What Turner got wrong and right

William Cronon
“Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner”
The Western Historical Quarterly
18:2, April 1987


In this article written about a century after Turner, Cronon reviews the historiographical impact of the frontier thesis and reevaluates its implications.  He suggests that the flaws in Turner’s ideas can be ignored or forgiven, and a core set of ideas remain that inform new (especially environmental) approaches to American history.


Cronon defines the frontier thesis using Turner’s words: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”  Turner combined Darwin's ideas about evolution and Haekel's evocative but largely incorrect idea that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" to narrate “an evolution which recapitulated the development of civilization itself, tracing the path from hunter to trader to farmer to town,” and forming “a special American character...marked by fierce individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism.” (157)  This formulation is problematic, Cronon says, because its “fuzzy language conferred on Turner’s argument the illusion of great analytical power only because his central terms...were so broad and so ill-defined.” (158)  I’d also suggest that the scientific metaphor is not a perfect fit for historical development, recapitulation is attractive but ultimately false. And that even if the frontier experience fostered individualism, pragmatism, and egalitarianism generally, it’s crucial to understand how these traits were expressed and distributed.  Clearly everyone didn’t have them all in equal quantities.  How and why some people became radically egalitarian while others became oppressive or radically libertarian seems like it should be a central concern in western histories.


Cronon says Turner’s critics have pointed out that “westerners looked to the East,” and that “Among the eastern institutions dominating western life have been the Federal government, the corporation, and the city.”  (I'd add Banks, but I'll say more about that when I've written that chapter of my dissertation, 158)  He calls attention to the “urban character of much western settlement,” (169) especially in “rising urban centers whose growth was central to frontier expansion itself.” (like Chicago in
Nature's Metropolis, 173) The impact of these points, for me, is that they break the smooth flow of the westward teleology, just as they break the static von Thünen model. Western (or any regional) history should challenge the idea that the story “of any given American place could be written in terms of a progressive sequence of different economic and social activities [and] embodied in representative figures who might serve as ‘types’.” (166) Cronon suggests that in place of Turner’s narrative arc, which he admits “set American space in motion and gave it a plot,” (166), historians could focus on changes in “People’s notions of abundance and scarcity--of wealth and poverty.” (172) “Among the deepest struggles in American western history,” he says, are “those among peoples who have defined abundance--and the ‘good life’--in conflicting ways.” (Or, less kindly put, among those who have tried to scoop up all the abundance for themselves and those who resisted, 175) New histories might “discover a subtler periodization...[and] create a finer-grained sense of movement that will reflect interconnections between regional diversity and the shifting dialectic of scarcity and abundance.” (174)


Historians these days appreciate tightly-focused, evidence-based, bottom-up narratives. But we seem to miss the big, sweeping histories of the nineteenth century.  In a recent book, Alan Kulikoff says he’s planning on bringing back the master narrative (we’ll see).  My question is, how do we put together histories that will drill down into the details of specific people’s experiences in particular places and times, and at the same time suggest (if not prove) a “big” point about the relationship between country and city?  Turner’s use of “great men” as representative “types” was limited and nineteenth-century, but it highlights the problem of believing any particular story can claim to be a general, representative view.  Maybe a series of well-chosen microhistories could be sewn together into something that resembles a wide view.  Doing my rural history project, I might look more closely at the idea of cores and peripheries, which may show unexpected interactions between east and west.  I might find cycles of growth and decline that follow different trajectories from Turner’s.  Cronon has already told a story of the simultaneous growth of a center and periphery, but more might be said about the people living in the shadow of a “Chicago” (or maybe a Minneapolis).  There must be ways rural people crearted change rather than reacting to it; also ways their lives remained unaffected, just as there are ways they were never free of the fact of the city’s existence.  And Cronon’s final question is a good one to keep in mind: “To what extent
has the peculiar nature of American class consciousness and republican government been shaped by the shifting resource base of our economic and social life?  How do nature and humanity transform each other?” (175) This question might help break an exclusive attention to the city-country binary, to focus on the changing ways rural areas relate to their environments in American history, and how that can be much different from the way cities do.  This might go a long way toward a story of how culture, class consciousness, and politics developed the way they did in rural America.  Comparing these to the stories city-Americans have always wanted to tell themselves about the character and qualities of their rural neighbors, might help explain how we got to where we are.