Turner’s Frontier Thesis, Continued
Let me say at the outset that for me the only definitive “Trails Conference” is the one that occurs toward the end of Zane Grey’s The Last Trail (1909), the concluding volume of the great author’s Frontier Trilogy, where bordermen Jonathan Zane and Lew Wetzel track down and bring to justice some very dangerous, completely villainous renegades who hide near the very same hillside seeps that my cattle now drink from in eastern Ohio. Sure, that allegedly fact-based story is a myth. But—what a myth! Reading it, you become versed in so-called cowboy codes of conduct that still stand, or ought to stand, as models for how one ought to behave if one faces death or acknowledges an obligation to protect the weak and the innocent, and for this reason the book and the especially stirring “conference” at its close are of considerable importance.
That established, I can now also say that I am at least aware of the Santa Fe Trails Conference that occurred in the fall of 1989 in New Mexico, and aware too of the controversy that ensued after it became clear that conference participants—all of them professional historians of considerable repute—had convened in order to explore alternatives to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which had served as the organizing narrative for explanations of westward American expansion and indeed American character ever since Turner first hatched the idea in an address to the American Historical Association in 1893.
The Santa Fe event turned out to be a watershed for the practice of American history in that it formally recognized and to some extent ratified crucial arguments that had been advanced by historians who were actively wrestling with the Turnerian model—namely, the environmental historian William Cronon, whose 1983 book, Changes in the Land, explored the manufactured aspect to “wilderness” discovered by the Puritans, and the Western History theorist Patricia Nelson Limerick, whose 1987 book, The Legacy of Conquest, revealed the kind of detail that could come into view should one look hard at Turner’s several blindspots. After that conference, future historians of the American West were no longer obliged to play by Turnerian rules, and that has been liberating all by itself.
What, after all, is on view courtesy of Turner’s Frontier Thesis? Perhaps because his home state of Wisconsin is so heavily glaciated, Turner argued that regular exposure to wilderness on a continually receding frontier had invigorated American culture in unique ways and helped to ensure the practicality of constitutionally embedded goals like limited government and democratic procedure. Hence if one accepts this thesis one is well positioned to note instances of self-sufficiency, new forms of engaged citizenry, positive aspects to settlerism, and the universally recognized American gift for ingenuity and technological innovation. At the same time, however, the theory is to a crucial extent premised on a lie, which is that there actually is or was once such a thing as virgin nature awaiting cultural impregnation. To the extent that one assents to this lie it becomes difficult if not impossible to see displaced Hispanic and Native American residents, let alone the managed aspect to land that pioneers thought of as wild. Also, pinning the idea of the West to a stage of democratic development rather than an actual place blinds one in yet further ways, for in that case one loses the ability to assess the various ways in which geography determines culture.
Hence it comes as something of a relief when a historian like Limerick demonstrates that the West can just as easily and perhaps more fruitfully be envisioned as a land characterized by (a) aridity, (b) Indian reservations and military districts, (c) cultural indebtedness to Mexico as well as the eastern portion of the United States and Asian countries fronting the Pacific Rim, (d) huge swaths of land that are under the direct control of either the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service, (e) a history of boom/bust cycles driven by extractive industries, and (f) a system of ranching that generates dependence on government to the very same degree that ranchers espouse cowboy hostility to governmental intrusion. Limerick’s term for the place she discovered is “a land undergoing conquest,” and there has, naturally, been a strong outcry against such a characterization. Yet it is undeniable that she has brought into view real terrain that simply cannot be seen by wearing Turner’s glasses alone. Far from destroying rawhide ideals, Limerick has been on a mission to provide ground that has to be in place if conventionally imagined Western heroism is to shine as the bright light it is, and for this reason I suspect that most critics don’t stay mad at her for long. Indeed, they may even get the sense that Limerick rather resembles Turner himself, given her boldness of vision and consistent generosity of spirit.
So. Has a torch been passed? You would think so, yet now comes along Jon Lauck, who argues not just that Midwestern history has been neglected over the past fifty years, but also that New Western History is a principal reason for that neglect. Additionally, he suggests that we should stop being wary of Turner’s thesis because it nourishes a form of American exceptionalism that has been used to legitimize entanglements in foreign wars. Lauck even goes so far as to call for a restoration of Turnerian vision, in part because Turner was studying watered prairie states when he conceived his thesis, but also because Turner knew that agrarian-tinged folk democracy was an important achievement in its own right.
