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Frontier Western Discourse at the Turn of the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century

  • Richard Wattenberg
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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)

Abstract

Since the first British colonists in North America began to give expression to their New World experiences, the American discourse on the frontier West has taken numerous shapes. Certainly, variations in the who, what, where, when, and why of the discourse have affected its content; nevertheless, the assorted statements and expressions that comprise frontier western discourse have had a certain coherence. From the early seventeenth century, recurring modes of expression, concepts, and strategies or themes have furnished this discourse with a degree of continuity. Most important, the ongoing effort to give American frontier experience some clear shape has provided a continuous source of unity. The geographic nature of the actual frontier may have varied from eastern forests to midwestern prairies to far western plains, deserts, and mountains, but the underlying view of the western frontier as a liminal zone, a borderland, on the edge of civilization has pervaded European-American efforts to represent frontier existence.

Keywords

National Park American History American Democracy American Character American Development 
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  1. 1.
    See Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,” in Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1674–1724, ed. Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1981), 29–75.Google Scholar
  2. On the cultural function of “captivity narratives,” including that of Rowlandson, see Christopher Castiglia, Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).Google Scholar
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  6. June Namais, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  7. 2.
    On the post-structuralist analysis of polar oppositions, see, for instance, Jacques Derrida, “Positions: Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta,” Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 41–42.Google Scholar
  8. 3.
    Certainly this process has been the object of much critical commentary. In describing the spread of agriculture through the American West, Frieda Knobloch speaks of this “civilizing” process as a “colonization in the American West” [see The Culture of Wilderness: Agriculture as Colonization in the American West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)]. The way this “process” was used to conceptualize, or perhaps more accurately, rationalize, white relations with Indians during the nineteenth century has been examined by many. See Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953, 1967), 105–134.Google Scholar
  9. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1979), 49–55.Google Scholar
  10. Curtis M. Hinsley, The Smithsonian and the American Indian: Making a Moral Anthropology in Victorian America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1981), 125–144.Google Scholar
  11. Michael Elliott, The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 89–123.Google Scholar
  12. 5.
    On the ways in which the conquest of savagery informed the technical and scientific thought on western agriculture, see Knobloch (for instance, 57–78). The triumph of civilization over savagery structured much of the written material dealing with the frontier and the American West in general, and this motif received expression in various images disseminated for popular consumption. See, for instance, John Gast’s “American Progress” (1872), which was used to illustrate the popular guide book New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide. This illustration can be seen in Berkhofer, Plate 8, and in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, Martha A. Sandweiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 194.Google Scholar
  13. 6.
    Fittingly, the first chapter of Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982) “deals with the West as land, national resource, and also as myth, especially ‘civilization’ wrested from its perceived opposite, the ‘savage’ culture of Indians” (8). Trachtenberg goes on to explore the primary social and cultural transformations that characterize the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. His analysis informs the assumptions made here about the rising bourgeois elite. Also relevant in this context is Robert Wiebe’s discussion of the United States’ late-nineteenth-century social and cultural transformation—a transformation that he outlines in the first half of The Search for Order: 1877–1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967)—as well as analyses of late-nineteenth-century socioeconomic transformations.Google Scholar
  14. Jack Beatty in Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865–1900 (New York: Vintage, 2008).Google Scholar
  15. Maury Klein in The Genesis of Industrial America, 1870–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. T. J. Jackson Lears’s discussion of shifting cultural sensibilities in Chapter 2, “The Mysterious Power of Money,” in Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (New York: Harper, 2009), 51–91.Google Scholar
  17. 8.
