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The Myth Of The West

June 2024
1min read

In “A Tent on the Porch” (July/August) Wilfred M. McClay wonders if the myth of the West is vital and nourishing to the American mind or really nothing more than self-deception. While this and other questions raised by Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay are still debated, it is interesting to see how a “frontier consciousness” has informed some of our greatest literary minds. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, through his narrator Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby : “…for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Carraway, like Fitzgerald and Turner, is from the Midwest (“the ragged edge of the universe”) and is drawn to the East by “civilization.” But he retreats to the West in the end, disillusioned by the excesses of the Jazz Age. Turner stuck it out in the East, occasionally taking refuge in the tent on his porch.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is another good example of twentieth-century American literature that incorporates frontier themes. Jack Burden, the disillusioned narrator, finds himself “in the West, at the end of History, the Last Man on that Last Coast.…” Certainly there are hundreds of similar examples in American literature.

Turner’s frontier thesis helped engender the myth of the West, which some consider a “barrier against the unpleasing truth.” But it also identified an important force acting on the American psyche, and it fed the minds of some very talented artists. For this I am thankful, and for McClay’s enjoyable article.

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