The Fatal Environment

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Richard Slotkin’s new book continues a study that he began in 1973 with Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. A footnote toward the end of this volume, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890, promises a third volume, to be called Gunfighter Nation. The success of the first book, ably seconded by the brilliance of this one, makes one hope that the third will not be the last or be so long in appearing.

Slotkin’s concern throughout the volume is with the boundaries of developing American culture, limits that are political, dividing Indian nations from colonized holdings, and cultural, posing the virtues of the civilized white population against the occasionally noble but more often depraved savagery of primitive, nonwhite peoples. Armed conflict on these frontiers is also the source of renewed vitality as well as new property holdings for the civilizing forces moving inexorably westward. These are the senses in which American culture has been “regenerated” through violence in the years up to 1890. Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic “frontier thesis,” which announces 1890 as the turning point in history when frontier territory finally ran out, is the most famous conceptualization of the significance of the frontier. Yet Turner’s emphasis on agrarian development and his praise for the virtues of simple democracy being created anew on each successive frontier are emphatically not what Slotkin finds on the boundaries of development.

In his first volume, conveniently summarized in one chapter of this book, Slotkin showed how Americans met and overcame challenges on their borders and, in the process, reinvigorated and replenished themselves. It was not town-meeting democracy they were regenerating, however, but the martial nerve demanded by the “divinely inspired” and “redemptive” racial wars that maintained and expanded white domination. As whites moved west, they temporarily went backward in development, both to lower themselves to the moral level of “savage warfare” and to revitalize their culture. In the process of pitting themselves and their values against savage institutions, they regenerated their civilization by purging its effete materialism and complacency.

Fighting the Indian meant suppressing the temptations of “Indianization” among the lower orders of the population. The individual heroes of the drive westward, men such as James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional Natty Bumppo, perform mediating functions between white and red, in particular helping to sort good Indians from bad, but they have, in putting on the Indians’ “leatherstockings,” distanced themselves from metropolitan constraints. They have also demonstrated the powerful attractions of Indian life—where the men fish and hunt with the leisure available only to the aristocracy in England.

In consorting with the Indian, to absorb his lore, and to break trail for settlers to follow, the first frontiersmen exposed themselves to suspicions of racial apostasy. The contempt embodied in Thomas Jefferson’s revealing use of the term “half-breed” to describe the men who were in fact furthering his agrarian program by combating the Indians on their own terms is another measure of how deeply racial/sexual fears conditioned the understanding of frontier conflict.

To remind readers that civilizing values remain supreme, Cooper’s fictions always conclude with upper-class leaders getting the girl and maintaining social power. Leatherstocking’s role in the advance is credited, but the cultural battle against savages is carried on under the lead of “natural aristocrats” of American origin—men such as George Washington, who are able to embody values that promise to protect America from the alternatives of anarchy or despotism represented by Robespierre and Napoléon. In Cooper’s hands, Slotkin argues, this leadership figure is more properly called a “soldier aristocrat.” Thus Bumppo’s skills, honed by his long contact with the Indians, are deployed under the lead of a series of wellborn men...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, April 1, 1985, p. 1097.

Choice. XXIII, September, 1985, p. 193.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, April 1, 1985, p. 330.

Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 72.

New Leader. LXVIII, June 3, 1985, p. 16.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, November 21, 1985, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 5, 1985, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 15, 1985, p. 106.