Daniel Day-Lewis and the Persistent Significance of the Frontier in American Cinema
The following is the text of my keynote address for the "Focus on Teaching" luncheon at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 21, 2012
The story of the forthcoming book on which this talk is based begins in 2001, when I left academe and began working as a high school teacher. In the process of trying to plan the first semester of a U.S. history survey, I made a curious discovery after generating a slate of movies I planned to show over the course of the fall semester: every one of them starred Daniel Day-Lewis. There was The Crucible. And Last of the Mohicans. And The Age of Innocence. Later I added Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood. All told, there were nine times I ran an annual event I dubbed "The Daniel Day-Lewis Film Festival."
Maybe it's not surprising that my predilections would express themselves without conscious effort. But keep in mind that we're talking about Daniel Day-Lewis here. As anyone vaguely familiar with his work knows, Day-Lewis is legendary for the extraordinary variety of characters he has played, and the vertiginous psychological depth with which he has played them. I first became aware of Day-Lewis in early 1985, when, in the space of a week, I watched him portray the priggish Cecil Vyse in the tony Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View and then saw him play Johnny, the punk East End homosexual, in Stephen Frears's brilliantly brash My Beautiful Launderette. Day-Lewis went on to have a distinguished career, winning the first of two Academy Awards for his portrayal of the handicapped Irish poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot in 1989, but between 1988 and 2007 he played a string of American figures that ranged from a seventeenth century Puritan to a twentieth-century art collector.
What could this mean, I wondered? Every year like clockwork, I watched these films again with my students, marveling at the inexhaustible nuances of Day-Lewis's performances. I began to ask myself: Could it make sense to think of actors as historians? That people, in the process of doing a job whose primary focus was not thinking in terms of interpretation of the past, were nevertheless performing one? And that in doing so repeatedly over the course of a career would articulate an interpretive version of American history as a whole?
Of course, such people are aware when they're dealing with historical situations (or contemporary situations with historical resonances), and may make real effort to exercise historical imagination as part of their work. But that's the point: it's part of their work. We all understand that there are many people out there who "do" history without writing books—archivists, curators, and, of course, filmmakers, including both documentarians as well as writers and directors of feature films, who work consciously and conceptually to craft an interpretive experience for their audiences. What intrigues me about actors, though, are the obvious limitations and obstacles to executing a purely historical function. Their work is always embedded in a larger context in which their control of the material is limited—actors do not typically write their own lines—and their craft is collaborative, part of enterprises that will always be at as much aesthetic and commercial as they will be historical. What’s interesting to me, though, is the way in which very successful actors with a good deal of control over their choices reveal patterns of thought that are widely shared but rarely so evident.
Indeed, my primary interest is less in Hollywood movies or actors than in the way history is absorbed into the fabric of everyday life—messy, fragmented, more suggestive than direct. This is actually how it’s lived for students: meta-narratives – of history as progressive, or circular, or an illustration of the way you can’t fight city hall – into which into which they plug the various incidents and movements they learn about inside and outside the classroom. Those meta-narratives are a kind of historiographic folklore. Every once in a while, historians are the source (or, at least, powerfully shape) that folklore. In the case of Daniel Day-Lewis, I gradually realized that this Irish immigrant had somehow absorbed the frontier myth of Frederick Jackson Turner.
Turner is to the historical profession what Sigmund Freud is to psychology: a towering giant of a century ago one whose ideas are now consciously rejected by just about everybody in his profession—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 at a time when the modern research university was just emerging, it was an example of a literary genre—the analytic essay of the kind you’re now hearing—that was just coming into its own.
A Wisconsin native, Turner first delivered "Significance" on the evening of July 12, 1893 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 31-year old Turner (then, as now, young for a historian) standing in the front of a room talking to about 200 colleagues while thousands of his fellow Americans were taking amusement park rides and surveying the huge temporary stucco buildings of the so-called White City, a site which was artificially lit thanks to the technological innovations of the Westinghouse Corporation. But like Westinghouse lighting, 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 seed that spread across 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 approach to History—colleagues and students remember him as an obsessive collector of data and maps—and invoked science as fact and metaphor. But his inclinations were decidedly on the environmental side of the Darwinian equation: he was fascinated protean adaptability, not by fixed destiny. 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. 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 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. To Limerick, Turnerism was little more than a racist fantasy, at one point joking that for her and like-minded scholars the frontier had become “the f-word.”
