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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
Yet a certain environmental determinism was also central to Turner’s thesis, and that complicated the rosy picture. He suggested that institutions and forms were like organisms, which developed out of the “vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions”; whenever these forces changed, so did the institutions and forms. In this, Turner was making a bold challenge to the “germ theory” dominating the historical writing of the time, which professed to find the origins of American democracy in the sowing of European, particularly Teutonic, seeds in American soil. He insisted that the environment of the frontier was a profounder agent, a powerful solvent that broke down and then refashioned the habits and thoughts of the Europeans who encountered it. “The frontier,” as he famously put it, “is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe.” The wilderness was the place where “savagery” confronted “civilization” and where “the bonds of custom” were “broken,” creating the possibility of a new life.
There were two obvious difficulties with this. First, if the frontier environment of America’s “first period” had indeed made such short work of Europeans’ deeply ingrained ancestral ways, which were presumably a residue of their own earlier frontier experience, then why would the drastically altered environment of the frontierless “second period” of American history permit these cherished American traits to stand? Didn’t environmental-determinist logic point inevitably in precisely the opposite direction? Or if cultural characteristics could be passed on, why were they heritable in some instances and not in others?
Second, there was the fact that despite Turner’s own optimism about the American future, his grand theory suggested an inexorable logic of decline. He enthusiastically embraced the Italian economist Achille Loria’s proposition that “America . . . reveals luminously the course of universal history,” and added that the United States “lies like a huge page in the history of society,” in which we can read “from West to East . . . the record of social evolution.” How flattering to think that the country’s (and the West’s) social history was in effect that of the world writ small, but if the European nations had followed the same universal process of social evolution from wilderness into decadence, didn’t it follow that the United States was headed the same way? How could Turner deny that the closing of the American frontier presaged a coming American decline?
Turner’s essay sent mixed signals on that count, an ambivalence that went to the heart of the questions of national destiny his essay raised without answering. The essay itself seemed to suggest that a moral equivalent of the frontier could be found, since, given the fixity of American character, “American energy” would “continually demand a wider field for its exercise.” The Turner thesis’s popularity over the years, as exemplified by the search (especially associated with the Kennedy administration) for new frontiers on land and in space, derived from that postulate. But at the same time, he disparaged certain negative legacies of American frontier individualism, such as social indiscipline, the moral impurity of the spoils system, and lax business, banking, and currency practices. He sniffed in an aside on the silver-loving Populists that “a primitive society can hardly be expected to show the intelligent appreciation of the complexity of business interests in a developed society.” In short, Turner’s esteem for the frontier had its limits. He seemed to mirror his times, pulled between the guiding metaphors of boundlessness and consolidation. His essay itself rendered that dilemma luminously, like a page in the history of ideas.
Those conflicting perspectives may explain why Turner was unable to produce a body of work commensurate with his gifts, energies, and knowledge. He was notoriously unproductive; one might say, paraphrasing Churchill, that never had so many been so influenced by one who wrote so little. While Turner the teacher was a steady and capable figure, Turner the writer showed all the volatility and neurotic compulsiveness of a struggling artist. He was chronically overambitious, overcommitted, distracted, unreliable, dilatory, blocked, exhausted, physically sick—as tightly wound as a romantic poet. In the years after the young greenhorn presented his frontier thesis in Chicago, he was besieged by enthusiastic publishers, and by the time eight years had passed he had appended his name to no less than nine contracts for book projects. In the remaining thirty-one years of his life, he did not finish a single one of them.
He complained constantly of the drain on his research time caused by his duties at the University of Wisconsin, but a move to more favorable circumstances at Harvard in 1910 made little difference in his output. In 1924 Turner finally decided to retire altogether in order to devote himself completely to finishing “The Book,” his long-awaited study of sectionalism in antebellum America. But, predictably, the book finished him before he could finish it, and when the incomplete manuscript was posthumously published in 1935, it showed, even after an editorial cleanup operation by two younger historians, how hopelessly tangled Turner’s thoughts had become and how far he was from ever really completing his magnum opus.