    David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 98. Klein summarizes the significant demographic shifts in the United States with the following facts and numbers: “The population grew at an unprecedented rate. Between 1850 and 1900 it more than tripled from 23 million to 76 million; by 1920 it had increased another 39 percent to 106 million. It was also moving steadily from the country into cities and towns. In 1850 only about 15 percent of Americans lived in urban territory (defined as places with 2,500 or more people). The United States had become a predominantly urban nation, thanks in large measure to industrialization and the enormous flow of immigrants into the country. Between 1850 and 1920 an astounding 31.7 million people migrated to the United States, nearly half of them after 1900” (136).Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    Certainly, industrial culture was never monolithic. The new managerial elite did not impose its ideas and art on all below in a unidirectional flow. In fact, marginal groups and classes have continued to evolve cultural forms, but by the time these forms receive a national audience, they have often been tamed. Given the power to disseminate culture that belongs to the managerial elite in modern and postmodern America, it is not surprising that forms with potential commercial value would be taken up and “domesticated” to meet its concerns. Kathy Peiss notes this kind of co-optation in Cheap Amusements: Working Women and leisure in Turn-of the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  19. Peiss writes that turn-of-the-century working-class culture “made its way into the entertainment of the middle class. Entrepreneurs and promoters scoured the city’s ‘low’ dance halls and variety theaters for songs and dance steps and observed street culture for new fads and fashions. Introducing novelties into nightclubs, amusement parks, and the movies, they transformed them into safe, controllable activities that could be sold to all classes” (187). This does not mean that such cultural transpositions stripped popular artistic expression of all subversive resonances. As Jim Cullen argues in his book The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996), to emphasize “popular culture’s hegemonic qualities and narcotic effects… is a perspective that tends to ignore those elements of a working people’s worldview that survive commodification, as well as the subversive elements within it that defy control or price tags” (95).Google Scholar
  20. 11.
    Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 233. In this regard, see also Trachtenberg, especially Chapters 4, “Mysteries of the Great City,” and 5, “The Politics of Culture,” (101–181), and George Cotkin, Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880–1900 (New York: Twayne, 1992), Chapter 5, “A Consuming Culture,” (101–129).Google Scholar
  21. 12.
    See Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Beckert’s account of the shift in power from a predominately mercantile to a predominately industrial elite, and “the broadening gap between bourgeois New Yorkers and other social groups, and the economic elite’s… unprecedented hold over the American economy, society, and politics” (323) are relevant here.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 13.
    John Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” in Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 79.Google Scholar
  23. 14.
    Higham, 80. Turning to untamed nature was only one way that the intellectual elite responded to the impersonal modern environment. As T.J. Jackson Lears relates in No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), the revolt against modern, industrial culture took multiple forms, such as religious revivalism, medievalism, and “arts and crafts” aestheticism. Ironically, as Lears tells us, these interests laid the groundwork for the transition from nineteenth-century production-oriented culture to twentieth-century consumer-oriented modernism. On this trend, see also Cotkin, 116–129.Google Scholar
  24. 15.
    For more discussion of this “wilderness cult,” see Roderick Nash, Wilderness in the American Mind, 3rd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982) 141–60.Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 68–87.Google Scholar
  26. 17.
    The railroad is, of course, the master metaphor that Leo Marx explores in his exploration of the impact of industrial growth on nineteenth-century American culture in his study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Interestingly, in Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), Charles Perrow argues that railroads were key to the development of the “giant organizations at the end of the century” (223), and that they launched our corporate culture, our “society of organizations” (227). In short, it was the way railroads were organized that led us into the modern era of corporate capitalism. Similarly, Beatty described the railroads as the driving force behind the corporate capitalism of the “Gilded Age” in his analysis of post-Civil War America (3–17).Google Scholar
  27. 18.
    United States Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1, Bicentennial ed. (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975), 322.Google Scholar
  28. On train ticket prices, see Earl Pomeroy, In Search of the Golden West: The Touristin Western America (1957; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990). He notes that schoolteachers in this period made $200 per year—two-thirds of what it would cost to travel by train from coast to coast (7). In Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), Hal K. Rothman restates these numbers (38).Google Scholar
  29. 19.
    For information on transcontinental Pullman car accommodations and Raymond and Whitcomb tours, see Earl Pomeroy, 7–17; G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968), 47.Google Scholar
  30. and Anne Farrar Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western landscape and National Culture, 1820–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 107–46; Rothman, 38–39.Google Scholar
  31. 23.
    Anne Farrar Hyde, 295. For more information regarding the “log palaces,” see Anne Farrar Hyde, 244–295. Rothman claims that these “palaces” never lacked amenities for their wealthy patrons, and that a railroad resort like Fred Harvey’s El Tovar Hotel controlled the scenic Grand Canyon site—dominating local competitors and packaging an “authentic” western experience that might in the end have had little connection to the original setting (55–80). stories dealing with Indian troubles and labor conflicts were established by such techniques. The Indian War paradigm was thus applied to both Indians and striking workers, who were viewed as different forms of “red” threat. See Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 338–345.Google Scholar
  32. 30.