Actually, Turner did not consider the frontier an unalloyed good. While he viewed it as a usefully nationalizing phenomenon as well as a wellspring of democracy, he also recognized that a frontier mentality tended to resist even benevolent forms of outside control, and fostered 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 had been the Greeks, the frontier had been to the Americans. "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. Richard Hoftstader would write 75 years later that the latent pessimism of the frontier thesis was in sharp contrast to the ebullient optimism Turner attributed to frontier communities. But while Turner never offered an alternative—indeed, he had considerable trouble writing books, and never quite realized the huge potential suggested by "Significance"—his politics were considered generally consonant with those of his friend and colleague Woodrow Wilson. 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. That’s why Turner called the closing of the frontier the end of the first period of American history.
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 power 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 people of the 20th century experienced the transformation of the frontier from reality into myth, those of the 21st are witnessing its transformation from myth into memory. Now belief in the frontier as a living symbol is itself receding in our imaginations. The proximate cause is our 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, such as the Great Depression and amid the political scandals and economic stagflation of the 1970s. The current narrative of geopolitical decline, however, is one of rare and growing depth.
Here I’ll break to say that I don’t have time to do justice to DDL’s whole body of work, but instead will focus on three illustrative examples: The Crucible (1997); Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Gangs of New York (2002).
The Crucible is a story that’s typically read one of two ways. The first and perhaps primary one is what prompted Arthur Miller to write it: as a warning about the dangers of social conformity and letting irrational fears—in particular a fear of Communism that dominated American public life at the time of the play’s premiere—govern everyday life. The second tends to see the story in terms more specific to its time and place: seventeenth century New England. Such an angle of vision leads one away from viewing it as an indictment of American character generally, and more one of self-righteous Puritanism specifically. Both of these views have cogency, of course. But I’d like to look at The Crucible as a frontier story.
There are some good historical reasons to do so. Salem, Massachusetts is not typically seen as a frontier town; after all, it was founded in 1626, even before Boston, and was 66 years old when the witch trials took place. Still, if Salem itself was not in fact a frontier, it was quite close to a bona fide one: the district of Maine, which would be part of Massachusetts until 1820. For most of the seventeenth century, the beaver and timber trade of northern New England were major sources of prosperity for Massachusetts.
The outbreak of King Philip’s War in Rhode Island in 1676, which spread northward and lingered until later in the decade, broke a relatively long stretch of peaceable relations with the region’s Indians. The outbreak of another war 1689—popularly known as King William’s War, but known in the region as the Second Indian War—destabilized the region still further. These wars destroyed lives, livelihoods and homes, and created a significant number of refugees, some of them ending up in Essex county, where Salem is located. Mary Beth Norton has documented that a significant number of accused witches as well as their accusers had ties that can be traced to Maine in the 1670s and 80s. Just how decisive a factor Indian war really was in triggering the witch trials is open to debate. But it is certainly plausible to see frontier-related stresses as a factor in what went wrong in Salem in 1692.
As far as the makers of The Crucible were concerned, this is all inside baseball. In the original script for the play—and in the movie—Miller has the first of the accusers, Abigail Williams, pressure her confederate, Betty Parris, by saying “I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish the sun had never gone down!” This fictive context is important in establishing a basis for the core malignancy of Williams’ character. But it’s more in the spirit of background information than a proximate explanation for her behavior.
The most important element in establishing a frontier dimension for the film version is the portrayal of Daniel Day-Lewis’s John Proctor. To put it most simply, the film version of The Crucible underlines the degree to which Proctor was an outside man. This was true in fact: the real Proctor, who was about 60 in 1692, lived on the outskirts of Salem proper, where he operated a tavern. Proctor appears to have been a local iconoclast: he was among the first to ridicule the witchcraft proceedings; allegedly beat his servant, Mary Warren, who confessed to witchcraft and accused others; and stood up for Elizabeth, who was his third wife. This may be why he was the first male to be accused of witchcraft, and why he was hanged for it.
The film version of The Crucible, exploiting the possibilities of the medium, makes Proctor an outside man in a much more literal sense as well. Our first view of him, about ten minutes into the film, shows him threshing wheat in a field with his sons. The imagery seems to come straight from a Winslow Homer painting: big open spaces, water in the distance, brilliant blue sky. The camera pans from the inlet to the interior to reveal his wife Elizabeth (a superb Joan Allen) summoning him. Over the course of the story, walls will literally and figuratively close in on him.
