Top Bottom Home Site Map Topic Previous Next Top
home \ essays & papers \ by topic \ cultural studies \ the frontier: models and constructions


The National Character and the Significance of the Frontier

Section Index

  1. The Frontier
  2. Prospects and Promise of the Frontier
  3. Hardships and Hard Facts
  4. Impact on the American Character
  5. Today's View
  6. Appendix

  What's Related  
  Subseq. Pages - Essays & Papers  

1. The Frontier

1.1. Aspects of Culture

Within the vast discourse of culture, different influences add to each other and form a whole which is consisting of parts; those parts again being determined by the whole. This interdependence is difficult to dissolve, to deconstruct. Models are needed to at least up to a certain degree understand those interdependencies; those models of course can just work within their natural restrictions as the models they are - they might explain certain aspects but make use of simplifications and generalizations and classifications; which makes this process an artificial one.

But without those models, without breaking up and unfolding the discourse, even less would be reached. So there has to be a certain awareness of the critical aspects of such models and theses while at the same time trying to apply such to the discourse discussed.

The given topic now deals with the issues of the National Character and the Frontier. Both are, of course, simplifications and categorizations in an attempt to understand the complex network formed by culture. Any criticizing has to take that into account; any such attempt is being derived from a certain aspect of the discourse and, with a certain agenda in mind and given the cultural background and interconnections of the writer him- or herself, such a task is often also revealing something from what is not mentioned.

Thus, such models have to be deconstructed and discussed very thoroughly to be able to understand them to a satisfying degree; nothing this short paper will be able to do, except taking a glimpse into the topic.

1.2. Explaining History

"Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development[1]."

Since the beginning of the colonization of the American continents, such colonization took place at the frontier of what the Western world defines as civilization and wilderness. This is true only in a relative way; and it has to take into account also the intentions behind such a colonization. The country the colonists and explorers entered was not at all void, not at all empty space, not at all wilderness. There was an area of free land available just within the perception of the white man: There was wilderness just within the justifications of those gaining a profit by colonizing that country. Thus the premise of the above thesis builds upon a common construction of facts, not at all resembling them entirely truthfully.

"The settlers came. They were not stopped by anything. They came, first, for good land; and when gold was discovered, the gold-hunters joined the ranks of the land-hungry. First a trickle, then a torrent, the migration westward became a phenomenon in American history unique in numbers and distances. For fifty years the westward migration continued, until the good land from the Missouri to the Pacific was peopled, and the frontier was declared to be past tense[2]."

Writing history usually consists of two parts: firstly, of collecting so-called facts, and secondly, of interpreting them. The second step usually would create and sustain certain models of explanation; constructions in the mind of the interpreter; constructions which in turn but influence the collection of facts. Facts then are collected and arranged mostly according to a certain agenda; even if not consciously. This is just a by-product of our way of perceiving the world: Perception directs interpretation, interpretation in turn directs perception.

What Turner did was that he created a model for explaining American history; and while he might have described a certain phenomenon, such a thing itself, i.e. the frontier, existed mostly in the perceptions of the settlers and historians. This might also be illustrated by the way such theories materialize: They usually appear after a certain historical period has finished, they are being nurtured by a collection of facts leading into a specific direction. There is a lot of subjectivity in this approach; that's why the results are usually called theses and models - although society sometimes seems to ignore that, seems to ignore the artificial character of such constructions.

2. Prospects and Promise of the Frontier

2.1. An American History

"Among these German-trained historians [i.e. Turner's mentors], the dominant line of analysis used to explain the history of the United States was the 'germ theory', the notion that American institutions had evolved from European, specifically Teutonic, origins. [..] what was truly American was, as its root, truly Anglo-Saxon. But in that sense, of course, nothing was truly American. / To Turner, the frontier was[3]."

Writing a national history of course feeds on the need for the definition of a nation. With the United States declaring its political independence from Europe, the intellectual and cultural definition of what America means had to follow; de-finition also by delimiting from European ways, by erecting borders between what was seen as European and what was seen, or constructed, as more individualistic, as American[4]. When "In the minds of many people, it was Turner who finally put the 'American' in American history[5]", what does this mean? Was it necessary to stress the American specifications of such a history? And who is to define the criteria for such a process? In turn, the European view would have continued to stress the European legacy within America; as well as there have been movements trying to equal the concept of American culture with Anglo-Saxon culture. Both views would struggle against themselves; influencing themselves.

