Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Significance of the Frontier in American History

Yep, there's no crime in this post and no beyond borders, either, just frontiers.

But I'm telling you about this eye-opening little collection of four essays by Frederick Jackson Turner for a shopping list of reasons:

1) The man came from that great age when historians could write.

2) It's a commonplace now that the American frontier had closed by 1890, but Turner said it in 1893, and he teased out the implications of the centrality of the frontier back to the first European arrival in what later became the United States. Great ideas haven't always been around. Someone had to think them first.

3) The format. The book is a slim volume, part of a Penguin series called Great Ideas. It dispenses with introductory material, footnotes, end notes and bibliography. It permits intimate, portable, easy acquaintance with one of the great historical thinkers ever. What a great idea.

4) The essays, written between 1893 and 1910, are full of statements and propositions that remain richly suggestive today. Here's my favorite:

"So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency, and wild-cat banking."
Hmm. Maybe this post is about crime and crime fiction after all.

(Read Turner online here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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35 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I always liked this idea. Four centuries of growth came to an end in the 1890's (1492-) and the whole twentieth century was about the squabbles for the suddenly finite resources.

For a while I thought humans might be able to extend the frontier to a new world like Mars or Europa or Titan but now I think we'll just stay on Earth battling for dwindling resources until we reach a low tech subsistence civilization a few bloody centuries from now. And eventually of course that Species Terminating Event comet will hit.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Peter. It sounds like a good read in general, and the ideas that still relate to today should make it even more interesting. I've also developed an interest in writing the occasional Western, and this sounds like it has great research potential.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, there's nothing of the apocalyptic to Turner, and he was not yet thinking on a planetwide scale. I don't think anyone was back then. In any case, he seems almost to regard the change that came with the closing of the American frontier as a challenge. Perhaps he does show some apprehension in the last written of these essays, from 1910.

I suspect that once Brazil, India and China get going in a big way, the battle for dwindling resources will pick up speed. And I'd say low-tech subsistence and a reduced world population are good bets.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it's a terrific read in general. Turner takes a long view of the importance of geography in the essay on the Mississippi Valley, for instance. This is something similar to what Fernand Braudel does in books about France and the Mediterranean. But reading Turner is like watching a movie in fast motion. On, say, a European scale, the period he describes is so brief.

I'd say Turner would make excellent foundational reading for someone thinking of writing Westerns.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Thanks for the interesting posting. I was constantly thinking of Steve Hockensmith's mystery series (the Holmesian brothers--Big Red and Old Red--in 19th century western America) while considering your posting and the comments. Much of Turner's notions regarding America and the western expansion becomes subplot (at least thematically at times) in Hockensmith's mysteries. Now, since you have added once again to my must-read list, I will have to revisit Turner with a new perspective. Thanks.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read and enjoyed Hockensmith's first book, Holmes on the Range. That very title embodies the temeparamental conflict of Europe vs. America that is at the heart of Turner's thesis. (In his version, the conflict generally takes the form of old-line Massachusetts and tidewater Virginia vs. the American pioneers.)

If you've read Turner, you'll know how entertaining and exciting his writing is. And it comes in easily digestible bite-size chunks, too.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Well, as one of those irritating lefty liberals, I'll just quietly mention that it wasn't exactly free land to begin with.

I do wonder when I read Big Ideas if the big idea is actually right. I don't mean that I have anything to offer in its place--of course not--but so often we just take what seems convincing and run with it and alternative smaller ideas get lost. When something seems to explain so much, you wonder what hasn't been explained and has been swept to the back of consciousness because it doesn't fit.

I don't really have any particular ax to grind with Turner though. One of the dorms at my college was named after him. Thanks to Page Smith, they were all named after American historians, so I lived in Prescott and then Parkman. And no, I didn't read either of them, though that probably should have been a requirement. I don't think anyone else did either.

Parkman is the one I think I'd read if I found the time.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I certainly noticed that Turner never considers the Indians (yeah, I might as well call them what Turner did) except as adjuncts to European policies in America.

One thing Big Ideas do that small ones may not is engage nonspecialists like me. Engage with a Big Idea, and then one can argue against it or try to prove it wrong. A Big Idea brings history closer to its origins as a form of storytelling, I think.

This Turner collection is a series of a short essays that he freely admits are non-comprehensive. I don't know what he wrote in the way of more comprehensive works.

I have Parkman and Prescott lying around the house. I think I bought Prescott after I read Plunder of the Sun, an adventure novel about the hunt for Peruvian treasure.

One thing that I'd be willing to bet that European colonists, if not American pioneers, did is force upon Native Americans a consciousness of themselves as Native Americans, as opposed to disparate groups of Iroquois and Mohawk and so on. How did the native populations organize themselves in response to European colonists and then American pioneers? Who will give us the Big Idea from the native side?