In art and life, the Salem Witch trials were a disaster wrought by Puritans. The deaths of nineteen people and the concomitant misery that resulted was byproduct of the social conformity implicit in the communitarian character of Puritanism, the most institutionally-minded people in British North America. But one of the many paradoxes of Puritanism is that this communitarian impulse was accompanied by another, individualistic one, that was at least as powerful. The Puritans had always placed great value on the primacy of the individual conscience; the belief that one’s own relationship to God mattered more than what Pope or King might say is precisely what brought them to America. And it’s that independence of mind that led the John Proctors of New England to stand up to, and finally defeat, tyranny from within.
This libertarian strand of cultural DNA that had drifted across the ocean found a hospitable climate on these shores. As Frederick Jackson Turner would later write in “Significance,” “the frontier is productive of individualism.” Turner would often contrast “antipathy to control” in the frontier mentality with that of the Eastern establishment. As he well knew, however, the Eastern establishment was itself a frontier product, and never entirely transcended it. In an obvious and irrefutable sense, John Proctor is a tragic figure. But as embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie, he is a fierce and willful force whose intensity cannot be contained by his death. His children, literal and figurative, will conquer a continent—a topic that would be the focus the next film in the Day-Lewis sequence of U.S. history.
* * *
In the almost two centuries since its publication in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans has been like the sheet music for a pop song: a loose set of characters and plot points in a standard that has been rearranged and embellished countless times. Like a lot of pop classics, Cooper’s source material lay in the public domain, namely collective memory of the French and Indian War, which ended a quarter-century before he was born. Cooper, who was raised in upstate New York—his father was a large, and controversial, landowner in the baseball Mecca we know as Cooperstown—wrote about a time when the region was a frontier, and in so doing wrote what many scholars of the western consider an early example of the genre.
From a modern standpoint, Cooper’s fiction is almost unreadable in its stilted language and slack pacing. What has lasted in Mohicans—what indeed has proven to be amazingly supple—is a set of characters and a loose plot. In the last hundred years, the principal medium through which this story has been re-told has been film—hardly surprising, given the proto-cinematic quality of the story. The first movie version of the novel, short and silent, came out in 1911. A 1920 version, also silent and selected for the National Film Registry, an impressively executed piece of work with lots of exterior shoots, generally follows the outline of the novel. A 1932 twelve-part serial version of the story was cheap, unintentionally comical, but surely thrilling to people like my father, who would have gone to see them as a kid part of a full slate of Saturday matinee movie-going. The best-known version of the movie prior to 1992 was the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott, who went on to be a fixture of Westerns through the fifties.
So by the time director Michael Mann and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe tackled Mohicans in the early 1990s, they had a treasure trove of material to work with. That said, the most important precedent for the filmmakers of 1992 movie was a long tradition of artistic license. The pivotal figure in this regard—the linchpin of the movie, and that of the point I’m ring to make here—is the character of Hawkeye (here called Nathaniel), more specifically the Nathaniel of Daniel Day-Lewis. This is much more than a matter of which lines of the script he utters. To put it simply, the Day-Lewis incarnation of Cooper’s frontiersman is a singularly magnificent figure. Though he lacks the muscularity of the typical movie-star hero, he is an impressive physical specimen: lanky but taut, strong but agile. But Nathaniel’s presence is much more than physical. The Hawkeye of all too many Mohicans—nowhere more so than the original—is a hayseed who’s not (quite) as dumb as he looks. Randolph Scott’s Hawkeye is one of the better ones, because the geniality he gives the character doesn’t undercut his sense of competence. But Day-Lewis blows his predecessors away with the sheer intensity of his self-assurance. He is a perfect Turnerian specimen, as at ease in a pick-up game of lacrosse as he is dining at the cabin of his friends.
The fact that this protagonist is not the entirely restless loner of Cooper’s saga, that in this version there’s a place in his life for a woman who by the end of the film will stand by his side wherever he may go, is very much a part of the film’s larger design. The movie eschews the traditional funeral scenes of most Mohicans by having that last Mohican Chingachgook spread the ashes of his son Uncas over the western mountains amid a setting sun. As sorry as we feel for Chingachgook, this version of the movie—as I will discuss, there are in fact two 1992 versions, with subtly, but significantly, different endings—has a hopeful feel. That’s because we feel so strongly that the tragedy of Uncas notwithstanding, Hawkeye really is Chingachgook’s son (we moderns consider race and even parenthood a social construction, after all), and that in his presumed merger with his lover Cora—whose name takes on a new significance—the seed of a new national identity will be planted. As a hybrid, it will be resilient. And have plenty of room to grow. In this, the first film Day-Lewis made about American history, he embodies the frontier in its brightest phase and greatest height.
