Friday, November 12, 2010

The significance of "Significance"

A few observations from the post-Frontier frontier

The following post represents notes toward an essay on Daniel Day-Lewis, meant to be part of a larger work-in-progress.

Much to my surprise, I've been thinking a lot about Frederick Jackson Turner lately. Turner is to the historical profession what Sigmund Freud is to psychology: an emergent figure in the late nineteenth century who dominated the first half of the twentieth, but a figure whose ideas are now consciously rejected by just about everybody in their professions -- and unconsciously absorbed by just about everybody else. Turner's 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" is probably the single most important piece of historical scholarship ever published in the United States. Written as a time when the modern research university was just emerging in the United States, it was an example of a literary genre -- the analytic essay  -- that was just coming into its own. Turner was one of the founding fathers of the American Historical Association (AHA) and its journal, the American Historical Review, which remains at the apex of the discipline.

A Wisconsin native, Turner first delivered "Significance" at an AHA meeting in Chicago, held amid the fabled World Columbian Exposition held in that city to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in America. It seems almost comical to imagine the 32-year old Turner (then, as now, young for a historian) standing in the front of a room talking to an indeterminate number of scholars while thousands of his fellow Americans were taking amusement park rides, surveying the huge temporary stucco buildings of the so-called White City, and watching the "exotic" foreign exhibits (like the "hootchy-kootchy dance of a Syrian performer named "Little Egypt") at a site which was artificially lit thanks to the technological innovations of the Westinghouse Corporation. Yet the so-called "Turner Thesis" unveiled in Chicago would prove to be more durable than any of these fleeting material realities, in large measure because it was so succinctly stated at the end of the first paragraph of his paper: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."

From the vantage point of over a century later, it may be hard to appreciate just how edgy an assertion this really was. Turner had been trained back east at Johns Hopkins, under the tutelage of the legendary Herbert Baxter Adams. Adams was a proponent of the then-dominant "germ" theory, which argued that western civilization owed its origins to the forests of Germany, out of which emerged a Teutonic character that swept western Europe, jumped to America, and now dominated the world. Like so much academic thought of the time, this approach to history was modeled on science, both in its new emphasis on empirical research and its use of a biological model -- more specifically a (Social) Darwinian model -- to explain historical change. Like his predecessors, Turner embraced a process-driven empirical approach to History (colleagues and students remember him as an obsessive collector of data and maps), and invoked science as fact and metaphor. But Turner's own inclinations were decidedly on the environmental side of the Darwinian equation: he was fascinated not by fixed destiny, but protean adaptability. America was a place that did something to people, he said: it made them Americans. Which is to say it turned them into something new and unique in historical experience. And that's because they had lots of room to evolve through a renewable cycle of scouts giving way to traders, farmers, and capitalists in scattershot sequences that stretched from sea to shining sea.

Over the course of ensuing decades, the Turner Thesis itself evolved from maverick idea to common sense, ratified by Turner's appointment at Harvard in 1910. By mid-century, it had a wide impact on subsequent historians, like Walter Prescott Webb, an early environmental historian who drew on Turner's ideas. But in the second half of the century the thesis came under increasing attack on a variety of fronts. Some scholars questioned Turner's data; others its implications, particularly his assertions that the frontier was the engine of U.S. democracy. The most serious challenge came from those historians, notably Patricia Limerick, who rejected the racial assumptions underlying the very idea of the frontier and the implicit omissions involved in discussing "empty" land that was in fact inhabited by multicultural populations. Turnerism was little more than a racist fantasy.

I think I know two things at this point. The first is that these people are surely right that Turner made some serious omissions in formulating his theory, omissions that reflect his limited perspective and limitations that now make it impossible to accept it at face value. The second is that it's only a matter of time before Turner makes a comeback in one form or another, because that's just the way these kinds of arguments go, particularly one in which questions of nature versus nurture figure in some way, as they clearly do here. But I'm less interested in whatever objective truth there may be in the thesis than its cultural power: how Turner described the frontier, what it meant to him, and how his conception of it entered the bloodstream of our national life.

The first point to be made in this context is something people don't recognize about "Significance": it's a gorgeous piece of writing deeply imbued love, an emotion that's not supposed to surface in academic writing but which is lifeless without it. "Significance" is a document with over 50 footnotes that cite a variety of scholarly sources, but its dominant mode is poetic. Take, for example this stretch of prose, in which I hear Whitmanic accents:

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. 

