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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
And its popularity, like the popularity of the frontier thesis, would arise out of the contradictory tendencies it accommodated. Did it bespeak an inextinguishable frontier spirit, the essence of distinctive Americanness? Or that spirit’s utter obsolescence, consigned as it was to the realms of safe fantasy? No one would deny the frontier’s mythic dimensions, and indeed, the principal thrust of recent historical scholarship on the American West has been to render “the frontier” very mythic indeed, and little else. Yet the Turner thesis still stands, still fascinates, still commands attention, if only as a target for debunking. The timing of The Virginian ’s appearance suggests that myth was at the heart of the matter, right from the start. But what kind of myth? Was it the kind of vital, life-giving myth that shapes and nourishes the structure of a distinctive consciousness? Or the sort of myth that is really nothing more than a self-deception or lie, a barrier against the unpleasing truth?
The question is still not easily answered. and that fact points to one of the most remarkable qualities of Turner’s essay, and the real source of its endurance. It was not the essay’s conceptual boldness that ensured its longevity but its ability to lend itself so readily to widely divergent interpretations. The vagueness of key terms like frontier (and closing ) consistently frustrated historians’ attempts at verification. But it also enabled the thesis to accommodate a variety of meanings, each emotionally charged. Not only could Turner’s thesis speak to those, like Theodore Roosevelt, who lamented the loss of the frontier and ardently sought its substitutes; it could alternatively suggest to a generation of younger, more collectivist-minded intellectuals, such as Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and John Dewey, that the frontier past was a source of cultural pathology and needed to be jettisoned posthaste. It could accommodate continuity and change with equal ease, perhaps because Turner himself seemed to be genuinely of more than one mind on the matter. But in a confusing era of change, when Americans anxiously watched the unprecedented energies of a modern industrial nation seem to overturn the Founders’ dream of a decentralized agrarian republic, he was hardly the only one.
And today, amid the troubling sea changes of our own era, a hundred years after the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition and Turner’s paper, it appears that he and his thesis still have life and plenty of company. Such ambivalences do not require a Columbian quincentenary to manifest themselves. Consider, to give but one example, the emergence in the 1992 presidential campaign of an independent, plain-looking and -speaking, technocratic-populist billionaire businessman from the West, whose pithy assaults on the two-party system and politics-as-usual and warnings about the dangerous decline of American economic competitiveness set the tone for the election and ensured an incumbent President’s defeat. No one can yet say whether Ross Perot’s extraordinary moment on the American stage will turn out to be ephemeral. But the conflicting tendencies and breathtaking paradoxes he embodied have been around for a good while in American life. They seem likely to remain. So, too, does Turner’s thesis.