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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
The perils to which Turner fell prey are familiar to any serious writer, but the particulars of his case suggest more than a man somehow miscast for his role in life. They suggest that he was in thrall to ideas that he could neither entirely affirm nor abandon. And because his divisions of heart and mind were present in the substance of his most influential work, they also had broader cultural resonance. The ambiguity of that great American “record of social evolution,” running from “west to east,” was the story of his own life, as a Westerner who ended up teaching at Harvard. Such a burden of expectation made Turner’s move from Wisconsin to Cambridge, otherwise an unexceptionable, professionally advantageous change, a bittersweet undertaking, for it wrested this Western Antaeus away from his life-giving soil and deposited him in the alien heartland of the genteel tradition. Although Turner coveted the recognition and played his professional role admirably at Harvard, his heart was never completely in it. “I am still a Western man in all but my residence,” he confessed to a Chicago friend, defiance and sadness in his voice.
Is the myth of the West vital and nourishing? Or is it really a self-deception?
During those Cambridge years Turner often felt an intense longing for the wilderness, and sometimes he would spend warm nights sleeping in a tent set up on the back porch of his Brattle Street house. It was an endearing and poignant eccentricity, as if this erstwhile president of the American Historical Association were yet a young boy on his first make-believe camp-out—or a grown man wanting somehow to reach back in time and space, to feel communion with an elusive westering spirit that he was not yet willing to relinquish. Small wonder that Turner, who enjoyed poetry, so greatly cherished Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which he cited at the conclusion of his 1914 essay “The West and American Ideals” as a perfect expression of the restless “Western spirit”:
In thus turning to “Ulysses” as an expression of heroic sentiment, though, Turner was actually quoting very selectively. Taken as a whole, the poem has a more somber theme, for it is the poignant and frustrated lament of an old, terminally becalmed Ulysses, living unheroically with his aged Penelope in Ithaca’s “barren crags.” This Ulysses knows that his days of greatness are behind him, but he cannot bring himself to accept it. He is an incurable adventurer who recalls, in many respects, Turner’s frontier individualist. Small wonder that Turner loved the poem so; it touched directly and revealingly on the same problem that lurked more stealthily at the heart of his frontier thesis: the possibility that settled civilization might signal the beginning of decline—a decline that would entail the eclipse of a cherished style of manhood.
But how much of this westering ideal was actually reflected in Turner’s own life? Very little. He was a conscientious family man and devoted husband who chose to live the outwardly uneventful life of the dedicated scholar. He was modest, unassuming, and warmly democratic in his manner, admired and liked by virtually everyone who came into contact with him. His marriage to Caroline Mae Sherwood was unusually settled and nurturant, though Mae had very little interest in, or comprehension of, the substance of his public work. Whatever Turner’s identification with Ulysses may have been, it was something he kept in a separate compartment of his soul.
The image of Turner the loyal Middle Westerner sleeping in a tent on his Cambridge porch not only captures some of the quandary of his life but also points to what made his frontier thesis so significant. That tent on the porch was a token not only of the frontier’s enduring power but also of its domestication. As such, it perfectly embodied the problem of perpetuating the “American intellect” in a form that Turner, and most Americans, could still cherish—insisting on the preservation of the wild, the open, the raw, yet acknowledging their enclosure within the tamed, the delimited, the cooked. Such a conflict lay behind the patrician Theodore Roosevelt’s westering forays into “the strenuous life,” infusions of primal frontier energy to defend against the degenerative disease of overcivilization. It spoke to the philosopher William James, who feared that the vigorous martial virtues would atrophy in a more organized and corporate world. It formed the background for the rise of a mythic image of the Old West immortalized by Roosevelt’s friend Owen Wister, a gloomy, infirm, overcivilized patrician from Philadelphia. Wister’s novel The Virginian —appearing nine years after Turner’s Chicago address and twelve years after the 1890 census had announced the closing of the frontier—fixed an image of American frontier that would be drawn on again and again in generations of twentieth-century American novels, radio programs, films, and television shows. The genre of the Western would become modern America’s tent on the porch.