Turner's acute visual sensibility is also evident in an ecological analogy: "As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves traces behind it." And in a bibliographic one: "The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution . . . Particularly in eastern states this page is a palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming." Turner's frontier is a living thing: it "leaped" over the Allegheny Mountains, "skipped" over the Great Plains; "pushed" into Colorado, with "tongues of settlement" reaching into the wilderness. Ever situated in specific locations, it is ever restlessly moving forward, recreating itself in what Turner called "this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life." My favorite expression in this regard is Turner's evocation of the Mississippi River: "On the tide of the Father of Waters, North and South mingled into a nation."

Turner did not consider the frontier an unalloyed good. While he viewed it a truly nationalizing phenomenon -- people living near frontiers tended to cast their lot together, while those far from it took on stronger regional identities -- as well as a wellspring of democracy, he also recognized that a frontier mentality tended to resist even benevolent forms of outside control and foster a grasping materialism. It also led to a lax approach to government that fostered the creation of a spoils system. Moreover, Turner clearly understood, even if he didn't dwell on it, that the extension of the frontier was a matter of conquest for which he used the correct imperial term of "colonization."

But the biggest problem Turner has with the frontier in 1893 is that it's dead. He makes this clear in the first sentence of "Significance," which discusses recently updated information from the U.S. Census Bureau indicating the disappearance of an unbroken line in the American West, which he described as "the closing of a great historic moment." What the Mediterranean was the the Greeks, the frontier had been to the Americans, he concluded. "And now," he wrote in a closing sentence laced with melancholy, "four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history." The Turner Thesis, in effect, was the frontier's obituary.

What would take its place? Turner did not say. As Richard Hoftstader, himself a distinguished historian, would write 75 years later, the latent pessimism of the frontier thesis was in sharp contrast to the ebullient optimism attributed to frontier communities. But while Turner never offered an alternative -- indeed, he had considerable trouble writing books, and while he eventually articulated an influential view on the role of sections in American history, he never quite realized the huge potential suggested by "Significance" -- his politics were considered generally consonant with his friend and colleague Woodrow Wilson, who of course became the President of the United States and a leader of the Progressive movement. Turner himself has long been considered a Progressive historian in the mold of his contemporaries Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington, which generally meant an empirically-minded, skeptical approach to inherited intellectual constructs and a belief in the power of ideas to improve society.  For such people, the frontier was less a living reality -- as it had been for the previous generation of political reformers, the Populists -- than a metaphor that denoted opportunity on a large scale in a new domain. When, following the death of his wife in 1884, Theodore Roosevelt went out the the Dakota Territory to play the role of a cowboy, he proved to be a financial failure as a cattle rancher. But the episode paid vast dividends in advancing his own political career as a maverick in the nation's capital. Roosevelt, for his part, praised Turner in 1893 for "having put into shape a good deal of thought that has been floating around rather loosely."

The frontier remained fertile symbolic terrain for much of the twentieth century, nowhere more obvious than in the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, whose slogan was "The New Frontier." But its appeal went a good deal beyond politics, evident in the rhetoric of the space program as well as that of the Internet. Nowhere, however, was its appeal more evident than in U.S. cultural life. Turnerism is the bedrock of assumptions for the whole genre of the Western, for example, and the Western, in turn is the seedbed of other cultural genres stretching from sci-fi to hip-hop. Along with the legacy of slavery, the frontier is what makes American culture American.

But if the people of the early twentieth century experienced what they considered the transformation of the frontier from reality into myth, we are presiding over the transformation of myth into memory. Now the belief in the frontier as a living symbol is itself receding in our imaginations. The proximate cause is our current economic situation, which has cast doubt on the upward mobility that so many of us have considered our birthright so long, and which is so deeply intertwined with our sense of a frontier. This sense of doubt is not new; it has recurred periodically throughout American history, as did in the Great Depression and amid the political scandals and economic stagflation of the 1970s. But that it is part of a larger narrative of geopolitical decline has become a perception of our moment that has become increasingly impossible to ignore.

But I am speaking in terms of elusive abstractions now. A notion of decline is surprisingly slippery, subject to multiple definitions and conflicting data. Nor is it necessarily an objective reality; I'm more interested in a perception of decline as a historical artifact than I am in ascertaining its accuracy (and its maddeningly elusive timing). In recent years my apprehension of it has gradually taken shape through a set of six films about American history that have been released in the last twenty years. The threat that connects them is British-born, adoptively Irish actor named Daniel Day-Lewis.

More to come.