The American Frontier:
History, Rhetoric, Concept

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2007, Volume 6, Issue 1

Catherine Gouge
West Virginia University

“Our governments will remain virtuous . . . as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be lands in any part of America. When they [the people] get piled upon another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another”

–Thomas Jefferson
in a letter to James Madison (1787)


“Frontiers breed frontiers.”

–Archer Butler Hulbert
Frontiers: The Genius of American Nationality (1929)

Just over a century ago, the American Historical Association held its annual meeting in conjunction with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As the site of both Frederick Jackson Turner’s legendary speech, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and the celebration of the Exposition in Chicago as the “horizontal” “White City” of “the future,” this provocative affiliation was meaningful for many reasons – most notably, for what each suggested about what it meant to be “American” in 1893. Turner’s speech at that World’s Fair not only lamented the official closing of the American frontier by the Census Bureau in 1890 but was obsessed with the role of the frontier in the formation of a distinctly “American” national identity. According to Turner, the value of the landscape of the American frontier West had been that the promise of it made “American” a meaningful identity category. It had, according to him, “called out” “intellectual” traits like “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness” (36). Indeed, in Turner’s account, the frontier had been both a virtually unpopulated place with agricultural promise (the “Garden of the World”) and an idea of a space with infinite resources and the promise to yield a discrete American national identity. On one level, then, Turner’s anxieties were about the closing of a physical, locatable frontier place, the American West; and on another level, his anxiety was about the closing of a frontier “of mind” – a fear of loss of an imaginative space that could rhetorically and conceptually structure American nationalism.

According to the Exposition, however, also considered distinctly “American” in 1893 were certain technological accomplishments – all of which were a part of the later stages of Turner’s history of American sociopolitical development and, therefore, contributors to the closing of the frontier. In celebration of this technological “progress,” the Colombian Exposition in Chicago had more lighting at the time than any city in the country, hence the nickname the “White City.” The concurrent celebrations of the “natural” promise of the American frontier and of the technological drama of electrical lighting were, furthermore, accompanied by a celebration of the “horizontal city” with cityscapes like those in late-nineteenth century London and Paris where most of the buildings were five stories or fewer and all were accessible on foot. Such a quilting of commemorations is interesting because it appears to map contradictory celebrations: distinctly “American” ecology, distinctly “American” technology, and distinctly un-American, “old world” city planning. The horizontal White City on the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair was, however, a quite fitting, albeit somewhat ironic, venue for Turner to deliver a speech lamenting the official “closing” of the American frontier West, for as it would turn out the pronouncement of one “American” frontier closed would be the advent of many more proclaimed “open.”


Shifting Notions of the Frontier and the Frontier Subject

The century following Turner’s address witnessed a shift from Americans primarily pursuing frontier places on the North American continent (like the American West) to naming and engaging with figurative frontier spaces as well (like cyberspace and sociopolitical and intellectual spaces). Attesting to the popularity of Turner’s belief that our interaction with the originary frontier is the bedrock of American exceptionalism, many in the twentieth century were quite outspoken, if not defensive, about the allegedly ridiculous “closed-frontier argument.” For example, in response to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pronouncements about the closing of the frontier in his “Commonwealth Club” speech of 1932, Herbert Hoover identified Democrats’ closed-frontier “explanations for the depression and their big-government-centered plans to alleviate it as a lack of faith in capitalism and in America itself” (qtd. in Wrobel 136). The American frontier place in the West might have been said not to exist any longer by the 1890 Census, but American frontier spaces were imagined to be everywhere: “There are vast continents awaiting us of thought, of research, of discovery, of industry, of human relations, potentially more prolific of human comfort than even the Boundless West” (Hoover, qtd. in Wrobel 136). Perhaps because the concept of the frontier was so versatile and could be so easily invoked to justify economic and political calls to action and condemn those who were allegedly inactive, both liberals and conservatives have preserved the notion of a frontierist foundation of American exceptionalism and gone so far as to promise that “frontiers breed frontiers,” as Archer Butler Hulbert wrote in Frontiers: The Genius of American Nationality (1929). The frontier spirit is alive and well, Hulbert wrote, as Americans continue to pioneer “intellectual, social, and political” frontiers (246).

Anchoring his political platform to a presumed desire for frontierism, John F. Kennedy spoke of the “New Frontier” during his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination in 1960:

We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier – the frontier of the 1960s – a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils – a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. . .The new Frontier is here whether we seek it or not. Beyond are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus . . . [which] demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking you to be pioneers on the New Frontier. (qtd. in Limerick 81)