The result of such a discussion is an open discourse, and the results of subsequent discussions could very well be that once clear-cut separations and definitions would have to be re-evaluated, would have to get more facets, would have its limits and motivations exposed.

2.2. Land, Freedom and Pioneer Life

"The frontier was not simply a place; it was a recurring process that moved (or, to use Turner's more energetic terms, 'leaped' or 'skipped') across the continent in stages, leaving newly born societies to develop in its wake. / But most important of all, Turner argued, this process of frontier settlement promoted freedom, opportunity, and democracy. [..] On the frontier, common people were free to fashion new social and political relationships that reflected their desire for personal independence and local self-government. / Those relationships not only affected life in frontier settlements, they ultimately shaped the very nature of the nation[6]."

But maybe this frontier is not just that, maybe it's just nature - the great impression nature surely had made on the settlers and is also making today; the frontier would be the frontier between what civilization had achieved in destroying that nature and what was kept out of reach from Western civilization. But in America, as the settlers arrived, nature was still present in a breathtaking magnitude; mostly in contrast to Britain's cleared forests and the comparatively densely populated Europe.

What awaited the immigrants in the New World was a new life; new also in a way that it contained different forms of living. At the frontier of Western civilization, there was this relative wilderness which had to vanish in order for the colonies, and later for the new American states, to constitute themselves and to provide their population with soil to build their houses and towns on, with the frontier with its demands strongly promoting democracy.

Such a frontier, as I am using this term right now, demanded for certain very basic abilities. At the edge of civilization, or even far apart from it, there are not all the conveniences a civilized human being from the Western world would be used to; this would be a place where rank and birth would have no meaning. In that respect, the frontier presented the settlers with basically two things: cheap land and freedom; thus also democracy for any restriction of the freedom of the settlers wouldn't have helped the shaping of the society.

The frontier therefore also means kind of a loosely controlled anarchy; loosely meaning that less restrictions were there concerning rank and bending to authority. On the edge of civilization, the primal fight was not against bureaucracy but against death, immanent death. That also explains the wearing of weapons and forms of severe punishment. But the aspect of anarchy mostly would aim at the consequently conducted or inconsequently criticized injustices against the native population.

3. Hardships and Hard Facts

3.1. The Native American Question

A very hard fact of American history, related to the discourse of the frontier, is "... the killing of the Indians, which gave a 'clear land' where a 'new world' might be built[7]"- showing the consequences of the application of the colonization procedures.

"For two centuries, tribe after tribe had been forced westward, as treaties had been made and broken by the government with complete disregard of the Indians' rights.[8]"

This is mostly the anarchy I referred to, the anarchy of power - power used against the weak; power used because one was able to do so. There was just too little questioning about the righteousness of such an act, as there was too little questioning in the South about slavery. The pragmatism applied here is of history's most ugliest kind, forming a sharp contrast to the noble aims and intentions proclaimed when the first settlements were founded and when the Declaration of Independence was written.

"Within 19th-century America the policy of removing the Indians and, later, confining them to reservations, had in the background the collapse of differences, in the white mind, so that Apaches and Creeks, farming and hunting nations, Christianized and savage, were simply designated 'Indians' and subjected to a common fate. The very choice within a culture to attend to increasingly refined differences or to more and more inclusive categories is a political act for which the inner practice and memorization takes place informally and continuously.[9]"

To being able to perform such an act of removing a native population, justifications have to be created; justifications which would also create euphemisms to hide the consequences. One way to do it was to call this a war; and to pretend one would be just defending one's rights.

"The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land[10]."

This area of "free land" but is just a construction; it is misleading to the extreme. It is also showing complete and possibly intended misunderstanding of the Indians' modes of living and thinking. The noble ideas which had been circulating around were nothing new, they existed also in Europe, in fact, they originated from there to a large extent[11]. Another thing which was not new at all was classic territorial and adversarial thinking[12]; but what was new here in America was that the opponent, the Indians, were not able to resist the military force of the colonists.

This doesn't mean that this war against the Indians would have been one-sided; that's not true. "Indians were not perfect. However, they remain infinitely more sinned against than sinning[13]." The first thing then the colonists acquired in America might not have been freedom, might not have been land; for the land didn't belong to them, and the freedom came with the land they took; it might much more have been guilt.