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I couldn't answer that, although I think there have beens some major attempts in the last 25 years.

I don't mean that it is wrong to come up with comprehensive theories or to read them. What I mean about Turner is something like what I think about Shakespeare--what at inception was one person's thought, as towering and shattering as it may have originally been gradually becomes assimilated and becomes the climate of ordinary peoples thought without them ever having to think about it. As Harold Bloom said of Shakespeare, we live inside their minds, or we are the children of those minds or something like that. And there are a few limitations to the minds of even the greatest thinkers. It's not people like you who actually read and comment on the texts, its all the people who don't read them but just absorb all these ideas about the West and the Frontier and The New Frontier and so on and so on.

I'm a bit on this right now, because I went to the Penny University last night, and while one of our leaders was trying to tell us a painful story about how Baker Roshi lost his way at the San Francisco Zen Center, primarily by philandering, an out there scientist type derided him for trying to impose his western style morality on the situation. "All organizations are just set ups for the dominant males of the species to get more sex," he said. "Don't say 'just', our leader said--you lose the argument right there." And the guy had the grace to acknowledge that. But you can see that this guy can see all sociology as just a form of zoology. Which of course it is on some levels. But not all levels. And I think the Penny University would be a good argument against his premise, actually, seeing as how it is heavily populated by either the doddering elderly or the borderline personality types. I don't think there's much of a hidden agenda there.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sometimes the solitude of books can be better than the company of people, I suppose.

We like to borrow science to coin metaphors, so perhaps the progress of ideas, at least on the popular level, is like the leap from one quantum level to another. Rather than gradual progress from one dominant mode of thinking to another, a Turner comes along, and suddenly every Tom, Dick and Roshi is thinking like him.

I never like or trust Western pontificators about the futility of Western morality. They protest too much; they're trying to make excuses for their own lapses. Easterners, I suspect, are not quite so exotic and different as such suburban, upper-middle-class white Buddhists would like us to believe. (Incidentally, a superb account -- several superb accounts, actually -- of a Westerner's encounter with Eastern thought comes from a mystery writer: Janwillem van de Wetering. I recommend book about life in a Japanese Zen monastery epecially.)

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

We've talked about van de Wetering before, and I've read all the earlier ones, though didn't get to any of the ones he started writing again later. But still haven't read about his Zen experiences.

If the guy just wanted to live in books, it would be fine with me. Unfortunately, he wants to get on his soap box all the time. He needs an audience.

When he asked Paul how he presumed to say that Baker Roshi had done wrong, he said, I know he did wrong by the amount of damage he did to his community. Which I think is how you do judge things. It's not a Western ethical kind of thing. It's a human kind of thing.

This all got started with a reference to Socrates and his confession of self-delusion.
The soapboxer said that he was not going to buy into the notion of self-delusion. He thought he could do better than that.

And I think not.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

It would be nice to see one Eastern country where animals aren't routinely tortured. When you've walked around the markets in Saigon or Vientiene or seen the horrors of China (dozens of puppies in tiny cages, live ducks tied up and hanging upside down in shop windows) you begin to appreciate that awful bourgeois western morality a bit more.

One of the more eye opening experiences for me was visiting Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama. Monks routinely threw their litter on the ground and into ravines, they jostled you hard getting onto buses (taking especial delight at shoving women it seemed to me) and had nothing but contempt for beggars in their town. Donkeys are routinely beaten and other animals kept in their own filth until they are killed. Whenever I see the Dalai Lama lecture us about our western mores I often think "how about asking your monks to pick of some of the heaps of garbage that litter the ravines of the town where you've been given a home or how about being nice to women and animals? Buddhists in general could do with embracing a philosophy that isnt just about personal growth and that extends to the other species that inhabit our planet.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Van de Wetering was probably the beginning of my reading of international crime fiction, but I don't remember having discussed his Buddhist books before. What I like best about his book on life in a Japanese Buddhist monaestery (I think the title may be The Empty Mirror) is that he does just what you or I would do: He comments, observes and complains. I remember no false modesty or self-exaltation in the book. He wrote at least one companion volume about life as a Buddhist in the U.S.

I remember envying you your discussion groups, but I guess they can turn into havens for people who would otherwise quietly read a book or bother fellow customers at doughnut shops or late-night cafes.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I am in principle in favor of living legends being knocked down a peg. Interesting you should mention the Dalai Lama, though. He is routinely celebrated for the humanity he shows in accepting meat when it is offered to him and thus not humiliating his hosts. (I first heard this story in Derry, as it happens. In that version, he had been given an Ulster fry, and he ate it.) I know this sounds like one of those pat, apocryphal legends, but when I did an online search to seek verification, I found him vilified for eating meat in such circumstances. He is not so holy a man, some people wrote, apparently seriously, as Paul McCartney, who would never let meat cross his lips.