Kennedy uses a metaphoric proliferation here to incite the American public to see their roles in the political activity of the nation in frontierist terms. In some ways, this works against the postulates Hoover voices since Hoover was using the rhetoric of the frontier to “comfort” the nation by emphasizing the abundance of resources (intellectual and industrial) in figurative frontiers. Kennedy’s proclamation, however, became a typical application of frontierist thinking and rhetoric for twentieth-century Americans; and over the course of the twentieth-century, many frontiers, both physical and figurative, were located and claimed by American culture: Antarctica, Mars, cyberspace, Velcro and Teflon (and a myriad other scientific and technological advances). With this proliferation came a corresponding shift from anxieties about colonizing the American frontier West to anxieties about exploring and colonizing other loosely defined “spaces” as “frontiers.” In fact, because so many different “spaces” have been labeled frontiers, defining “frontier” has become quite a challenging enterprise. Indeed, as Patricia Nelson Limerick argues, “elasticity and confused weaving formed the originary frontier’s] one constant characteristic” (77). Essentially, the shift has been from a preoccupation with the originary American frontier to often geographically unlocatable figurative frontiers, defined not as places but as dynamic socioeconomic and political spaces. This shift emphasizes the value of the concept of the frontier to popular notions of American exceptionalism and, thus, to the boundaries of American citizenship.

Turner’s 1893 speech at the Exposition was one of the earliest markers of this shifting notion of the frontier. Consequently, Turner’s claim that the frontier created “Americans” had a strong impact on twentieth-century American historical debates which for a long time meant that frontier historians had to position themselves in relation to Turner’s ideas. Even so, the actual speech itself at the Exposition did not receive much of a response from the public who attended. Historian Robert Kyff notes that “the paper Turner read that warm July evening. . .received] only a lukewarm reception” from those present (52). In contrast to the architectural and technological displays, members of Turner’s audience may have found the closed-frontier narrative a little depressing. Since Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the frontier had been supposed to offer Americans the promise of unlimited resources. What the American public and early twentieth-century historians, however, would shortly after find so apropos about Turner’s lament was, in fact, its potential answer to the nation’s economic and sociopolitical anxieties and, consequently, to their doubts about national identity. Kyff writes that Turner’s ideas

so captured the imagination of the American people. . .[because they] suited perfectly the temperament of the 1890s. The rapid rise of industrialism, immigration, and urbanization, the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age, the economic depression of 1893, and farmers’ revolts and labor unrest such as the Homestead and Pullman strikes, had created a widespread feeling of anxiety in the nation, triggering a nostalgic longing for the agrarian past. (57)

Precisely because of this cultural climate, in fact, the American public might have found something consoling in Turner’s talk. By deriving the American “spirit” from experiences with the frontier, Turner implied the potential for that spirit to survive – if future frontiers could be located or even, as the technological accomplishments displayed at the fair suggested, created. Indeed, the imagination of the American people would, for the most part, reconfigure the American frontier as Turner had – as an utopian ideal of unlimited resources, a safety-valve for socioeconomic pressures.

Because the originary American frontier of Turner’s speech had been declared officially closed at the end of the nineteenth century, frontier narratives of the twentieth century more explicitly illustrated the role of the imagination in the creation of frontier spaces and the extension of the frontier concept to other, often figurative, frontierist spaces. Thus, in spite of the fact that the frontier West was declared “closed” by the Census Bureau for having more than two people per square mile, the significance of mobilizing frontier ventures as a way of defining American nationalism would be deeply felt by the public and reenacted in the nation’s literary, scientific, technological, political, and social projects throughout the twentieth century. What, then, could have been a more fitting site for Turner’s speech than a “city of the future,” a monument to technological innovation that suggested that Americans could participate in future figurative frontiers? What would have been more apropos for defining America’s future, its break from the past, than a site which included an imperial appropriation of the European horizontal city bordered by a few neoclassical domes and covered in lights in such excess that, as an 1886 article in the Journal of the Franklin Institute imagined, “the crude buildings hurriedly erected without any attempts at finish for a temporary purpose, were transformed into a temple of light, which at the first glimpse evoked expressions of delight from every beholder” (Nye 121)?

In effect, the Exposition proved to be the perfect corollary to Turner’s anxiety. Rather than demonstrating that this “story of the West [would] end with progress killing its parents” (White 46), the Columbian Exposition countered Turner’s concern about the future of America by unveiling that future. Throwing into relief Turner’s and his contemporaries’ uneasiness in the aftermath of a deep economic depression, the Exposition insinuated through such a display that, indeed, there would be future frontiers. It suggested, in fact, that the future would be synonymous with “progressing” in and exploring what would later be called technological and scientific “frontiers.” Turner’s address accompanied by the Exposition thus functioned as a call for figurative frontiers, future “open road[s]” where “the game [could] be played according to the rules. . .no artificial stifling of equality of opportunity, no closed doors to the able, no stopping the free game before it was played to the end” (Turner 342). In some ways, the legacy of this “free game” would be, as David Nye notes in American Technological Sublime (1996), an “historical narrative . . .emerging with the technological sublime: from discovery to conquest, the explorer giving way to the engineer” (83). Instead of marking the end of the American frontier, then, Turner’s speech at the 1893 World’s Fair proved to be one of America’s foundational frontier narratives in which he implicitly asked, “Now where do we go?” – an anxiety John Steinbeck’s “Leader of the People” echoes in 1938 when an old homesteader in the story fears that the “westering” process is over and there is “no place left to go.”

