Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Frontier Myth and American History

When discussing a topic like the "frontier myth," it is important to define our terms, so that we are talking about the same thing, especially since the word "frontier" has had several different meanings, and the word "myth" is used today in much the same way as "lie" is.

The frontier has long been a part of the mental construction of the United States. Around  1892, as the results of the 1890 US Federal Census were being tabulated, the head of the Census Bureau announced that, by the standard that the Bureau used to tabulate it--two people or less per square mile--the frontier had ceased to exist. This stirred a great deal of concern amongst politicians and the intelligenstia in the United States, because it had long been thought that the "frontier" had acted as a safety valve that diminished class conflict in the country. Obtaining land in the frontiers, in fact, had been one of the reasons that the American Revolutionary War was fought, as it was a means for poor people in the colonies to better their lives.

It was in this vein that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner formulated his "frontier thesis." Turner argued that it was the equality fostered by living on the frontier that gave democracy in the United States is special character, and with the closure of the frontier, the United States would have to find new methods to face the challenges of the future. By the end of the decade, of course, the United States embarked on its first war of imperial conquest--coincidence?

The  word myth is often used as a synonym for the word lie; a myth is not necessarily an untruth, however. According the the American Heritage College Dictionary, a myth is "A traditional story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that informs or shapes the worldview of a people, as by explaining  aspects of the natural world or delineating the customs or ideals of a society" or "A popular belief or story associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal."

The iconic western Shane helped to perpetuate this frontier myth. After watching the first portion of the film (a portion of which can be seen in the YouTube video below), we will discuss the construction of this myth.

Much of the action is seen through the eyes of the little boy, Joey, who kind of takes the place of little boys in movie audiences who idolized movie cowboys in the theaters--and might tell us as much about Cold War anxieties  (it was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1952). It is important to note, I think, who is missing from this account? What is the root of the conflict between the ranchers and the farmers? Did the West really foster individuality? How so?--or, if not,  why not?

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