Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The urban frontier

The following post is part of an ongoing series on the work of Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally. See earlier posts below.

Like all historians, Frederick Jackson Turner had his biases and blind spots, which were evident even at the height of his influence. Richard Hoftstadter, who came of age as historian in the shadow of Turner, and who reckoned with him at the end of his own distinguished career, noted that, “Beyond doubt, Turner depicted the frontier in bright colors. His disciples are quick to answer that he somewhere mentioned almost every dark aspect of frontier influence that his critics cite – but the point is precisely here: Turner mentioned them in passing, and they have the position in his essays only of faint qualifications in a full-throated paean to American virtues. And while he was also admitting American cultural shortcomings, he was also at bottom apologizing for them.” Even if you put aside Turner’s failure to acknowledge that democratic reform was at least as likely to originate in the east than the west, or in his presumption that “open” or “free” land was simply unoccupied – two fronts on which he has been repeatedly challenged – you’d still have to conclude that accepting Turner on his own terms involves minimizing the pain and struggle that accompanied even a successful frontier cycle, and the internal conflicts that often co-existed alongside the more obvious ones with outside forces like nature or Indians. A New York Jew acutely aware of the xenophobia and anti-intellectualism that laced through frontier social movements like Populism, Hofstadter was not inclined to romanticize the frontier, even he recognized the power of the Turner thesis.
One of the more notable – and, given the circumstances of his unveiling of the Turner thesis in Chicago, ironic – limits of Turner’s vision involved his difficulty incorporating cities into his vision of U.S. history. As the great environmental historian William Cronon has observed, “Turner consistently chose to see the frontier as a rural place, the very isolation of which created its special role in the history of American democracy. Toward the end of his career, he looked with some misgiving on the likelihood that there would be an ‘urban reinterpretation,’ of American history that might ‘minimize the frontier theme’ – as if frontier history had little or nothing to do with cities.”
And yet, as Hoftstadter admitted, “the great merit of Turnerism, for all its elliptical and exasperating vagueness, was to be open-ended. The frontier idea, though dissected at one point and minimized at another, keeps popping up in new forms, posing new questions.” It is in this spirit that I suggest that a frontier perspective can help us understand the role – in the literal as well as figurative sense of the term – of Daniel Day-Lewis in the next installment of his cinematic history, Gangs of New York.
New York, it should be said, is not typically viewed as frontier territory any more than Salem, Massachusetts is. For one thing, it’s an island, not a continent. For another, it was effectively urban from the moment of its (Dutch) inception. And yet one can plausibly view Manhattan (and its borough outliers) as a frontier in two senses. First, like the rest of North America, New York was a geographic space that was settled along an irregular line of development over a long period of time, albeit from south to north rather than east to west. And second, the frontier was a process of demographic transformation, as immigrants of one kind or another gradually gave way to other ethnic and racial groups, often in process of gentrification. Only by the end of the century did the entire island effectively become an enclave of affluence. These twin processes were captured in the prose of Luc Sante, whose now-classic study Low Life was an important influence on the filmmakers, Day-Lewis in particular. "The conquest of Manhattan was a microcosm of that of the whole of America, with its spaces so vast it was assumed that they could be squandered and there would still be so much left over that errors could be overlooked,” Sante wrote. In New York the natural wilderness was much more concisely and thoroughly swept away, so that a human wilderness could take its place." This notion of a human wilderness is important: whether on the mountain path or the city street, it wasn’t the trees that made the Wild West wild.

Next: How Gangs of the New York came to the screen.