American life.”
The West, he argued, was the most powerful agent of national consolidation, the region most progressive and democratic in its political and social life and most responsible for the “vitalizing of the general government,” the cradle of the finest democratic statesmen, the source of America’s “composite nationality,” and the section that finally forced the nation to confront slavery—in fine, the only area from which the American national experience could be understood. Most important, he believed, the Western frontier had given rise to the salient traits of the “American intellect”—its “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness,” its “practical, inventive turn of mind,” its “dominant individualism” with “that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom,” its “freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons.”
But could these traits continue to be perpetuated? Turner sounded hopeful: “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.” Early in the paper he argued that “each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.” If a society or culture could retain and pass on characteristics, the American character formed by the frontier could endure. Such a possibility was especially attractive to Americans worried that their country might be entering a decline at the turn of the century. In Turner’s view, the West played a necessary role in refreshing and purifying the country’s outlook and morals. While the material development of American society had streamed forth in an east-to-west direction, its moral development, which was linked to the purity of its Americanness, relied on a west-to-east eddying, a constant invigoration from the frontier source.