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Marlboro Country

History of the Westward Movement

by Frederick Merk
Knopf, 660 pp., $20.00

Like his great mentor Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian Frederick Merk moved eastward from Madison, Wisconsin, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born in Milwaukee in 1887 (he died in 1977), Merk was still a senior at the University of Wisconsin when in 1910 Turner packed up his course on the history of the westward movement and struck out for the wilds of Harvard. By that time Turnerism was beginning to sweep the historical profession, transforming textbooks and reshaping the teaching of American history. In 1916 Merk himself finally moved to Harvard where under Turner’s direction he wrote a prize-winning doctoral dissertation on Wisconsin history. At Turner’s invitation Merk then delivered the lectures on western history during the spring terms when the master was on leave. In 1924, when Turner retired, Merk took over the course and was promoted, at age thirty-seven, to assistant professor.

Over the next thirty-three years Merk’s “Cowboys and Indians” became a cherished Harvard institution. Merk himself, once described by an admiring Harvard colleague as “a man of icy integrity,” became legendary, especially after the great blizzard of 1940 when he snowshoed five miles from his Belmont home to meet his morning class. Like Turner, he trained a galaxy of distinguished and devoted graduate students whose interests ranged far beyond western history.

More remarkable, however, were Frederick Merk’s scholarly achievements after retiring at the age of seventy. Not content with revising two earlier books, he published six new monographs and collected essays including four major works on the ideology and diplomatic history of American expansion. Now a seventh book, his magnum opus, has been published posthumously. Consisting of sixty-four chapters and roughly 370,000 words, it begins with the prehistoric Indian migrations across the Bering Strait and ends with state landuse planning legislation enacted in 1975. Essentially this vast undertaking is an expansion of the lecture course bequeathed to Merk by Turner. Accordingly, in his acknowledgments Merk especially singles out his old mentor along with his collaborator-wife, Lois Bannister Merk, herself a professional historian.

An assessment of Merk’s Westward Movement must begin with the Turner thesis, which like most fruitful paradigms is more complicated than the popular understanding suggests. Here it will be most useful to review the Turner thesis by noting a series of revealing paradoxes. First, having been trained in classical and medieval history, Turner was above all concerned with a macroscopic approach to the evolution of human institutions. He saw the westward movement as a variant on and continuation of the more general epic of European expansion. He also emphasized that “the real significance of western history is that it is national history.”1 Yet in his reaction against the reigning “germ theory” of history which ignored New World environment and which traced the origin of free institutions back to ancestral, Teutonic tribes, Turner stressed the uniqueness of the American West to an extent that encouraged parochialism if not outright xenophobia.

A second paradox arises from Turner’s central premise: the influence on American development of “free” land in the West—“free” in the sense that the land itself was untitled and uncultivated and that forest, water, and mineral resources were untapped. In response to Malthusian concerns over Old World scarcity, typified by classical theories of rent and “return,” writers had long invested the boundless expanses of the New World with the mythical associations of an ever-filled cornucopia. Turner’s glowing vision of the West thus drew on ancient dreams of plenitude and satiation—myths of a western Arcadia of freshness, purity, and eternal fertility; of a new Eden of ageless youth; of an Earth Goddess, both Giver and Redeemer, capable of undepleted nourishment. Yet by definition Turner’s frontier was a line dividing advancing settlement from receding free land. If the virginal West was in some sense a supernatural power precisely because, to borrow Marshall Sahlins’s words, it was “beyond society, escaping its order,” the power was rapidly being subdued and assimilated.2

Even by 1890, as Turner emphasized in his famous speech in 1893 to the American Historial Association, the end was in sight. Whereas various “primitive” peoples had tried to ensure good harvests by sacrificing and eating symbolic embodiments of godhood, Turner’s frontier consumed the Earth Goddess herself. The more this self-consuming frontier was viewed as crucial for America’s regeneration, the more the apparent message of universal salvation turned out to be a doctrine of limited atonement, a sacrifice benefiting only the elect who were fortunate enough to live during the colonizing and settlement phases of American history. It is true that Turner later professed faith in “new frontiers of unwon fields of science, fruitful for the needs of the race,” and that Merk ultimately identifies all the virtues and infinitude of the old frontier with the “open frontier” of science and technology. But this is to shift one’s reverence from the sacrificed god to the sacrificial knife.

A third paradox is that Turner presented the frontier as a force of liberation, “a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past…offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities.” Yet his argument also presupposed that ideas and culture are irresistibly reshaped by physical environment, an assumption that seems to undercut the theme of liberation. Though Turner disavowed the extreme geographic determinism of his day, his explanation for America’s mosaic of “sectional” differences suggested that even diverse racial “stocks” were of less importance than the physiographic environments to which they adapted.