I expect a Janwillem van de Wetering would have written with wry amusement at public behavior of the monks you witnessed.

Perhaps the personal part of personal growth is why Buddhism has a certain superficial appeal in the West in a selfish era.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The DL seems as close to a living saint as we are likely to get, but I wonder how he can walk around that town without thinking, hmm, how about getting some of my monks to clean up some of these piles of stinking garbage which have just been shoved off the road into the valleys around here, I mean we are guests here after all...

I understand that Buddhism requires you to reject the world, but I think I like the doctrines of Saint Francis a good bit better than those of the Buddhist sages.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had never before seen the Dalai Lama referred to as the DL. Now, there's a versatile abbreviation. Like, if you suffer a torn anterior cruciate soul, do you go on the 15-lifetime DL?

I wonder what his holiness thinks of the conduct of his followers. St. Francis would be entirely worthy of emulation except wasn't he not big on education? But yep, he certainly would not have taken kindly to some of the scenes you described above.

When it comes to sages, I'll take Hillel: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I started a book about visiting a Zen monastery once, it was something like Shoes Outside the Door and it might even have been van de Wetering, but I couldn't swear to it. I didn't get all that far--distracted by something else, I'm sure--but I liked it. The narrator was so refreshing on his, and by extension our own, intractable nature. I think I am probably not going to escape the particular person I'm stuck with during this lifetime--namely me--so I am going to do the best I can with the package and not sweat it too much.

I'm sorry that Dalai Lama doesn't see the suffering of animals as something to address. West and East and everything in between do have their blinders. I'm suddenly thinking that something like a religious bit torrent might be a kind of answer. Because everyone has a piece of the answer, don't they? It's just that no one has all of it. Maybe 2012 will be the year that all the bits come together and create a global shift.

Sorry--too influenced by Brian O'Rourke's recent blog post about how the world will end.

No, you should still envy me the Penny University, Peter. It can be, and almost always is maddening, but there is almost always something great about it, something funny, something worth keeping. And as much as I've been venting, there is also something to be said for people who are burning to say something having a place to say it. Otherwise, they just come up to me while I'm trapped at the cash register and say it to me personally and that ain't good. No, seriously--well, yeah that was actually serious--there are some lonely souls out there and it is good that they have some place to come in out of the rain. They never get to take over for long.

I love the Penny University. It's been a great aspect in my life in Santa Cruz for all these years.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just checked, and Shoes Outside the Door is by a different author. But I'd recommend The Empty Mirror. And I'd recommend your attitude toward your situation in the universe.

I'm thinking maybe a religious rummage sale might be best. But there are so many flea markets and spiritual yard sales from which to choose. And I shall look in on Brian's post. I'd hate to miss the lowdown on our ultimate destiny.

I find the idea of getting together to talk about big questions immensely attractive. I'm not sure I'd have your patience for some of the attention-grabbers, though. How organized is the program? Who chooses the subjects? Is reading part of the package?

November 03, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The idea of the frontier, both literal and figurative, has quite a bit of relevance for crime fiction. I was immediately reminded of 2 essays, "The New Wild West: The Urban Mysteries of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler," by Paul Skenazy, Boise State University Press, 1982, and "The End of the Trail: The American West of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler," by Joseph C. Porter, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 6, no. 4, Oct. 1975.

The mythology of California as the place where the frontier ends is also a common element in hard-boiled fiction of the 1920s-1950s. The bleak ending of Paul Cain’s “Fast One” (1933) is a vivid example.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Hey, Paul Skenazy is a UCSC professor. And I know him. A little. Actually, he probably knows me only as "someone who works at Bookshop".

Peter, you are asking the wrong questions.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hadn't heard of those essays, but Hammett and Chandler are the two names that come to mind in the matter of crime fiction and the frontier, the place where the new urban ethos meets the old pioneer one. Turner's remarks about the crony system as a evil survival of the pioneer ethic made me think of all those stories about detectives cleaning up corrupt towns.

Another interesting question is when the post-frontier era came to an end in American crime fiction. Well, it hasn't ended yet, but perhaps the arrival of American noir in the 1950s is relevant in this respect. When one can no longer look to the West, one looks inward. What's the result? David Goodis.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Very cool that you know Paul Skenazy. You should talk crime fiction with him some time.

The wrong questions? Is my approach too formal for the setting?

November 03, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Hammett's Continental Op short story, "Corkscrew," 1925, is a perfect blend of hard-boiled crime + Western. The Op goes to Arizona to "stir things up" in the town of Corkscrew, which is as crooked as its name implies. Hammett was doing a bit of showing off, demonstrating he could write in just about any genre at a time when Black Mask was publishing western and detective fiction (as well as other genres).

