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).

Rejecting the “germ theory” of historical development espoused by his teacher Herbert Adams, which characterized American identity and history as the flowers of colonial seedlings, Turner argued that settlement transformed Europeans into Americans, producing a distinctive culture as the nation progressed (2). He modeled this process not “along a single line” but as a loop, an incessant “return to primitive conditions” which rebirthed and thus replenished society in order to “furnish the forces dominating American character.” The perennial values of iconoclasm and resourcefulness were refined by the heat and pressure of unprecedented challenges, generating a people inclined to be democratical, libertarian and, in the Franklin-esque vein, thrifty. They exhibited, Turner writes in an Emersonian passage,

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom. (37).

The explanatory power of Turner’s thesis–“the record of social evolution”– proved so compelling that a student, Walter Webb, expanded it to encompass the entirety of the Anglophone world. In doing so he established a prototype of what would be popularized in coming decades, with the uneven decline of theoretical white supremacy, as “the West”– a geopolitical entity incorporating all Europe and its former settler colonies (11).[1]  Significantly, Turner elided every race from this scene of regeneration save Anglo-Saxons and Indians, and his argument that Americans could be cleansed and strengthened only by encounters with savage enemies on native turf paralleled G. Stanley Hall’s uses of the theory of recapitulation.  In his affirmation of the purifying enhancements of a clash with the primitive, Turner adopted the general outline of a narrative of racial, which is to say white masculine, development, one found in Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West and elaborated by Hall as a means to resolve the “neurasthenic paradox” of modern times (Bederman 92).[2] In each of these scenarios, the realization of the American character demanded a return to nature, even temporary embrutement. The frontier, Turner writes in a popular passage, finds the colonist “a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in a birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin” (4). The homely sartorial metaphor notwithstanding, Turner’s orientation was influenced by both the sweep of Transcendentalist poetics and the paradigmatic developmentalism of Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley, who “provided him with an explanatory framework…organic as well as deterministic” (Block 32),  which structured the search for “the vital forces” (Turner 2) that conjure these social and political forms and adapt them “to meet changing conditions.” The land mass itself is like a massive organism, its pathways produced geologically, used and improved by “aboriginal intercourse… broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of commercial lines…. like the steady growth of a nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent” (14-15).

The foreword to the first volume of the 1900 edition of The Winning of the West — a book Turner had reviewed as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins[3]— evinces similar biologistic influences and shares Turner’s sense of national destiny and evolutionary inexorability. “The backwoodsmen had pushed the Spaniards from the Mississippi, had set up a slave-holding republic in Texas, and had conquered the Californian gold-fields,” Roosevelt writes.

It is true that they won great triumphs for civilization no less than for their own people; yet they won them unwittingly, for they were merely doing as countless other strong young races had done in the long contest carried on for so many thousands of years between the fit and the unfit. (x).

Roosevelt’s diction seems to imply more of a racial reflex than a geopolitical strategy, but such sentiments– particularly in the afterglow of the conquest of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific (a slow-burning guerrilla war notwithstanding)– would echo for years to come. The commonplace that US national character was determined to a great extent by geography– an idea that has yet to recede– necessarily shaped perceptions of social questions and, by extension, the concept of youth. In “The Operation of Geographic Factors in History,” Ellen Semple posits North America’s relative distance from Europe as evidence of its purifying effect: “the ocean barrier culled superior qualities of mind and character,” she writes, including “independence of political and religious conviction, and the courage of those convictions, whether found in royalist or Puritan, Huguenot or English Catholic” (437). Furthermore, the relative paucity of settlers’ numbers and their isolation “favoured variation.” Invoking a neo-Lamarckian logic, Semple argues that “heredity passed on the characteristics of a small, highly selected group,” an Anglo-Saxon population “kept pure from intermixture with the aborigines… owing to the social and cultural abyss which separated them.” Given the principle that “individual variations are in time communicated by heredity to a whole population under conditions of isolation,” the passage of generations in a seemingly boundless open land produced a “modified type” who flourished within a propitious environment:

Ease in gaining subsistence, the greater independence of the individual and the family, emancipation from carking care, the hopeful attitude of mind engendered by the consciousness of an almost unlimited opportunity and capacity for expansion, the expectation of large returns upon labor, and… the profound influence of this hopefulness upon the national character, all combined, produce a social rejuvenation of the race. (437-438).

As society expanded and increased in complexity pastoral simplicity eroded. New conditions compelled Americans to exercise “the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the individual,” practices which further ripened the fruits of their escape from “the paralyzing effect of custom in the old home country” (438). The liberation and exertion of latent energies, adapted to changing circumstances, revivifies Anglo-Saxon stock in order to birth an American race, and establishes a living link between ancient virtue and burgeoning strength, a formulation Semple justifies with the equivalence that “activity is youth and sluggishness or paralysis is age.” She might have added that such activity can prosper the race only on the condition that it is purposive.


[1] See Alistair Bonnett, The Idea of the West. Against this emergent trend, the works of Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant continued to argue for the primacy of whiteness as a geopolitical category. For example: “Civilization itself means nothing. It is merely an effect, whose cause is the creative urge of superior germ-plasm. Civilization is the body; race is the soul” (Stoddard 300).

[2] Though as Bederman notes, Roosevelt, while afflicted with asthma, was not considered neurasthenic. See page 275 (n. 20) of Manliness and Civilization.

[3] See Patrick B. Sharp’s Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007 p. 58