3.2. Multiculturalism

Among the criticism against Turner's thesis, he is mostly criticized for not taking into detailed account influences of immigration, other directions of movement, the conflict between East and West, or the fast-paced urbanization and industrialization of America[14]. The frontier model might deliver some facets of the truth, but it is much too one-sidedly applied.

"Turner's picture of the independent frontiersman suggested an engaging, even comforting image, but it was hardly the portrait of the quintessential American[15]."

Not just with the territorial closing of the frontier other influences entered America; on the contrary. America has always been multi-national; the frontier was something preparing perhaps the first ground; but within the towns and cities which came into being when the frontier moved west-, north- or southwards, frontier or pioneer life was hardly determining daily routine. The frontier influence therefore seems to have been exaggerated quite a lot and ignores many other factors.

4. Impact on the American Character

4.1. What is a National Character?

Sometimes, words are either misleading or not leading enough; lacking contents when closely regarded. Such a word is "national character", such a word is first of all "nation", which inherits the germ principle of direct physical descendence[16]. So the first difficulty concerning America, concerning most modern states, is that such a definition wouldn't work anymore; although for instance citizenship law is still based upon such constructions in some countries.

With the United States, consisting of a multi-ethnical population, it is different: Nation doesn't any more have a connection with biological descendence[17]; for all inhabitants except Native Americans would be descending from immigrants. This makes it even more difficult to subject the population to one central national character; as there is nothing like a cultural history of America lasting as long as in other parts of the world. Well, there is, but just in recent years the Native American heritage has been accepted more willingly[18].

What is a national character then? Can a nation have character? Doesn't that lead to quite a gross oversimplification and ignorance of the individuality of a singular person? And even if such a model could be constructed, what practical use would it have? - For America, such a use could perhaps be found in the procedure per se: By defining a national character, by creating national habits and icons, a nation is created - thus fixing the problem referred to above. But it should be made clear that such a construction would always be of a very artificial nature and of limited use.

4.2. Frontier, Pragmatism and Manifest Destiny - What is American?

The contact of cultures[19] in America led to an intermixing of ideas and cultures unknown before; with the element of the frontier, however dubious its definition might be, having quite an impact on it:

"The wilderness masters the colonist. [..] at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish [..] Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe [..] here is a new product that is American[20]."

Potter speaks of "two composite images of the American [..] One depicts the American primarily as an individualist and an idealist, while the other makes him out as a conformist and a materialist[21]". Both might not be that contradictory at all; given the element of pragmatism which surely is an essential element of American culture - the frontier conditions asked for a strong individual which could shape what was understood as civilization out of what was seen as wilderness; the idealist element is necessary for such an act in that it needs quite a strong ideal to create something out of the void. A new man[22], a self-made man was needed for that; a new man able to begin something new.

The conformist and materialist element can be derived from the same situation: Shaping a new world also needs community; and naturally everything which has been made with one's bare hands is valued the highest in such a grim situation as could be found at the frontier.

What the frontier model is missing however is the religious level; the motivation and conviction that this was the promised land, the manifest destiny, that this was to be a City Upon a Hill[23].

5. Today's View

5.1. Views and Models of the Frontier

Today, our view of the frontier is influenced through our contemporary perspective. The historical frontier as such is gone; but it is being revived in Western movies. While at first the stress was layed upon the heroic deeds of the pioneers, soldiers or law-enforcement officers[24], the Indian position would later be dealt with more thoroughly[25].

Also within other genres such topics were and are being discussed, as within science fiction like Star Trek. Science fiction has the advantage of being able to say some things very bluntly: "We are participating in the outright theft of a world[26]."

Also, the discussion over cultural superiority or inferiority[27] has taken on new aspects, for instance with the 1960s movement, but also with modern science - as it is apparent now that the normal Western way of living, by fighting against nature, is about to destroy itself.

The frontier as a compelling element is still being cited frequently; the search for frontiers is a search for new challenges[28].

