The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 18001890
by Richard Slotkin
Atheneum, 636 pp., $37.50
During the years immediately after World War II, a cross-disciplinary field called “American Studies” or “American Civilization” gained a place in the curriculum of many universities. The leaders of this movement were for the most part professors and students of American literature who felt constrained by the ahistorical “new criticism” and the limited attention paid to American writers in the standard English program. Instead of viewing American literature in relation to British literary traditions, they chose to study the broader American culture of which literature was seen as a major reflection. To a considerable extent their subject matter became that culture itself rather than the few acknowledged masterpieces of American poetry and prose, and they therefore paid increasing attention to popular fiction, polemical writing, oratory, and other forms of expression that were of dubious literary merit but could be read as providing clues to widely held American beliefs and attitudes. A principal tool for interpreting these materials was the concept of “myth”—stereotyped images and stories that appear to convey the central values and concerns of a culture.
Among the landmark studies that helped to launch the American Studies enterprise were works on the symbolism and mythology associated with the West and the Indian—Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950) and Roy Harvey Pearce’s The Savages of America (1953). These influential books clearly established that the frontier and its denizens were major preoccupations of the American imagination, on both a popular and high-cultural plane. But the books overlapped surprisingly little. Smith’s “American West as Symbol and Myth” was almost devoid of Indians, because the author took as the dominant view of the frontier Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic conception of it as a vast emptiness awaiting peaceful occupation by agrarian pioneers. Pearce on the other hand was little concerned with white dreams of settling the wilderness and concentrated on the Indian as a free-floating symbol of primitivism within Euro-American culture, rather than as a protagonist in the drama of geographical expansionism.
Because he treated Turner’s view of the frontier as a myth, Smith contributed to the demise of a general interpretation of American history (first set forth by Turner and later elaborated by Frederick Merk, Ray Billington, and others) which gave primacy to the Westward Movement as a source of American values and institutions. But as historians in general rejected the notion that pioneering was the formative American experience and concluded that the roots of the nation’s material and ideological development were to be found in cities and industrial regions rather than at the edge of settlement, the study of myths about the frontier tended to follow the actual frontier into historiographic limbo. Within the American Studies movement, mythic representations of technology, industry, and the urban experience moved to center stage during the 1960s and 1970s, leaving studies of western and frontier images pretty much where Smith had left them. At the same time, another group of scholars reexamined the frontier and discovered that …