Nearly thirty years after the 1893 Exposition, Turner himself pointed readers of The Frontier in American History (1920) toward future figurative frontier spaces: “In place of old frontiers of wilderness,” he wrote, “there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science, fruitful for the needs of the race; there are frontiers of better social domains yet unexplored” (300). And just a year after the publication of Steinbeck’s short story, the 1939 American public was treated to a glimpse of “future” technological frontiers at the World’s Fair in New York with the theme “Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today” which included pavilions run by Ford, GM, AT&T, General Electric, Chrysler, and B.F. Goodrich. Similar to frontier-seeking Americans, Nye notes that at the Fair in New York “visitors were active rather than passive, they inhabited the future rather than the present, and they could identify with consumption rather than attempt to understand production” (215). Nye’s account emphasizes the way in which individuals attending the 1939 World’s Fair (and the post-Fordist American public generally speaking) were constructed as consumers and identifies the progression of the shift in the ways in which the “productive” American citizen was defined in relation to future frontiers.

Indeed, as American culture made the transition from a pre-industrial production economy to a post-industrial consumerist one, there was a corresponding shift in emphasis in constructions of the frontier subject so that by the end of the twentieth century, an American frontier settler is no longer defined by a “creative” or “productive” relationship to the frontier. Still primarily defined as male and white, the frontier subject in the post-originary frontier period of American history is now also one who consumes the products of figurative frontier ventures (electrical lighting, cars, Velcro, computers). Perhaps to facilitate such an identification, the New York World’s Fair situated consumable objects in a landscape of consumption. Nye argues that such landscapes were a “detailed response” to the Great Depression. He writes that

the successful exhibits [like Ford’s ‘Road of Tomorrow’] did not address these concerns [about jobs, money, success] directly; rather, they immersed visitors in what Victor Turner calls a liminal state. . .And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission? (215)

Interestingly, Victor Turner’s “liminal state” shares many frontierist qualities and is characterized by “a relatively undifferentiated . . . community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders,” an allegedly transitional or interstitial position (91). Individuals at the 1939 World’s Fair, even more so than those at the 1893 Fair, were thus encouraged to see their potential roles in pursuing future frontiers of technological developments, “unwon fields of science” (Kennedy), and “better social domains” (Kennedy) in consumerist terms: follow the corporate "elders" (Victor Turner) into a consumerist future and your employment and cash-flow concerns will be magically resolved.

The notion of participating in frontier ventures as a consumer was not, of course, an entirely new concept in 1939. Richard Hakluyt’s “Discourse of Western Planting” (1584) and other colonial promotional literature, for example, had presented America as a land from which resources could be extracted and consumed. However, the post-originary frontier period in America witnessed a resurgence in promotional texts which identified the frontier subject primarily with “his” function as a consumer – a phenomenon attributable to the national desire to “open” figurative frontiers. Anchoring figurative frontier ventures to consumerism makes a great deal of sense in a post-Fordist economy since it serves both the American nation-states’ need to preserve a notion of American exceptionalism and industry’s need to sustain itself through promoting consumption. Increasingly throughout the twentieth century, America’s figurative frontier subjects would thus continue to be defined as consumers of man-made resources rather than “natural” ones. Furthermore, over the course of the century, language based on a production model (“invent, build, and put to work”) would increasingly be transposed onto discussions about social “spaces,” frequently in late capitalism to encourage the public to identify as consumers of the products of “new” sociopolitical technologies, not producers.

Lewis Corey argued in The Decline of American Capitalism (1934) that the “‘expansion of the frontier’ had ensured the growth of capitalism in America, and the industrial boom of the 1920s had sustained its growth” (qtd. in Wrobel 139). Indeed, supporting the expansion of capitalism, a great many twentieth-century texts (artistic, historical, political, etc.) have further defined and named frontiers for the American public in consumerist terms. The American media have sold everything from outer space to cyberspace to Velcro to pizza delivery services as vehicles for participating in a national, collective frontier venture, a way of allegedly increasing our power both as individuals and as citizens of an increasing powerful and wealthy, capitalist American nation-state. These pronouncements of literal and figurative frontier ventures work in the service of an ideology of frontierism which insists that we must continue to be consumerist frontier subjects – and we therefore must continue to name and pursue various frontiers in science, technology, physical spaces, and bodily spaces – or cease to be “American.”

Indeed, late-twentieth century narratives of travel through outer and cyberspaces use the discourse of exploration and empire building to invoke romantic Turnerian associations of exploring and settling the American frontier West and, ultimately, rewrite what exploration and empire-building are; and some narratives which work to expand the boundaries of American citizenship to create a space for excluded minority groups do so by anchoring the identity category to a frontierist fiction. Such narratives emphasize, as Turner’s did over a century before, the displacement of the “American dream” of unlimited resources to a space that is always just beyond, emphasizing the ways in which frontiers regulate a psychic national identity which structures itself through a frontierist episteme. Feeding this national self-regard, Ronald Reagan proclaimed at an Independence Day celebration in 1982 that the “conquest of new frontiers is a crucial part of our national character” (qtd. in Limerick 84). To put it simply, as inheritors of this investment in the power of the frontier, to be “American” in the late-twentieth century, or so the logic goes, we need frontiers. Consequently, even the rhetoric of twentieth-century American narratives of “new” frontier spaces imports an ideology of the originary American frontier which is predicated on the assumption that exploring and colonizing frontier spaces has been integral to the formation of a distinctly American national identity.