    The rush toward professionalization in the late nineteenth century affected not only law and medicine, but also acting. See Benjamin McArthur, Actors and American Culture, 1880–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 85–112.Google Scholar
  33. 31.
    Burton Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: Norton, 1976), 121.Google Scholar
  34. 32.
    Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876 primarily as a center for graduate study, became the nation’s leading producer of PhDs in the 1880s and 1890s. On the new professional academic world into which Turner entered, see Allan G. Bogue, Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 145–48.Google Scholar
  35. 33.
    Regarding these predecessors, see Herman Clarence Nixon, “Precursors of Turner in the Interpretation of the American Frontier,” South Atlantic Quarterly 28 (1929), 83–89.Google Scholar
  36. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); and Wrobel, 3–35.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Quoted in Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” The Frontier in American History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986), 1.Google Scholar
  38. 36.
    See Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 54–61; and Bogue, 99–102.Google Scholar
  39. 42.
    See Ronald H. Carpenter, The Eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1983), 47–70.Google Scholar
  40. William Cronon, “Turner’s First Stand: The Significance of Significance in American History,” in Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians, ed. Richard W. Etulain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 82–86.Google Scholar
  41. Harold Simonson, Beyond the Frontier: Writers, Western Regionalism, and a Sense of Place (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1989), 16–27.Google Scholar
  42. 45.
    See Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 30–1, 58–62.Google Scholar
  43. Jacobs, On Turner’s Trail: 100 Years of Writing Western History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 35–57; Bogue, 43–53.Google Scholar
  44. 46.
    See Herbert Spencer, “The Social Organism” [first published in The Westminister Review (January 1860)], in The Man Versus the State with Four Essays on Politics and Society (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), 215.Google Scholar
  45. 48.
    Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society (1877; Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1964). Morgan claims “the invention of the art of pottery” denotes the shift from savagery to barbarism, and “the invention of a phonetic alphabet, with the use of writing” denotes the shift from barbarism to civilization (18).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. 57.
    Regarding Turner’s critics’ presentation of his approach to Indians, see, for instance, Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 21, 179–222.Google Scholar
  47. or Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, Trails: Toward a New Western History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), in which Turner’s (mis) understanding of Indians is a theme that runs throughout. With respect to supporters, see Billington, 453–4; Jacobs, 164–6; Bogue, 377–78.Google Scholar
  48. 63.
    Billington, 433. Regarding Turner’s sense of the outdoors as a restorative for body and soul, see Bogue, 32–33, 63, 193, 273–76. This wilderness cure recalls the late-nineteenth-century discourse on neurasthenia. Often the West was offered as a remedy for the physiological symptoms of the stress resulting from modern urban life. See Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 1–30; Lears, No Place of Grace, 49–58; and Rebirth of a Nation, 63–71.Google Scholar
  49. 64.
    John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 228.Google Scholar
  50. 65.
    Gretel Ehrlich, forward to John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894; San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988), viii.Google Scholar
  51. 69.
    John Muir, Our National Parks (1901; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 1.Google Scholar
  52. 72.
    Turner may have had more in common with President Theodore Roosevelt’s head of the Division of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, who worked on behalf of conservation rather than preservation. In this regard, see Bogue, who writes that Turner “appears to have been more sympathetic to the Progressive ideal of wise and efficient use of resources found in the thought of Gifford Pinchot and [Charles] Van Hise than to John Muir’s commitment to pure wilderness” (414). Still, with respect to the impact of the frontier experience on American character, Roosevelt and Turner shared many ideas. It’s no great leap to maintain that Roosevelt may have preceded Turner in his condemnation of the “germ” theory of American development and in the claim that American ex-ceptionalism was a product of the interaction of pioneer and wilderness environment. Michael Collins makes this argument in That Damned Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and the American West, 1883–1898 (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), 105–09.Google Scholar
  53. 77.
    Theodore Roosevelt, “Biological Analogies in History,” in History as Literature and Other Essays (1913; Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1967), 45.Google Scholar
  54. 81.
    See Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 82.
    G. Edward White, 152–55. Also see Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (1899; New York: Modern Library, 1996), 8–20.Google Scholar
  56. and Dale L. Walker, The Boys of ‘98 (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1998), 100–22.Google Scholar
  57. 83.
