Daily Archives: March 8, 2014

Turner Excerpt (HUM455)

Below is an excerpt from my dissertation which briefly discusses Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” You’re not required to read it, but it may be of some use. Note that while one of the authors referenced below, Ellen Semple, argues that the Atlantic Ocean functions as a kind of filter which prevents the introduction of the ideological impurities of “Old Europe,” Sarmiento actively desires European immigration as a means of elevating Argentine culture and society. Note also the (environmentally deterministic) emphasis Turner places on the frontier as a space of reinvigoration and transformation. In contrast to Sarmiento’s ambivalence about the Pampas– a zone of vitality and barbarism– Turner seems largely enthusiastic about the US frontier. Yet if you read the latter’s essay closely, you’ll see that he also admits that this unincorporated terrain exerts potentially negative effects.

The double valence of “stage” as a temporal measure and a social space reveals something about the nature of a culture in the process of redefining itself in order to come to terms with changing material conditions. The foundational studies undertaken by scholars such as Frederick Turner, Albert Brigham and Ellen Semple worked within this groove, establishing historical geography as a viable academic discipline and justifying the ostensibly unique character of the United States. For all three of these figures continental expansion, the conversion of raw space into distinct places, was inseparable from the evolutionary development of the nation, an equation encapsulated by the phrase “geography is history” and a cornerstone of American exceptionalism which defined the United States sui generis. Turner’s canonical essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered as a historiographical declaration of independence one week after the 4th of July on the quadri-centennial of Columbian “discovery,” conceived of the frontier as a westward procession rather than a static locale. The effect of this narrative, according to Limerick, was to “eliminate[…] choice and decision from the picture. People moved in streams, tides, flows, currents, torrents, floods, and inundations” (159).

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