Histories of the Frontier

Historical accounts of the originary frontier theorize, either explicitly or implicitly, Americans’ relationship to the land in the American frontier West and other so-called frontier spaces. These theories support Turner’s notion that Americans’ collective relationship to frontier spaces is essential to an understanding of what the identity category “American” signifies. For the most part, the representations fall into one or more of the following categories: frontier as a safety-valve; frontier as a site of closeness and conflict; and frontier as a space of unlimited, unexploited resources. This is not to say, however, that the ideas of one frontier scholar might not fall into more than one category; nor do I mean to suggest that they ideas of any one of them fit neatly into one category that I have listed. My catalogue is not meant to be exhaustive nor evaluate presentist concerns. Such a catalogue simply allows us to examine the range of responses to the originary “American” frontier in the last century so that we can better understand the ideological force of the concept of the frontier on turn-of-the-twentieth century narratives of American national identity.

A. Frontier as Safety-Valve

In many ways Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas can be traced to Jeffersonian agrarianism. In fact, at the time of Turner’s speech at the Exposition, he was certainly not the first to narrate the transformative power of the “American” landscape to produce a national identity – serving as an escape from the cluttered “old world,” purifying and, therefore, transforming European colonists. Over a century before Turner’s speech, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) proclaimed that the European colonist “leaves behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners. . .[and becomes] a new man who acts upon new principles. . . .the simple cultivation of the earth purifies them” (7). Crevecoeur demonstrates an intense investment in the transformative powers of the land. In fact, Leo Marx notes that “without this sense of landscape as a cardinal metaphor of value, the Letters could not have been written” (110). However, the ultimate value of the frontier for Crevecoeur lay in its function as a safety-valve for the non-frontier, more heavily-populated eastern portions of the United States and Europe.

Likewise, Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the purifying American landscape also anticipates over-population concerns that Turner would find to be of critical importance at the turn of the nineteenth century. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson insisted that American “governments” would “remain virtuous . . . as long as they are chiefly agricultural” (qtd. in Wrobel 6). This virtue, he further argued, was dependent on the free lands which would not last forever. And “when they [the people] get piled upon another in large cities, as in Europe,” Jefferson wrote, “they will become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another.” The cannibalistic outcome of the loss of free lands suggests, ironically, that the end result of a “civilizing” process is “savagery,” and that because resources in a civilized territory are so scarce, a Hobbesian war of all against all ensues. It suggests, furthermore, that the closeness and dense population of an urban landscape may remain relatively “civil” as long as there is an accessible open space to relieve the pressure of so many people. Also equating a “virtuous” or “civil condition” with open space, Hegel wrote of America in the early 1820s that “the continuation of the existing civil condition there is guaranteed . . . .[until] the immeasurable space which that country presents to its inhabitants shall have been occupied” (85-87). Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became familiar with Turner’s ideas while at Harvard, lamented in a Commonwealth address in 1932 that “our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. . . . There is no safety-valve in the form of a Western Prairie to which those thrown out of work by Eastern machines can go for a new start” (qtd. in Jacobs 111). This lament was, as I noted earlier, part of his explanation for the Great Depression.

Responding to the nature/civilization dichotomy such accounts imply, Henry Nash Smith writes that “the capital difficulty of the American agrarian tradition is that it accepted the paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization as a general principle of historical and social interpretation” (260). Significantly, this general principle is at the heart of the many romanticized images of the frontier which elide the sociopolitical and economic contradictions of frontier ventures and liberal democracy. Even Turner felt some responsibility to acknowledge these contradictions, and so while he frequently noted the transformative power of an agrarian wilderness in what he called the “Middle West” of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, he also lamented the consequences of “destructive competition” (among “wheat states,” for example), which Crevecoeur and Jefferson did not live to see.

Indeed, while Turner may have been more invested in a “stable-agricultural” type of frontier place than an “unstable-extractive” one, as Michael Malone argues in Historians and the American West (1983), for the most part Turner posited that the virtually utopian promise of the frontier was that it had been a space with unlimited intellectual resources characterized by a “healthy” sense of competition:

To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquistitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that bouyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. (36)

Turner here posits a causative logic. He suggests that for engaging in such a space of unlimited intellectual resources, Americans are rewarded with intellectual traits such as “acuteness and inquisitiveness,” “bouyancy and exuberance.” Furthermore, such rewards can be “called out,” significantly for Turner’s thesis, merely because of the “existence of the frontier” “elsewhere.” Indeed, simply having a frontier space “there” – “somewhere,” or believing that it is – was clearly central to Turner’s sense of the creation of an American national identity and history. Exploring and settling the American frontier wilderness was certainly not for everyone (including Turner, many historians note), but the result of the efforts of an “adventurous” minority individually realizing their identities as “pioneers,” Turner claims, is a nation collectively solidifying its identity as “practical” and “inventive” with a paradoxically “dominant individualism, working for good and evil” and a “masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends.” According to Turner’s argument, then, which considered only white male American colonists as frontier protagonists, the frontier space in the West functioned comprehensively in relation to the non-frontier space in North America – it allowed for the formation of a distinctly American national identity.

