AMERICAN FRONTIERS: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest

AMERICAN FRONTIERS: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest

Wilfred M. McClay

By Gregory H. Nobles. Hill & Wang.286 pp. $25

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AMERICAN FRONTIERS: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest.

By Gregory H. Nobles. Hill & Wang. 286 pp. $25

Long before Huck Finn vowed to "light out for the territory" and escape the "sivilizing" influence of Aunt Sally, the frontier was a potent symbol in American life. In works ranging from Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823–41), from Louis L’Amour’s popular novels to Hollywood Westerns, the frontier has been depicted as the essence of America. So argued the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous address of 1893, when, in bold defiance of the historical establishment that had trained him, he located the genius of American civilization not in the "seeds" planted by Europe but in the transformation that American soil had wrought upon European transplants. American history, Turner declared, was "the history of the colonization of the Great West." The existence of "an area of free land" continually receding before the march of settlement "explained" America. Period.

As the single most influential interpretation ever offered by an American historian, Turner’s "frontier thesis" has been an inexhaustible source of research ideas—and a perpetually inviting target. In recent decades, the latter use has predominated, as many younger historians, reacting against the unconscious arrogance of Turner’s Euro-American triumphalism and its implicit dismissal of Indians, have conjured his shade only to riddle it with ideological bullets.

Still, in the hands of a skilled and sensible historian, this new approach to the American frontier can greatly enhance understanding. While Nobles, professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is properly critical of Turner’s frontier thesis (which has many grievous faults), his book also pays tribute to the enduring validity of Turner’s great theme.

Rather than caricature the frontier story as a melodrama starring heroic (or villainous) Euro-Americans and villainous (or heroic) Native Americans, Nobles stages an immensely complicated drama featuring a crazy-quilt cast of characters and cultures, each altering and being altered by the others. For example, in outlining the great imperial rivalries of the 17th and 18th centuries, he includes the Indians not as passive or romanticized victims but as active, resourceful players in their own right, subject to their own political rivalries.

Yet this emphasis upon "intercultural contact" as the defining characteristic of the American frontier does not lead Nobles to neglect the old story of "how the West was won." That saga is also told, from the opening gambits of colonial times through the tragic endgame on the windswept Great Plains. By the time the frontier was consolidated into the American nation-state, every group—the Sioux, the Dakota, the French, the Spanish, the British, the Mexicans—had lost something. As indicated in its doublesided subtitle, this book would acknowledge the fact of Euro-American triumph without falling into the trap of Euro-American triumphalism.

The only lapses in the book are Nobles’s occasional preaching about Euro-American sins—as if the grim events, fairly related, did not speak for themselves—and his occasional genuflections before contemporary pieties. One example: after describing the tendency of Indian men to treat their women as beasts of burden, he adds, a bit nervously, that "after all, Europeans were themselves hardly in the vanguard of gender equality." (If they were not, then one wonders who was?) Fortunately, such lapses—the stigmata of our era’s anxiously revisionist historiography—are rare. Not only does Nobles synthesize the fruits of an enormous body of scholarship, he writes graceful, even elegant prose that occasionally sparkles with wit, as when he refers to the relationship between the United States and the post-revolutionary Lone Star Republic as a state of "suspended annexation."

—Wilfred M. McClay


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