* * *
One of the more notable—and, given the circumstances of its unveiling in Chicago, ironic—limits of Frederick Jackson Turner’s vision involved his difficulty incorporating cities into his vision of U.S. history. As the esteemed 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 Richard Hoftstadter, himself also a critic of Turner 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 a frontier perspective can help us understand the role 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 as New Amsterdam. And yet one can plausibly view Manhattan 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 from 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.
If Mohicans began as a novel rooted in historical events, Gangs began as a history laced with fiction. The core source material was The Gangs of New York, a 1928 book by journalist and crime writer Herbert Asbury. The character Day-Lewis plays in the movie, Bill Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, is modeled on the real-life figure Bill Poole.
It’s appropriately ironic that the Butcher’s gang goes by the name of the Native Americans. The historically accurate term denotes what was at the time a growing number of U.S. citizens who were increasingly hostile to the rising tide of immigrants, especially Irish immigrants. This tide would crest with “Know-Nothing” Party in the 1850s, a temporary but powerful force in 19th century U.S. politics. Of course in our day the phrase “Native American” is a synonym for Indian. Though a passionate racist who considers only white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants real Americans, the Butcher’s situation in Gangs of New York resembles no one’s more aptly than that of a Delaware sachem confronted with growing numbers of outside interlopers and deciding to take a stand against them.
In an opening scene set in the winter of 1846, the Butcher-led natives prevail in a gang fight with the Celtic horde led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), victorious despite their enemy’s greater numbers. Yet the Butcher has only bought time. He can manage, even absorb, the steady stream of new arrivals for an interval. Indeed, it’s one of the paradoxes of the Butcher’s character that he can employ his former enemies, and even tease them affectionately about their ethnic foibles. But like a hydra-headed monster, Vallon’s legacy returns in the form of his son, whose ironically Teutonic name—“Amsterdam”—will ultimately challenge the Butcher for supremacy. In the meantime, however, the unwitting chief takes a shine to the kid and nurtures him in the ways of tribal power. As such, he’s like a triumphant Indian warrior who incorporates the kin of vanquished foes into his own clan.
When, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, the Butcher learns the true identity of his protégé, he turns on him with ferocity. Bill goes to visit the newly elected (Irish) sheriff of the Five Points, who has allied himself with Amersterdam, and deals with him in a manner redolent of a Wild West standoff. Watch for what might plausibly be termed a tomahawk throw.
Gangs of New York represents a transposition of roles for Daniel Day-Lewis: in Last of the Mohicans, he was Hawkeye; this time he’s effectively Chingachgook. Like generations of dime novel readers and fans of westerns, we admire him in his savagery, which has a kind of nobility even as it is unacceptable as a basis for contemporary society. As with Indians of the frontier, Bill the Butcher must die so that we, a non-WASP multiracial majority, might live. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s Vallon who represents the synthesis of cultures who will survive as a hearty hybrid and make a modern America.
And yet we remain haunted by the specter of the natives.
* * *
About halfway through this talk, I mentioned that there were two different versions of the 1992 Last of the Mohicans. The first—the one shown in theaters and in the VHS release of the movie on home video—concludes the way most versions of the story typically do, with Chingachcook, sprinkling the ashes of Uncas, declaring that he is the last of the Mohicans. It’s at that point that the music swells, the camera pulls back, and the credits roll.
Here’s the second version.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was a lament wrapped in hope. Turner dealt with the current of existential dread that runs through his realization that the frontier had closed by writing sunny prose and by arming himself with a Progressive faith that new frontiers would come along in the twentieth century to replace the old one. “In place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon science, fruitful for the needs of the new race; there are frontiers of better social domains yet unexplored,” he wrote ebulliently in 1914, three decades after “Significance.” I can’t help but be moved by the old man’s lyricism: “Let us hold to our attitude of faith and courage, and creative zeal. Let us dream as our fathers dreamt and make our dreams come true.”
And so we did, from the moon to that crabgrass frontier we know as suburbia, where these words are being written. But here in the twenty-first century, the most obvious truth about the frontier is that mythology itself is a finite resource. It gets consumed and recycled no less than land. If there is a saving grace—or, at any rate, a rough justice—in the racist brutality that has threaded the myth of the frontier, it is that the people who made it are themselves compost.
But for now, we are here.