While Turner argued that the process of Americanization might be “called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier,” he had claimed that the frontier “line” marks the furthest advance of this process. Indeed, he posited that “the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization” (3-4). At the same time, however, the power of the frontier West to signify “American,” according to this thesis, must be evoked through the European colonists’ interaction with it. “Moving westward,” Turner writes, “the frontier became more and more American” (4). National coherence, according to Turner’s foundational frontier narrative, is thus predicated both on the promise of “free land” and on the process of that land mastering and being mastered by “dominant individuals.” This anticipates Edward Soja’s assertion nearly a century later that “social life must be seen as both space-forming and space contingent, a producer and product of spatiality” (Postmodern Geographies 129). Furthermore, “Spaces, times, and places are relationally defined by processes,” David Harvey writes, “they are contingent upon the attributes of processes that simultaneously define and shape what is customarily referred to as ‘environment’” (Justice 263). The dynamic relationship between the process of acculturation and “environment” that Harvey describes expands Turner’s representation of the interrelationship between the “American” landscape and “American” identity to include time and space, implying a tension between space and place. The ideology of the originary frontier proposes, then, that just as the frontier makes inhabitants of the United States “American” we make the frontier American through our interaction with it in an historically specific context – one which Turner surprisingly repressed.

In arguing for the role of “frontier conditions” (37) in the creation of a certain kind of democratic frontier subject which he called “American,” Turner chronicles the development of that subject formation and credits this process with the formation of our allegedly democratic political ideals and sense of American exceptionalism. To this end, he writes that “this at least is clear: American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West” (266). In this way, he develops a frontierist theory which posits that the influence of the existence of “free” land extends to a political economy and acknowledges a crucial socio-spatial dialectic. As Harvey writes,

The Jeffersonian land system, with its repetitive mathematical grid that still dominates the landscape of the United States, sought the rational partitioning of space so as to promote the formation of an agrarian democracy. In practice this proved admirable for capitalist appropriation of and speculation in space, subverting Jefferson’s aims, but it also demonstrates how a particular definition of objective social space facilitated the rise of a new kind of social order. (Justice 240)

Thus, while Turner argued that “so long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power” (32), he might as well have said, "So long as a frontier exists for appropriation and speculations," both literal and figurative. Indeed, the frontierist socio-spatial dialectic which Turner articulates did “facilitate the rise of a new kind of social order.” It assisted the growth of capitalism in the United States. This romantic narrative of a frontierist socio-spatial dialectic is, in fact, advanced by many post-originary American frontier narratives which attempt to naturalize the contradictions of the economic and political imperatives of liberal democracy.

Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950) – the first widely-recognized revisionist history of frontier narratives – identifies many other inconsistencies in Turner’s thesis, some attributable to the mythic quality of his narrative. This fictional and mythic narrative elided a number of American “realities” which often resulted in socioeconomic conflict. Although in Smith’s version of American Studies identifying something as a myth does not necessarily connote disapprobation, with regard to Turner the designation is not a positive one. Smith writes that in Turner’s narrative of the West, “We have been transferred from the plane of the economist’s abstractions to a plane of metaphor, even of myth – for the American forest has become an enchanted wood” (253). Furthermore, Smith recognizes,

The image of this vast and constantly growing agricultural society in the interior of the continent became one of the dominant symbols of nineteenth-century America – a collective representation, a poetic idea (as Tocqueville noted in the early 1830s) that defined the promise of American life. (123)

While this Turnerian myth, with roots in an eighteenth-century Jeffersonian agrarian tradition, proposes that colonists could, indeed should, maintain a harmonious union with the land, Smith points out the ways in which Turner’s representation did more to compromise our union with the land than it did to enable it. According to Smith, Turner’s “Myth of the Garden” negatively affected farming legislation so that when applied to the arid trans-Mississippi, the myth of a fertile garden prevented much-needed reform of the public land system. Furthermore, Smith writes,

Agrarian theory encouraged men to ignore the industrial revolution . . . . The covert distrust of the city and of everything connected with industry that is implicit in the myth of the garden has impeded cooperation between farmers and factory workers in more than one crisis of our history (259).

Ultimately, Smith asserts an interest in agrarian ideals while recognizing, more explicitly than Turner, the real effects of the imagination on land value. Smith’s analysis, in fact, draws our attention to the importance of considering the ways in which the often romantic Turnerian version of the role of the frontier minimizes significant realities of frontier places – people, climate, and resources.

