Literature of the American West and Frontier Analysis

The Frontier to 1890

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Though they came to the New World seeking the right to worship, the Puritans hardly believed in religious freedom as it would later be defined. Rather, they felt that God had destined them to convert America into a theocracy in which people would live according to Puritan doctrine. This plan caused so much strife with Native Americans, who often refused to abide by white beliefs, that many Europeans in America (including the prominent ministers, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather) soon came to see extermination of Indians as tantamount to religious duty. Thus the essential frontier contest of civilization versus savagery was born in the seventeenth century, with civilization loosely defined as anything white, European, and Christian, and savagery loosely defined as anything nonwhite, non-European, and pagan. Even later Americans who were sympathetic to certain Native American causes held a European American view of the nation’s future. Thomas Jefferson, for example, who wrote in 1803 that “our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians,” declared in the same essay that “we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them.”

These confrontational attitudes carried over into early American literature about the frontier. Novels such as Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837) and William Simms’s The Yemassee (1835), though somewhat different in tone and racial outlook, both ultimately endorsed hearty, sadistic white heroes who reveled in killing Indians. In fiction, however, the frontier was truly immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper—especially in the Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), a collection of five novels unified by their focus on Cooper’s archetypal frontiersman, Natty Bumppo. Unlike Bird and Simms, Cooper had mixed feelings about the contest between “civilization” and...

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The Frontier After 1890

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In 1893, however, American views on the frontier were forever changed by the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner, a historian responding to critics who saw American history as a product of friction between North and South, argued instead that the frontier had been the central factor in national development. Land at the frontier was free, Turner maintained, so citizens could always fulfill the American Dream of self-determination simply by moving West onto “vacant” farmland. Like their forebears, these people would continue to carve civilization out of wilderness and, subsequently, would infuse the rest of the nation with a new democratic spirit. In this way, America would be regenerated, both economically and politically, as frontier settlers continued to remind other citizens of the individual freedoms and accomplishments that had made the country great. Ironically, Turner’s ideas were occasioned by the 1890 census, which announced that an actual frontier in America no longer existed. Turner’s writing was important, then, not only because it placed the frontier at the center of historical debate, but also because it suggested that in the absence of a literal frontier Americans would have to rely on a figurative frontier.

Since the frontier had always been a mixture of fact and fiction, writers had no problem answering Turner’s call to elegize its passing. Particularly important was Turner’s focus on regeneration, his belief that the frontier embodied the concept of freedom more completely than any other place in America. Other writers, however, did not see the frontier as a symbol to bolster democratic ideals; rather, many used the mythic West to call for “racial revitalization” and sometimes racial supremacy. The beginning of the twentieth century marked a period of staunch racism in which certain whites...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. 2d ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1977. Analyzes the twentieth century formula Western in terms of literary antecedents and in terms of psychological and cultural function.

Milton, John. The Novel of the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980. Analyzes several Western texts that supposedly defy the conventions of frontier writing.

Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985. Historical extension of arguments made in Regeneration Through Violence, listed below.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. A seminal text in addressing the role that the frontier has played in defining American culture.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950. The pre-eminent work on American frontier writing. Looks closely at several basic myths that underscore the larger frontier myth.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A reader-response analysis of several Western texts, including film, which focuses on sexual dynamics of frontier literature.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. Brought the frontier, as myth and as reality, into the center of American historical and cultural debate in the twentieth century.