Frontiers, Westerns, and Myths

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner addressed the American Historical Association to suggest that western expansion significantly shaped American history, institutions, and character. This became known as the frontier thesis, and it is considered extremely influential  (Smith, 1995).  However, Turner’s frontier thesis is also referred to as the frontier myth. Hence, as Roland Barthes suggests, it “is certain to participate in the making of the world” whether it is true or not (Barthes, 1983/2006, p. 104).

For Barthes, myths are fictions; they are recurring images, themes, or stories that justify a belief system. The goal of a myth, therefore, is to “immobilize the world” (Barthes, 1983/2006, p. 104), that is, to persistently state that way things are, the status quo, is natural, fixed, and unwavering. Furthermore, our place within that world, our roles, our identity and our character is just as immutable.

What makes Turner’s frontier thesis a myth? Is it not true that Americans, in the nineteenth century, moved westward? No one would dispute that; however, there are specific ideas that Turner posits, which make his claims a myth. First and foremost, Turner believed that westward expansion was a struggle between civilization and wilderness. Land in America was vastly underused and inhabited by “savages” who were ill-equipped to reap the benefits. European colonists, on the other hand, had superior knowledge, institutions, and techniques that made them better stewards of the land of plenty. Consequently, Euro-American dominance was not only natural, but desirable.

Secondly, Turner believed that the frontier developed character traits that were specifically American:

The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier (Turner, 1893/1996, p. 37).

Turner presents these character traits as universal, and as a matter of fact. Yet none of these assertions can be proved. In fact, they cannot be disproved either, but they seem like common sense. According to Barthes, because they  are “common sense” (p. 103), statements of fact   naturalize a world view, acting as “an order not to think” (Barthes, as cited by Robinson, 2005, p. 33). Nevertheless, such statements are based on assumptions that are socially-constructed, arbitrary, and often self-serving.

Turner also suggests on the frontier European immigrants become Americans:

In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics (Turner, 1893/1996, p. 23).

Later on, I will be writing about another myth, which is the melting pot. But for now, I’ll merely point out what Barthes says about myths: they “evaporate” history (p. 101). In this case, the myth establishes Americanization as something unproblematic. Interestingly enough, American history provides countless examples disproving this claim. Laws restricted Chinese immigration between 1882 and 1943, setting severe limits and requirements, and denying American citizenship to foreign-born Chinese. Eastern and Southern European immigration was also restricted through taxes and literacy tests, by provisions barring contagious diseases and physical or mental incapacities, and through requirements meant to keep out convicted criminals, anarchists, prostitutes, and those “who admitted the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude” (US Citizen and Immigration Services, nd). According to Higham, such restrictions reflected mostly religious and ethnic bigotry (Higham, 1952).

Turner’s account of westward expansion is a myth that presents an idealized picture of American history. It claims the land for the European settler as a God given right. It also excludes non-whites from the story of how the United States came to be what it is, and when it does mention non-whites (Native Americans, that is), it treats them as an obstacle to the advance of civilization. Hence, it is not surprising that historians struggle with the frontier myth legacy (see Bouton, 2007).

The Frontier Myth: A Matter of Character

Robert Warshow’s essay The Westerner does not address the frontier myth directly, but it does reflect its themes. Warshow, much like Turner, speaks of the rugged individualist, a western hero who can only exist on the frontier. As civilization — i.e institutions, laws, religious organizations, etc. — asserts itself, the westerner “is forced to see that his day is over” (Warshow, 1954/2001, p. 110). In classic Western movies, he either dies or leaves “for some more remote frontier” (110), where he can be a man:

In the American mind, refinement, virtue, civilization, Christianity itself are seen as feminine, and therefore women are often portrayed as possessing some kind of deeper wisdom, while the men, for all their apparent self-assurance, are fundamentally childish. But the West, lacking the graces of civilization, is the place “where men are men”; in Western movies, men have the deeper wisdom and the women are children (Warshow, 1954/2001, p. 107-108).

High Noon is a stereotypical western in this respect. However, Warshow abhorred High Noon as the antithesis of everything that the Western film is supposed to celebrate. “The hero is “naturally” alone” — he argued. It could not be any other way, because a westerner is quintessentially an individualist, and to suggest that Gary Cooper, of all people, needed a posse to take down Frank Miller was a disservice to the entire genre.

The endurance of myths

In an article published in American Scholar, John Tirman argued the contemporary relevance of the frontier myth in American politics. The 2008 campaign, he stated, was an opportunity for politicians to take us back to the frontier, to remind us of “the limitless possibilities of the American dream” (Tirman, 2009, para. 2). But Tirman suggested that the candidates merely recycled the frontier myth. They identified themselves with pioneers of old and new times, parading images of Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, pioneer women, and JFK. The problem, for Tirman, is that the frontier is gone; there is only so much we can expect to extract from the earth, which makes the promise of bounty more and more elusive.

Yet the closing of the frontier does not mean that Americans have nowhere to go. International involvement expanded the horizons beyond national borders. Recent US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has rekindled the theme of civilization conquering over savagery. And this suggests that the frontier myth is still relevant, or at least used. Yet what are the consequence of constantly relying on this particular myth? For Tirman, the risk Americans run is the perpetuation of “ideas of American exceptionalism and the moral fight to resources, cultural superiority, and limitlessness in all things we choose to do” (2009). Frontier mythology, in other words, is mostly employed in hubris.

Every society has its myths because all of them have stories . Myths are recurrent themes and images within these stories; they are used to explain, among other things, life, the meaning of the world, the status quo, and our place within it.  Moreover, myths also provide arguments that individuals can use to support a position by making it unassailable (Robinson, 2005). Inasmuch as we do not doubt common sense, myth remains an effective tool for persuasion. Inasmuch we do not wonder, or question, we remain “naive readers” (Leak, 2009, p. 126).

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References:

  • Barthes, R. (2006). Myth today. In M.G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Key Works [revised edition]. (pp. 100-106). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Bouton, T. (2007). The new and (somewhat) improved frontier thesis. Reviews in American history. 35(4), pp. 490-496.
  • Leak, A. (2009). Phago-citations: Barthes, Perec, and the Transformation of Literature. Review of Contemporary Fiction, 29(1), 124-147.
  • Higham, J. (1952). Origins of immigration restriction, 1882-1897: A social analysis. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 39(1), 77-88.
  • Robinson, A. (2005). The Mythology of War. Peace Review, 17(1), 33-38.
  • Smith, H.N. (1995). The myth of the garden and Turner’s frontier hypothesis. In J. Munns & G. Rajan (Eds.), A cultural studies reader: History, theory, practice. (pp. 216 – 224). New York: Longman Publishing.
  • Turner, F.J. (1996).  The frontier in American history. New York: Dover Publications
  • Tirman, J. (2009, Winter2009). The Future of the American Frontier: Can one of our most enduring national myths, much in evidence in the recent presidential campaign, be reinvented yet again?. American Scholar, 78(1), 30-40.
  • Warshow, R. (2001). The westerner. In R. Warshow, The immediate experience : movies, comics, theatre and other aspects of popular culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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