Wilbur Jacobs, in a study of the influence of Turner’s ideas in the twentieth century, observes that Turner was terribly concerned with Malthus’ predictions of over-population and notes that Turner “heavily marked” his copy of Warren S. Thompson’s conclusion in Population: A Study in Malthusianism (1915) that “Malthus was essentially correct.” In Turner’s 1903 essay, “Contributions of the West to Democracy,” he further demonstrated that his concerns about the closing of the frontier were, in large part, concerns about the influence of high-density population on sociopolitical conditions and the seriousness of a loss of “free land.”

Indeed, as much as Turner proclaimed the power of the wilderness to transform and purify, his motivation for doing so may have been, in effect, more influenced by Social Darwinism and Malthusian concerns about over-population than Jeffersonian agrarian ideals. Like his predecessors, Turner understood one of the primary benefits of “free land” to be its function as a safety valve for over-population in eastern portions of the continent. Perhaps in response to the national anxiety surrounding the official closing of the frontier, in 1890 and 1893 alone, seventeen million acres of Native American land was reallocated by the U.S. government, taken away from the Sioux and Cherokee and made available for U.S. settlement. The massacre, or “battle,” of Wounded Knee, which followed the “repossession” of eleven million acres of South Dakota land from the Sioux, effectively ended Native American resistance to U.S. settlement in North America. One strategy used by Turner to imply that the public viewed the frontier West as a free space was to refer to Native Americans only in passing as the “Indian question” (9) and, thus, effectively elide those “Americans” who had already been inhabiting various portions of the continent when Europeans arrived to colonize it.

Whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East, whenever capital tended to press upon labor or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was the gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier. . . . The free lands are gone. (qtd. in Jacobs 111)

As Turner’s lament acknowledges, the alleged “free lands” of the frontier were imagined by many to be a route of “escape” from sociopolitical and economic “pressures” created by high-density population. This ideology of escapism persists today in many popular narratives as one of the primary motivations for desiring access to both figurative and literal frontier spaces.

B. Frontier as a Site of Closeness and Conflict

In The Frontier Experience and the American Dream (1989), a collection of essays about the frontier in American literature, David Mogen defines the American frontier West as the “conflict between an Old and New world.” In the same collection, Mark Busby writes of the frontier as “a cluster of images and values that grew out of confrontation.” Similarly, when Turner defines the frontier early in his speech as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (3), he suggests that characterizing the frontier is not quite as simple as idealizing the immense space and ecological conditions of the frontier and assigning value to the “free lands.” In fact, as many revisionist projects have documented, this “meeting point” involved much more than a “meeting” of different cultures, and it was hardly as simple as marking a “line of progress,” as Turner had also suggested. Beginning as early as the 1920s, revisionist historians have responded to and critiqued Turner’s ideas explicitly to explore the West as a political and ecological space. While Turner was definitely interested in the promise of the frontier to effect great sociopolitical and economic change “back East,” he was relatively uninterested in the complex and often troubling sociopolitical conditions of the frontier space in the West. For example, as I discussed earlier, he seemed relatively untroubled by rhetorically and imaginatively containing Native Americans and African American pioneers, referring to them only in passing and infrequently.

In the second half of the twentieth-century, historians of the West became increasingly more interested in examining the conflict and power imbalance in the Western region. In 1962 Jack Forbes began a campaign to define the frontier as “an inter-group contact situation,” “an instance of dynamic interaction between human beings,” involving “such processes as accumulation, assimilation, miscegenation, race prejudice, conquest, imperialism, and colonization” (207, 205). Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1975) responds indirectly to this call as well as to Smith’s call for alternate ways of understanding our relationship to the land by examining the conflicting images of a feminized landscape in American texts of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Kolodny identifies that most characterizations of the West either posit it as an eroticized “virgin land” or as a regressively desired “maternal land.” Neither is an appropriate representation of our relationship to this land, according to Kolodny, since both incite aggressive and, therefore, unacceptable desires.

While she explicitly discusses Turner’s ideas only briefly, Kolodny notes that The Frontier in American History is guilty of the same feminizing tendencies she identifies in other frontier literature. In “Contributions to American Democracy,” she notes that Turner narrativizes the masculine pioneer’s relationship to his virgin/mother land as such:

European men, institutions, and ideas were lodged in the American wilderness, and this great American West took them to her bosom, taught them a new way of looking upon the destiny of the common man, trained them in adaptation to the conditions of the New World, to the creation of new institutions to meet new needs; and ever as society on her eastern border grew to resemble the Old World in its social forms and its industry, ever, as it began to lose faith in the ideals of democracy, she opened new provinces, and dowered new democracies in her most distant domains with her material treasures and with the enobling influence that the fierce love of freedom, the strength that came from hewing out a home, making a school and a church, and creating a higher future for his family, furnished to the pioneer. (emphasis mine; 267)

According to Kolodny, Turner’s representation of a feminized virgin landscape – always and already beyond our grasp – calls forth an aggressive and possessive desire which is unrealizable and will, therefore, according to Kolodny, lead to a more general desire to master the feminine. While such descriptions were common in depictions of land other than North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, what Americans need, Kolodny asserts, quoting Richard Hakluyt, is “a radically new symbolic mode for relating to [the frontier,] ‘the fairest, frutefullest, and pleasauntest [land] of all the worlde’” (148).

Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973) further and forcefully recognizes the violence in the American frontier mythology. He acknowledges that early colonists conceived of America as a land of opportunity with regenerative powers – politically, spiritually, economically. But, he argues, “the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience” (5). Similarly, Patricia Nelson Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987) focuses more on the Native American/ white conflict in the West and posits the frontier West as a place, not a process as she says Turner had argued. Limerick explicitly constructs the conflict as a racial conflict (Native American vs. white) rather than as a conflict of national identity (the various Native American national identities vs. European). She writes that “if Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate” (54). She further asserts that this particular real estate, however, is “symbolic of a source of disunion, of bi-racial conflict between whites and Indians” (54).

Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) not only defines the frontier as “borderlands” characterized by closeness and conflict, but notes that this conflict and confrontation witnessed by the frontier was economic as well as cultural. Indeed, Anzaldua draws our attention to the economic and political contradictions of liberal democracy which narratives of frontiers often attempt to naturalize. She writes that

the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper-classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy. . . .Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape. (19)

Anzaldua’s representation emphasizes a frontier characterized by “intimacy” and suggests that we could name any space of such socio-economic confrontation a “borderland” or frontier. Indeed, the “hatred, anger and exploitation” of the frontier dynamic remain some of the most troubling effects of frontier ideology and experience in late-twentieth century frontier spaces.

C. Frontier as a Space with Unlimited, Unexploited Resources

While the terms of the debate have shifted somewhat over the last 100 years and while there has been much disagreement over the characteristics and problematics of frontier economics, the imagined economic potential of frontier spaces has long been identified as a primary motivation for frontier exploration. In 1959 Richard Wade argued for the significance of urban economics on the frontier in Urban Frontiers, a book that Zane Miller’s introduction calls “the most devastating critique of Turner yet published” (xviii) – in spite of the fact that Wade considered himself a Turnerian historian and initially expected his project to confirm Turner’s ideas. According to Wade, cities did not follow the settlement process in the frontier as Turner had argued. He concludes that St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Columbus were cities which for many years lay far beyond the line of western settlement, and maintains that this omission from western histories is a serious one because it underestimated the settlers’ ability to master their own economic fates. This debate played out in interesting ways with the construction of the transcontinental railway in the middle of the nineteenth century. Some argued that the rail should be laid to make the Western farmers “count” from a mercantilist point of view; others argued that the settlers should be allowed to create a need for the railway first. “Turner’s frontier,” William Cronon argues in Nature’s Metropolis (1991), “far from being an isolated rural society, was in fact the expanding edge of the boosters’ urban empire . . . . Frontier and metropolis turn out to be two sides of the same coin” (51).

The economic intimacy between frontier and metropolis that Cronon notes is implicit in Turner’s assertion that the frontier was most valuable precisely at the moment when it shifts from a “savage” state – as the untamed, unexploited wilderness – to a “civilized” state – economically productive, and connected, communities. This liminal state is interestingly a virtually pre-capitalist state which precedes the permanent settlements and connecting technologies. Furthermore, this construction recognizes the bedrock motivation for all colonial ventures which is, of course, resource extraction for the benefit of consumers in the non-frontier. While James Folsom asserts that the frontier is “a land of heart’s desire, untainted by the commercial values of the present,” many late-twentieth century historians have argued just the opposite. Frontier economics, in fact, only promised to be an ideal economy of equality; for many, opportunity was hardly equal. Even for European Americans, as Gregory Nobles notes, “Most people came poor and stayed poor. By almost all accounts, living conditions in settlements would quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that the early frontier was a land of opportunity” (107). Especially for minority groups (like the Chinese) whose labor was often exploited, the market was biased – though it should be noted that this exploitation was a consequence of sociopolitical prejudice, not because capitalism recognized the distinctive characteristics of laborers.

Cronon details the ways in which, before the end of the nineteenth century and the “ascendancy of rail transportation, the frontier economy was hardly ideal due to the inability of merchants and consumers to negotiate supply and demand in a timely fashion” (319). Quite often, Cronon notes, “demand for goods was communicated through word of mouth and only as quickly as the river transport or horse could carry the person with the information” (320). He includes communication between a storekeeper in Illinois and a merchant in Iowa: “We have a great demand for Eggs and hear,” the storekeeper wrote, “there are plenty of them in your place, and request you, to send us 5 or 6 Barrels of them immediately. . . .” (qtd. in Cronon 320). Such a request could be quite profitable for the Iowa merchant, but because of this distance and the slow pace of communication, there was a lot of risk involved in such a transaction. Someone else might fill the order first, or the eggs could be damaged while being transported. “All too often,” Cronon writes, “a merchant went to the expense to send goods in the direction of a recent rumor, only to find the market glutted by the time they arrived” (320). The winter months presented even greater challenges for such exchanges since transporting goods became increasingly difficult as snow and other inclement weather interfered.

