July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
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
This country’s long, acrimonious observance of the Columbian quincentenary is finally over, but it won’t be soon forgotten. during it, the much-abused figure of Christopher Columbus seemed to offer an irresistible target at which all sorts of present-minded concerns could be hurled. His case should remind us of how forcefully the shifting needs of the present affect our visions of the past, just as when a moving automobile changes direction, it transforms the vista in its rearview mirror. The contentious tenor of the 1992 quincentenary was surely affected by growing concerns about the American future and by the premonitions of national decline that ran like a dark thread through the public discourse of the late eighties and early nineties.
Fears may feel unprecedented when we are in their grip, but in fact, premonitions of decline have come easily and often to a nation that from its inception envisioned itself as a new Zion or Rome. The burden of that founding vision has helped shape our anxieties; indeed, the most frequently offered scenario of recent years resounds with biblical and Roman overtones. It depicts the United States as a victim of its own fecklessness and imperial overreaching, imprisoned by unwise overseas commitments and dependence on military power, enfeebled by an inefficient and debt-ridden economy, and haunted by a stark future of declining living standards and pervasive social unrest. The price of exemplary aspiration, it has seemed, is exemplary failure; those who have exalted themselves are being humbled.
But more than mere dissatisfaction with the direction of American society lay behind the transformation of Columbus from one of Western civilization’s principal heroes into one of its principal villains, a sinister agent of disease, genocide, “ecocide,” slavery, and oppression. Such a transformation bespeaks a waning of confidence in Western civilization itself, and in the United States as its exemplar. So, too, does the growing success of “multiculturalism,” whose “anti-Eurocentric” thrusts have reflected a profound weakening in the prestige and binding power of the country’s European heritage, contributing mightily to the bitter tone of the quincentenary. Such assaults may have offered an important historical corrective—when they didn’t rely on bad history and reasoning to make their case—but that is beside the point. Like it or not, Columbus’s status as a cultural lightning rod reflected the contemporary discontents of the civilization he had helped create.
It was not the first time Columbus had been made the occasion and symbolic focus for national soul-searching. In fact, there are strikingly similar elements in the previous Columbian centennial. That celebration’s centerpiece, the great Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was a lavish showcase for American technological progress, but it was mounted at a time of unsettling change in the land. “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time,” observed Henry Adams, “the question whether the American people knew where they were driving”; to many, the answer seemed uncertain. The rise of massive industrial combinations, severe and recurrent financial panics, increasing labor violence, the Populist insurgency, the influx of non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners into ungovernable cities, the closing of the Western frontier, and the prospect of an American overseas empire—all these developments seemed to challenge not only the serene composure of the White City but the most venerable principles of American life.
Hence it was fitting that the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner should choose the setting of the exposition-related World’s Congress of Historians and Historical Students to present his famous paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a landmark text whose centenary we observe this July. Turner’s contention that the availability of free land on a Western frontier had “explained” American development became the single most influential interpretation of American society and culture ever written, one that has shaped American historical writing ever since, giving rise to several generations of spirited debate and incessant re-examination. And Turner took care to link his inspiration directly to the heroic image of Columbus as explorer and discoverer, reminding the audience that ever since “the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity.”
For Turner, the bold exploratory energy of Columbus’s quest virtually defined the meaning of America. Hence his thesis is often read as the quintessential example of optimistic, forward-looking, triumphant American exceptionalism. But there is more to it than that. Turner’s thesis was also a reflection of and comment on its own soul-searching times. Few works of the American fin de siècle better expressed the tension between a traditional vision of America as the land of boundless possibility and an emerging sense of America as a closed and finished nation. There was no more potent symbol of boundlessness than the frontier; and the process by which it had yielded to settlement and civilization—the process Turner attempted to describe—seemed to dramatize the nation’s impending reckoning with consolidation and constraint.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.