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.” 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 …