In most western locales, resource extraction, furthermore, was hardly economically profitable until the rail system provided both the means for transport and for storing large quantities of goods. Echoing Richard Wade’s argument for the paradoxically intimate relationship between cities and the allegedly “rural” frontier, Cronon records the ways in which “city and country formed a single commercial system, a single process of rural settlement and metropolitan economic growth” (47). Resource extraction, therefore, while certainly the primary motivation for most colonial ventures, could not have been economically viable on this continent without the communication and transportation technologies – associated with the closing of the frontier and often located in the realm of figurative frontiers in the years since the official closing of the originary frontier West – which linked the rural frontier with urban industrial society. Indeed, resource extraction could not have been possible without the labor of those (the Chinese and Irish) who built the transcontinental railway. Furthermore, as Nye writes, “the rugged western landscape and the transcontinental railroad were complementary forms of the sublime that dramatized an unfolding national destiny” (76). This unfolding national destiny would include, significantly, the disenfranchisement of the Chinese laborers who were fundamental to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. American exceptionalism often minimizes the crises of disenfranchisement in an attempt to consolidate an allegedly stable, white default citizenship.


Varying accounts of the originary American frontier West demonstrate that what Turner and others have suggested is the “inherent” value of “American” frontiers – to provide us with real (agricultural) and imaginary (intellectual) resources – is a mutable and unquantifiable value. As the arguments of the historians I document illustrate, there is a tension that emerges more explicitly in twentieth-century dialogue about the originary American frontier between understanding it to be a locatable place (characterized by “openness” and resources) and understanding it to be a dynamic space (characterized by instability and human intervention). For this reason, these analyses beg an examination of the constitution of post-originary frontiers – for such accounts illustrate, among other things, that the value of the frontier is hardly inherent at all. As Moore argues, value and meaning “are not intrinsic in spatial order, but must be invoked” (qtd. in David Harvey, np). Indeed, if it were to profit (or even harm) us in any way, the frontier has always required our real and imaginary participation; and the value of the frontier is, effectively, to consolidate the psychic and intellectual boundaries of American citizenship, which in turn facilitates the political and economic strength of the nation.

What changed with the Census Bureau’s declaration in 1890 was not, therefore, even according to Turner’s thesis, the land itself but the imagined value of that land to a people he called “Americans.” And so, while the 1890 census recorded an increase in population that suggested the place of the American West was filling up, as I noted earlier, Turner was not simply lamenting the “filling-up” of a place as he spoke before the group at the Columbian Exposition; he was grieving for the fact that the originary frontier place could no longer officially be imagined as a dynamic space of unlimited opportunities and resources. He was, in effect, both explicitly lamenting a redefinition of that frontier place and implicitly calling for a shift from thinking of “the frontier” primarily as a literal place to thinking of “frontiers” as imaginative spaces as well.

Indeed, as the twentieth-century unfolded and America experienced more and more temporal distance from the originary frontier West, frontier narratives increasingly emphasized, however unintentionally, the constructedness of frontier spaces. New conceptualizations of frontiers as both literal and figurative spaces thus make available an extension of the frontier concept and a corresponding extension of ideas of the frontier as safety-valve, site of closeness and conflict, and of unlimited unexploited resources. Ideas of frontiers as safety-valves at the turn-of-the-twentieth century are not primarily about the pressures of population density. Sociopolitical pressures tend to be most prevalent. Similarly, while “new” conceptualizations of frontiers in the late-twentieth/turn-of-the-twentieth century elide the closeness and conflict that now seems such an obvious component of the originary American frontier experience, such closeness and conflict continue to be an effect of frontier ventures. And the “new” frontiers continue to emphasize the value of the frontier as a space of unlimited resources.

In spite of the “corrections” of many twentieth-century historians, the widespread influence of Turner’s ideas about the value of the frontier in consolidating American citizenship has resulted in the often unselfconscious transposition of an utopian, Turnerian frontierist notion of equal opportunity to turn-of-the-twentieth century, consumerist “frontier” spaces. Tuner’s ideas and rhetoric have made an indelible mark on the post-originary-frontier period of American history. Indeed, Turner’s ideas have proved quite useful in promoting the proliferation of “new” frontier spaces as well as to our understanding of that proliferation. His understanding of the spatial ordering of the American “frontier” West as a “free space” thus continues to influence American rhetoric and define popular narratives which articulate expectations of the promise of “new” frontier spaces. These expectations reveal, in fact, that American cultural desire for the frontier West is ultimately a capitalist desire for a utopian narrative of unlimited sociopolitical resources, “no artificial stifling of equality of opportunity, [and] no closed doors to the able” (Turner). As the range of responses to the frontier and Turner’s foundational narrative illustrate, both the alleged value of the frontier and its dangers have been identified repeatedly in terms of the consequences of imagining that the frontier is “ours” to exploit – physically, psychically, economically, and politically. Such responses therefore not only emphasize the weight of the frontier as a conceptual category as well as the weight of frontierist rhetoric, but they also demonstrate the enduring frontierist legacy of our country’s attempts to understand what it means to be “American.”

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