5.2. Validity of Constructions

Society is controlling the discourse of reality by means of selection and exclusion[29]; therefore creating artificial constructions to being able to deal with reality. Sometimes, those constructions are becoming much more powerful, hiding their constructed nature. But models and theses like that of the frontier are just that, artificial constructions. However, without a somehow "real" basis, they wouldn't have come into existence. Models are always simplifications; applications of a theory. Keeping in mind this artificiality and the limitations of the model, it can unfold its meaning more honestly. And with deconstructing its structure, agendas or motivations behind the forming of the model might be uncovered, adding new depth to the specific context.

The frontier isn't gone yet. It is still in the minds of the people and, together with the influences a multitude of cultures is bringing to the New World, still shaping America.

6. Appendix

6.1. Selected Bibliography

  • William Apess. "An Indian's Looking--Glass for the White Man"(1833). Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 430-435
  • Dee Brown. The American West. N.Y.: Touchstone 1994
  • J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. "What is an American?" Letters from an American Farmer. 1782
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The American Scholar" (1837). Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 467-480
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Self-Reliance" (1841). Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 492-508
  • Philip Fisher. Hard Facts. Setting and Form of the American Novel. N.Y.: Oxford University Press 1985
  • Michel Foucault. Die Ordnung des Diskurses. Frankfurt: Fischer 1991, 11 (L'ordre du discours. Paris: Gallimard 1972)
  • Gregory H. Nobles. American Frontiers. Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. NY: Hill and Wang 1997
  • Marian Wallace Ney. Indian America. A Geography of North American Indians. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Publications 1977
  • David Potter. "The Quest for the National Character" (1962). Don E. Fehrenbacher (Ed.). History and Society: Essays of D. Potter. NY: 1973. 228-255
  • Frederick Jackson Turner. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". C. Merton Babcock. The American Frontier. A social and literary record. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1965. 29-42
  • John Winthrop. "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630/1838). Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 101-112

6.2. Internet Sources

6.2. Endnotes

[1] Turner 30
[2] Brown 29
[3] Nobles 5f
[4] "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. [..] A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men" Emerson, "The American Scholar" 479f
[5] Nobles 7
[6] Nobles 7
[7] Fisher 5
[8] Brown 81
[9] Fisher 4f
[10] Turner 31
[11] as with philosophers like Locke
[12] "Is it not on the account of a bad principle that we who are red children have had to suffer so much as we have? And let me ask: Did not this bad principle proceed from the whites or their forefathers?" Apess 431
[13] Ney 4
[14] Nobles 9f
[15] Nobles 10
[16] Latin natio: birth, origin; tribe, nation; breed, class (from nasci: giving birth, to be descended from; to originate from; to become)
[17] "ubi panis ibi patria" Crèvecoeur, "What is an American?"
[18] " The Europeans-become-Americans enjoyed the technical triumph; the Indians, we begin to see, won the spiritual battle. [..] Tecumseh, Osceola, Joseph, Plenty Coups, Red Cloud, and all the others are our leaders as well. We may not know that consciously yet, but we reveal an unconscious understanding in inadvertant ways. As one example, the United States Army paratroopers of World War II, when jumping into combat, did not call on formal gods, country, wives or sweethearts, mothers or fathers. The word they cried out as they leaped from their planes, their last word for all they knew, given into the wind as both defiance of the enemy and prayer for life, was 'Geronimo!' The Indian as myth-god-protector could not ask for deeper recognition, greater respect" Ney 4f
[19] Nobles 19ff
[20] Turner 32
[21] Potter 231
[22] " He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced [..] He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of man [..] The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions." Crèvecoeur, "What is an American?"
[23] Winthrop 111, quoted from Matthew 5.14-15
[24] like in Rio Grande (1950), High Noon (1952), The Alamo (1960)
[25] like in Geronimo (1962), Dances With Wolves (1990)
[26] Star Trek: Insurrection. The film deals with the forceful relocation of the population of a planet to use it for profit. The parallels to American history in this picture are obvious, and the differences between moral standards and actual deeds are being made a central theme which Star Trek has frequently been using
[27] "Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. [..] What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American [..] and the naked New Zealander [..] But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that his aboriginal strength the white man has lost. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave." Emerson, "Self-Reliance" 506f
[28] as e.g. demonstrated by Star Trek's motto: "space - the final frontier"
[29] Foucault 11

March 6th, 1999

© Phil John Kneis. all rights reserved   · - internet diary · poetry · serial photography
The Arts Circle