    Robert Hine, The American West: An Interpretive History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 186.Google Scholar
  58. 85.
    Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 33. Slotkin makes a number of salient points in his comparison of Turner’s and Roosevelt’s frontier visions (see 29–63).Google Scholar
  59. 87.
    Hamlin Garland, Crumbling Idols (1894; Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1957), 155–6.Google Scholar
  60. 90.
    Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 39.Google Scholar
  61. 92.
    Working within the parameters of nineteenth-century frontier western discourse, dime novel authors employed the savagery/civilization dichotomy to offer working-class youths entertainment that seemed to represent resistance to the ideals of the management elite even as it encouraged support for these ideals. Thus, the masters of publishing houses disseminating dime novels used frontier materials to practice the co-optation—sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious—that Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of “hegemony” has prompted contemporary cultural critics to explore. In short, in pulp novels that glorify antiestablishment outlaws such as Deadwood Dick, the underlying tone may not really be oppositional. For instance, in the first of Edward J. Wheeler’s Deadwood Dick novels, Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road (1877), a distinction is made between the “bad” capitalists, the deceitful urban Filmores, Senior and Junior, who relentlessly pursue Dick, and the healthy, hard-working capitalists who successfully develop the mining possibilities of Flower Pocket, a hidden mountain valley. The good capitalist Harry Redburn and his friends bring industrial progress into the isolated, idealized mountain valley, and in doing so they benefit both themselves and members of the Ute tribe, who work in the mine and consequently are “now utilized to a better occupation than in the dark and bloody days of the past” [Edward J. Wheeler, Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road, in Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns, ed. Bill Brown (Boston: Bedford, 1997), 326]. Selfish capitalists are punished, but individual free entrepreneurs bring prosperity and a more civilized way of life to all. Such may be the dominant message of mass-produced pulp fiction. In this way, class resentments could be reconstituted to benefit the new managerial elite. Christine Bold offers a more open reading of the impact of dime novels. See “Malaeska’s Revenge; or, The Dime Novel Tradition in Popular Fiction,” in Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture, ed. Richard Aquila (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 21–42.Google Scholar
  62. 93.
    See Cody’s autobiography, The Life of Buffalo Bill (1879; London: Senate, 1994).Google Scholar
  63. and his sister Helen Cody Wetmore’s biography, Buffalo Bill: Last of the Great Scouts (1899; Lincoln, NE: Bison, 1965).Google Scholar
  64. a more dispassionate account of his early life, see Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).Google Scholar
  65. 94.
    See Richard White, “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill,” in The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994-January 7, 1995 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–34.Google Scholar
  66. For a brief but insightful exploration of the complex interrelationship of fact and legend in the history of the West, see Ann Fabian, “History for the Masses: Commercializing the Western Past,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, ed. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin (New York: Norton, 1992), 223–38.Google Scholar
  67. For a succinct history of the Buffalo Bill—Yellow Hand affair and how Cody employed it for theatrical effect, see Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 34–41; Warren, 117–22.Google Scholar
  68. 95.
    Nate Salsbury, quoted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Historical Sketches & Programme, ca. 1901, 3. This and other Wild West program material cited here are in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.Google Scholar
  69. 96.
    Sarah J. Blackstone, Buckskins, Bullets, and Business: A History of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 1.Google Scholar
  70. 98.
    Col. Dodge, Thirty Years Among the Indians, quoted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Historical Sketches & Programme, 1895, 10.Google Scholar
  71. 100.
    Phil Sheridan quoted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Historical Sketches and Programme, 1895, 45. For discussion of how the Wild West Show souvenir program might have informed the opinions of audience members, see Kasson, 105–112.Google Scholar
  72. 103.
    This regeneration theme is developed throughout Richard Slotkin’s three volumes dealing with the myth of the frontier: the two volumes cited above (The Fatal Environment and Gunfighter Nation) and Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  73. 104.
    See for instance, Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: New American Library, 1958), 129–30.Google Scholar
  74. 109.
    Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 163.Google Scholar
  75. 110.
    This gendering of the frontier is at the heart of Annette Kolodny’s fascinating analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature in The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975). Especially interesting in this context is Kolodny’s discussion of how Turner presents western land as both mother and mistress for the male pioneer conqueror (136–37).Google Scholar

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