I always recommend it to anyone thinking of reading Hammett ss's for the first time. It's humorous and hard-boiled.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, I'm definitely going to tell him he was mentioned here next time I see him. Scholars need all the celebrity they can get. Unlike some.

Yep, the Penny U. is pretty free form. Sometimes guest speakers are invited, and then we have to just hope that everyone will behave.

The thing is that Paul Lee, who was the person was talking about Baker Roshi, is the real deal. He's a Falstaffian, indeed Socratian figure. As such, sometimes people don't get the gravity of his essence and the degree of his learning. Baker Roshi asked for his advice. It wasn't wrong for this guy to challenge his thinking on this, but it was quite a misstep to mistake the nature of the person he was dealing with.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Since you're talking Continental Op, don't forget RED HARVEST (with the rugged, western mining town setting that is drowning in corruption).

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I remember a Hammett story called "Nightmare Town" as well. I'm not sure I've read "Corkscrew," but the outsider who comes to down to shake things up and clean things up is a time-honored motif.

Do you know offhand who first observed that the American P.I. story is an outgrowth of the Western? And I'm not sure I'd ever made the connection between the numerous stories of civic corruption in American hard-boiled crime fiction on the one hand and the frontier ethos on the other. At least, I had not made the connection until I read Turner -- Turner, who advanced his thesis about the closing of the frontier right around the time Chandler and Hammett were born, destined to grow up and write about some of the fruits of that closing.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I'm definitely going to tell him he was mentioned here next time I see him. Scholars need all the celebrity they can get. Unlike some.

Hmm, I heard Bono's name mentioned today in a public place.

My first few years in Philadelphia, I used to hang out in a Dunkin' Donuts on the Main Line (don't ask; one day I'll tell you how that happened.) I think the gatherings there may have been an East Coast version of the Penny Unversity, or at least a Penny Junior College.

If Paul Lee is Falstaffian, is he also jovial?

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I did not forget Red Harvest. And you'll have to forgive me for seeing the world through Turner's eyes, but I wonder if Chandler and Hammett read him.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, yeah. The problem is that jovial rarely gets taken all that seriously.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A Falstaffian figure ought to be taken seriously, by Jove!

November 03, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Absolutely, R.T., the thinly-disguised Butte, MT, setting of Red Harvest is a perfect example of crime fiction turning the myth of the West as a place of renewal and reinvention on its head. "Nightmare Town" (one of my favorite Hammett ss) prefigures this scenario. I just mentioned Corkscrew because I think it is the most "Western" of Hammett's ss, with the possible exception of "The Man Who Killed Dan Odams (1924) and is full of near-parody "this town ain't big enough for the both of us " and "I'll fill you full of lead" type dialogue.

Peter, I don't know who might be the first to have made the connection between the Western hero and the PI (I must have it buried in my notes somewhere) but William Marling has a nice overview of the subject at www.detnovel.com/ And he notes Turner's influence.

Hammett was such a voracious reader I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn he had read Turner.

And in a salute to Hammett's Red Harvest, Massimo Carlotto's and Marco Videtta's Italian crime fiction novel, Nordest, is (far more evocatively) re-titled Poisonville in its English-language translation.

November 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I see that Marling mentions crime, Western social life and cities in his first paragraph.

I found a reference to the Poisonville title for Carlotto's novel earlier. I wonder if the tribute goes too far. I wonder, too, if Hammett ever heard anyone say "Poisonville." He implies at the beginning of "Red Harvest" that Poisonville could be a mispronucniation or dialect pronunciation of Personville in addition to an accurate reflection of the town's moral and social character. But no one would really misprounounce the name that way, I think.

OK, that's a micro-quibble along the lines of grousing about an occasional forced rhyme in an Ira Gershwin lyric, but still ...

November 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Among current crime writers, Scott Phillips is very much aware of the frontier and, in general, of how a city's past -- Wichita, Kansas, in his case -- can affect its present crime.

November 04, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Poisonville has seemed to generate some extra interest here lately--I'm not sure quite why. I mean, I think it's a new edition, but Carlotto is not well known here in general. I haven't read anything about this new release from Europa, but apparently some other people have.

November 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The English title is bound to attract attention among crime-fiction readers. I had not heard of the book until this discussion, but I will soon have the chance to look for it at a fine crime-fiction specialty store.

I often see Europa Editions titles in general bookstores, too, so the book may have a chance for fairly wide readership. In re Europa, any imprint that publishes Jean-Claude Izzo and Carlo Lucarelli gets a thumbs-up from me.

November 04, 2009  

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