Lauck, who is descended from Iowan/South Dakotan farmers and lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where he practices law and serves as counsel to Senator John Thune, is a marvelous writer, and in his new book, The Lost Region, he appears to have hit his stride. He writes with alacrity and dispatch even as he exhaustively details supporting points, and his overall narrative has power and sweep and even some majesty. In Chapter One, after providing introductory anecdotal evidence that “coastal elites” consider the Midwest to be flyover country whose chief function is to provide news shows with curious stories, he argues that the Midwest region is every bit as important as the South, or New England. In Chapters Two and Three he parades the achievements of the Prairie Historian school descended from Turner, catalogues the nearly complete demise of that school following the loss of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1964), and then assesses the strength of the school’s continuing foundational worth. Finally, in Chapter Four, he issues a call for an all-hands-on-deck revival of specifically Midwestern history.
Chapter Four is where Lauck pulls out all the stops, first by approvingly citing Christopher Lasch’s increasingly aggressive late period prairie populism, second by peremptorily dismissing early twentieth century public intellectuals who had pioneered (no pun intended) the allegedly ongoing, still active contempt for churchgoing Midwestern straightness. Such people have been “given more credence than they deserve,” Lauck says at one point. “H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis were foreigners to Midwestern nice and not well adjusted people.”
The “neglect” part is not fully persuasive. Don’t coastal elites studiously monitor the Midwest so that oracular statements by Berkshire Hathaway can continue to sound in the silence of a great American interior and Omaha insurance companies can continue to stand firm? Note too that it really is possible that the Midwest attracts less scholarly attention simply because (a) it has never suffered the way the South has, (b) it is less clearly defined, geographically, than New England is, and (c) it was the site where nationalism developed, perhaps at the expense of regionalism. Also, I’m not sure that it’s fair to define the Midwest as everything between the Ohio and Missouri rivers, when one needs to note how confrontations in Ohio backcountry catalyzed the American Revolution, and later as bluestem prairie, when one needs to catalogue dismissive condescension.
But those are quibbles. If one needs to handicap this book and in that way estimate the chances that Lauck’s project will succeed, one should instead zero in on two main points. First, Lauck misadvisedly links the decline of Midwestern history to sixties-era biases presumably operating in New Western scholars (Limerick attended the University of California, Santa Cruz before accepting a post a Harvard) that allegedly predispose them to dismiss the Midwest as a bastion of culturally square, not hip, reactionary biblical literalists who uncritically accept Cold War ideology let alone the Turnerian sort. But Limerick is a natural ally rather than a Wicked Witch of the West, so when Lauck devalues her contributions he does a disservice to readers who might otherwise heed his call for a revived Midwestern historical practice. Second, Lauck ignores the need to address, head on, ways in which Turner’s thesis has in fact functioned to a certain degree as a straitjacket. It is one thing to caution folks too quick to dismiss Turner’s still stunning insights; it is quite another to act as if his views of about Nature and Manifest Destiny don’t need to be deconstructed.
Can Lauck’s project succeed, given these handicaps?
I sincerely hope that it will, and I furthermore think that the chance of success is good, for happily Lauck’s identity as an historian appears to be stronger than his identity as a Republican Party operative blogging at a site called South Dakota War College. He concludes his book with a nod to Cronon—now Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—before trotting out the admittedly wonderful National Socialism expert George Mosse as an example of a left-leaning gay Jewish emigre who did not let his presumed prejudices get in the way of a deepening respect for Iowan Rotarians who talked hog prices, and this sort of professional honesty will send a reassuring message to potential New Midwest historians. Lauck is right! Agrarian-keyed citizenship, commodity exchanges, Rotary Clubs, pietistic revivals, implicit subsidiarity, progressive populism, the Granger Movement, the Farmer’s Alliance—these pioneer-driven phenomena are key aspects of that larger event called America, and we need to keep them firmly in view.
Will Hoyt used to be a carpenter in Berkeley; now he builds housing for oil/gas crews in eastern Ohio.
Posted: May 4, 2014
The Founders’ Founder
W. Bradford Littlejohn