A fourth paradox is that Turner was obsessed with finding scientific verification for what was essentially a poetic vision of man’s interaction with nature. In his most inspired and influential passages Turner was reformulating sentiments familiar to Emerson, Thoreau, and the Anglo-American romantic tradition. But like so many thinkers of his day, Turner looked to science as his model. Overcompensating for his lack of logical rigor, he compulsively postponed writing his most ambitious book while slaving over the preparation of maps designed to correlate, county by county, physiographical conditions with political, economic, and social behavior.

A final paradox concerns the fate of the Turner thesis, which, as John Higham has written, “offered the only comprehensive, distinctive interpretation of the whole of American history.”3 Among scholars Turnerism provoked for several decades unusually fruitful debates, especially over such questions as mobility, the relation of labor systems to free land, and the role of the West as a “safety valve” for economic and political discontent. It is an interesting question why the most powerful and suggestive theory of American development should also have lent itself to essentially anti-intellectual popularizations.

One answer is that certain characteristics of the theory allowed it to become confused with its subject matter. This blurring of boundaries not only gave a heightened, miragelike significance to every artifact of western Americana, but often persuaded students of the frontier that they themselves were frontiersmen. Overt Turnerism declined after World War II not because the issues it raised had been settled or its main premises rejected, but rather because the writings of Turner’s more parochial and chauvinistic disciples appeared jejune to a new generation of urbanites. Yet as early as 1928 Merle Curti, one of Turner’s most brilliant students, observed that Turner had given new directions to diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history, and quoted Arthur M. Schlesinger’s remark that Turner’s “chief importance to American historical thinking has, in the last analysis, been his elucidation of the part played by economic group conflicts in our history.”4 In fact, Turner’s students were “pioneers” in the history of immigration and industrialization. The recent and fashionable community studies, which use quantitative techniques and interdisciplinary methods in an effort to reconstruct the social structure of an entire population, are a fulfillment of Turner’s dreams.

Or at least of his scientific dreams. Turner’s broader appeal is best understood when we realize that he offered an ingenious solution to the ancient problem of primitivism and progress. From the time of the ancient Cynics and Stoics, many philosophers and poets had contrasted the restraints, prejudices, and corrupting tastes of civilized life with either a former age of virtue or a simpler, more primitive state of society. This tendency was further fueled by reports of the New World from early explorers and Catholic missionaries.5 Primitivism in various forms became a central theme of the romantic tradition from Rousseau to Thoreau. Yet the nineteenth century was preeminently committed to the doctrine of historical progress and to the global triumph of Christian civilization.

Increasingly, therefore, yearnings for pastoral or primitive simplicity, freedom, and authenticity were relegated to a separate aesthetic realm which had little relevance to the onward-and-upward struggles of history. Social Darwinism, which exerted such a powerful influence on Turner’s generation, gave compelling support to the prevailing faith in temporal progress: the faith that each step on what Frederick Merk calls “the ladder of civilization”—from savage hunters and trappers to herdsmen, farmers, traders, and manufacturers—marked an evolutionary improvement. But Social Darwinism also added two disturbing implications to traditional fears of “overcivilization.” First, paleontology proved that the evolution from simple to complex forms could lead to overspecialization and thus extinction. Second, even the human capacity for adaptation appeared to be limited if, as feared by sociologists like William Graham Sumner, we are propelled onward by a unilinear stream of time which dictates our thoughts, mores, and even scientific experiments.

Turner’s most brilliant stroke was to argue that in America primitivism and progress intermeshed. Though agreeing with the Social Darwinists that democracy had evolved from the adaptation of certain “stocks” to the needs and opportunities of the environment, Turner insisted that in America this process had not been confined to a unilinear dimension of time. In the East institutions had evolved in the usual stages toward greater complexity and specialization. “But we have in addition to this,” Turner wrote, “a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area.”

Each frontier zone recapitulated the entire history of civilization. As a result, even the more “advanced” urban civilization of the East had been continually purified and revitalized by the life-giving frontier. It was this “perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life” that had saved the East from decadence, class struggle, and from what Brooks Adams called “the law of civilization and decay.” The notion that the primitive West can somehow redeem the sins of our civilization has remained one of our most potent myths. We are told that the crystal air of Marlboro Country can detoxify even cigarettes.

