Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
What is the Mexican border if not a kind of southern frontier? What is the ban against travelers from seven Muslim countries if not an effort to keep the Other from coming in among the white Protestant settlers? The obsession with the notion of dusky foreigners perpetually crossing that frontier is reminiscent of a colonial anxiety of Indian raiding parties, against whom the ultimate answer was extermination. The idea of a border wall, as pointless as it will be in practice, is that it permanently demarcates that frontier, so that Americans will be able to perpetually define themselves contra the frontier and the “savagery” or the “bad hombres” that supposedly lie beyond.
On the other hand, Turner argues, "the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people.” Every portion of the United States was once the frontier, the Atlantic coast being initially the frontier of Europe. “Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.”
Turner quotes a writer from 1836:
It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them, and which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State…
Of course this expansion had its imperialistic aspects, which goes back to the first point about the essential racism of this frontier thinking, resurgent once again today.
But on the other hand, the American frontier meant the constant pushing outward by a self-selected group of people who clamored for it. The most interesting things happen on boundaries, at places where different peoples, different cultures, different ideas meet. A story only begins when a stranger comes to town or when a hero goes on a journey, because those are the times when the familiar encounters the alien.
People who revel in these essential attributes of the frontier are people who revel in differences, who embrace the borderland and all the interesting strangers whom it might bring. The frontier attracts dreamers and doers, misfits and outcasts, Jack London and Mark Twain. So it was that JFK proclaimed a “new frontier.” So it was that Captain Kirk boldly went into the “final frontier.” Whence American liberalism and today’s counter-current against the rising tide of white nationalism. As Edward R. Murrow said of his fellow Americans, “We are not descended from fearful men.”
The Census Bureau announced in 1890 that the United States no longer had a physical frontier. But we meet a kind of frontier whenever we have to cross some sort of line: when we try to talk someone who speaks a different language; when we meet people who grew up in a different country or espouse a different religion; whenever we find ourselves in circumstances that push us to decenter ourselves in some way.
So the conflict over the frontier remains the same, between those who embrace the decentering and those who balk at the very idea of it, triggered by the suggestion that they might not be the center of the world. And that conflict is the essential conflict that defines the American character, today and always.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."