Despite some appearances to the contrary, Merk’s History of the Westward Movement is a Turnerian book. It is an account of “one of the great migrations of mankind” which “replaced barbarism with civilization,” unlocking “the bounties of nature,” including rich soil, forests, water power, copper, lead, iron, coal, gas, and oil, making them “a blessing to mankind.” Like Turner, Merk is interested in broad evolutionary forces, not in personalities (though, ironically, “individualism” becomes one of the central issues of the book). For Merk collective behavior and group identity ultimately owe less to cultural tradition than to the character of soil, glaciation, watersheds, rainfall, and such features as the Wisconsin drift and Shelbyville moraine.

Merk’s occasional disavowal of geographic determinism and his acknowledgment of “other factors” are even less convincing than Turner’s similar disclaimers. From the outset, when Merk considers the first seaboard colonies, it becomes clear that “in New England, as in Virginia, geography thus stamped its influence on the economy and on the political and religious views of society.” Making much use of Turner’s maps of voting patterns in presidential elections from Jackson to Lincoln, Merk triumphantly points out that in 1856, for example, the Republican area of the Middle West “corresponds with the area of glaciation.” Ignoring the research of recent decades on the complexity of local politics and the importance of ethnocultural alignments, Merk interprets national elections in terms of geography and stereotyped images of various migrant groups.

In some respects an unreconstructed Turnerian, Merk even fails to follow revisionary leads that Turner suggested late in life. For example, while Merk curiously devotes a whole chapter to “Industrialization of the Great Lakes Region,” he says virtually nothing about western urbanization. “Movement” and “migration,” his governing themes, seldom apply to the momentous rural migration to towns and cities to say nothing of the eastward drain of professionals like Merk himself. The Turnerian emphasis on adaptability and assimilation is linked to an ethnocentrism that can be understood only when one recalls that Frederick Merk was thirty years old when America entered the First World War.

Hence it is not surprising that he stresses the inability of the Indian “to effectively exploit his resources” or contrasts the Indian with the Negro, who “even while in a state of slavery, rose steadily on the ladder of civilization.” The devastating mortality of California Indians, under the rule of Mexican missionaries, was not the result of “overwork or neglect.” The blunt fact, Merk assures us, was that “the California Indians were unclean in their habits. Indians up and down the Pacific coast allowed filth to accumulate about their villages.” An ascetic puritan when compared to Turner, Merk is especially stern when dealing with alcoholic consumption and sexual license. There is no conscious humor in his remark that for American sailors “the great attraction in the Hawaiian Islands was the Hawaiian maidens, whose ideas of modesty and virtue were the same as those of the sailors.” The next paragraph begins: “After a generation of this trade the Hawaiian people were in need of missionaries.”

It is Merk’s imperviousness to all forms of primitivism that sets him apart most dramatically from Frederick Jackson Turner. His peroration seems to echo the old Turnerian faith: “The hope of the future is that all the optimism, all the indomitable will to overcome obstacles, all the love of freedom and of democratic process, and all the determination to make things better for the future, which the old frontier nourished and symbolized, will remain part of American thought and aspirations.” But this passage refers specifically to the new frontier of science and technology, and the preceding six-hundred-odd pages barely mention any positive influences of the frontier on individual thought and aspiration. Merk’s West is utterly devoid of romance. It is a West of often fascinating scientific detail described in the language of a hydraulic engineer.

Upon closer inspection, Merk seems to turn Turner on his head. For Merk feels an astonishing repugnance toward Westerners, especially frontiersmen of Southern origin. Again and again we encounter “semi-vagrant types”; crude, hard-drinking riffraff; Scotch-Irish squatters who are “pests” in “matters of land policy”; frontier rebellions led by “rash and inexperienced leaders”; border “traders, whiskey dealers, and other dregs of society” who prey on Indians; debtors who demand an expansion of paper currency and other “heresies” at variance with “sound fiscal policy.” Above all, Merk unquestionably proves that the key to western settlement was rampant land speculation, often accompanied by wholesale theft and fraud. Obsessed with quick profit, buccaneering capitalists seized the most valuable tracts of timber and mineral lands while single-cropping “exploitive farmers” impoverished the soil. As the story moves on through timber wars and mining bonanzas, it adds up to a free-for-all rape of the nation’s public domain.

For Merk the governing word is disorder. Through the first three-quarters of his book individualism, speculation, and wheeler-dealer profiteering continue to triumph over the rational plans of various central administrations. From the time that Crown authorities sold Virginia headrights “on a purely commercial basis,” the great lesson of frontier history was “that the purposes of theoretically excellent land systems were defeated by the activities of land speculators.”

It is a bit startling to realize that the speculators included George Washington among other leading patriots. But Merk’s sympathies clearly lie with the early French and British regulations designed to protect Indians from the abuses of the fur trade and with later British plans to restrict land speculation and “to ensure an orderly occupation of the western wilderness.” He applauds both the New England tradition of community planning and the rational goals of the 1785 Land Ordinance, but then describes the disintegration of all orderly programs with the exception of the “planned, united, and devoted” achievements of the Mormons in the Great Basin of Utah and the enlightened administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Oregon Country.

At one point, after contrasting the anarchy of the American mining camps with the orderly government of those in British Columbia, Merk explicitly asks “whether the local democracy of the frontier—informal squatter government—was the best government for a frontier society, or whether better results would have been obtained from executive government on the frontier.” His only answer is that the British system, including “a very superior type of governor,” would probably not have been “admitted on an American frontier.” We are thus forced to conclude that the characteristics of the American frontier were responsible for the dismal story of waste, swindle, violence, and self-indulgence which is only occasionally leavened by Turnerian assurances that western settlement somehow kept the economy in vigorous health and created a great continental nation.

Merk’s admiring treatment of the Mormons provides a clue to the book’s central meaning. Under the Church’s leadership, he writes, “Mormonism was an experiment in cooperation and in social planning, one of the most successful large-scale examples of it in American history, prior to the rural electrification cooperatives of the New Deal era.” He also affirms that “among the elements accounting for the coherence and success of the Church one of the most important was the physiography of the Enclosed Basin.” In other words the rich resources of the arid regions of the Far West could not be tapped by the individualistic methods of the earlier frontier. The Mormon achievements of the mid-nineteenth century point forward to Merk’s highly informative chapters on the twentieth-century Colorado River, Columbia Basin, and Central Valley Projects; the TVA; soil conservation; and land-use planning.

Most of the History of the Westward Movement concerns the political, economic, and diplomatic history of America before the 1860s. Much of the detail has little specific relevance to the West. In contrast, the later chapters focus on modern agriculture and the use of natural resources, with little reference to larger political, economic, and diplomatic issues. The covert message, one begins to realize, is that the older Turnerian frontier fostered centrifugal forces of disorder, violence, and self-seeking that dominated politics and diplomacy and that culminated in the trauma which Merk barely mentions and which is not even listed in his index—the Civil War. After a painful interregnum, further penalties of planlessness “manifested themselves in the opening quarter of the twentieth century in a series of dramatic disturbances of nature in major areas.” Flood, drought, erosion, depression—all contributed to a growing acceptance of land-use planning and regulation. In Merk’s symmetrical vision, the later trend toward integration culminated not in sectionalism and war but in unifying projects like TVA, which was “comparable to the colonizing corporations of the early colonial period” (presumably before the serpent urged colonists to bite the apple of commercial speculation).

This is still Turnerism, but Turnerism socialized and purged by Progressive ideology of all traces of primitivism. Yet it is still the land, especially the fabulous resources hidden beneath the harsh surface of the Far West, that becomes America’s regenerative force, “calling out new institutions and activities,” as Turner had said, but now in the form of reclamation, resettlement, reforestation, and government planning. Indeed, Merk transfers to government agencies and experts much of the mythical aura of the West—the aura of clean plenitude, power, and ennobling purpose. In this respect Merk’s book gives more insight into the mentality of the New Deal era than into the history of the westward movement. After the disillusion of viewing the rape and squandering of the public domain, Merk’s bracing optimism reminds one of the ironic scene in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, when Jack Burden, after hitting bottom in a Long Beach motel, concludes:

So there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all. If you believe the dream you dream when you go there.”6

  1. 1

    In addition to Turner’s writings, I have especially drawn on Ray Allen Billington’s two invaluable works: Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher (Oxford University Press, 1973) and The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis: A Study in Historical Creativity (The Huntington Library, 1971).

  2. 2

    Culture as Protein and Profit,” The New York Review, November 23, 1978, p. 47.

  3. 3

    The Old Frontier,” The New York Review, April 25, 1968, p. 10.

  4. 4

    Billington, Genesis, pp. 265-270.

  5. 5

    See especially Arthur O. Lovejoy, Gilbert Chinard, George Boas, and Ronald S. Crane, A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935); Chinard, L’Amérique et le rêve exotique dans la littérature française au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle; Fredi Chiapelli, ed., First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 volumes (University of California Press, 1976); Lois Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934).

  6. 6

    Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946; Bantam Books, 1959, p. 311.

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