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Redemption Through Violence

The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890

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).1 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 it had two sides; the result was a boom in Indian history and in studies that viewed white expansionism from the perspectives of its victims rather than its beneficiaries. More than they had been previously, Indians became objects of historical investigation on their own terms instead of simply being treated as physical obstacles to nation building or as raw material for white ideologues and myth makers.

Studies of white perceptions and images of Indians persisted, but they now became an aspect of the larger examination of race and racism inspired by the concerns of the 1960s. This interest in the history of racial beliefs and attitudes was accompanied by efforts to understand the violence they provoked or occasioned, a development spurred by the confrontations that occurred in black urban ghettos or on Indian reservations between the mid-Sixties and the early Seventies, and perhaps by the sense many people had that the Vietnam war had racial overtones. One notable book in the American Studies tradition that reflected this interest in the links between race and violence was Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence—a study of how colonial Indian wars and the popular narratives of white captivity that were their most distinctive literary product laid the foundation for a national myth of redemptive violence.2

Slotkin’s new book, The Fatal Environment, centers on the nineteenth century and extends his treatment of frontier violence in American mythology up to 1890, when Frederick Jackson Turner announced that the frontier was closed. But Slotkin does much more than that. He demonstrates that a traditional American Studies approach to cultural history—the description and analysis of myth as a key to the central concerns of a culture—retains its vitality and fruitfulness and can be reconciled with what at one time seemed like a contradictory approach, namely the study of ideologies and how they have served to establish and maintain patterns of social dominance and control.

Slotkin boldly reasserts that the frontier myth was central in the American consciousness of the nineteenth century and he does so in a way that justifies Henry Nash Smith’s view of its importance while drastically departing from Smith’s sense of its meaning. Taking account of the scholarship since the 1950s that made the frontier appear ancillary to the metropolitan process of urban-industrial growth, Slotkin reformulates the frontier myth to show how it could provide a useful and satisfying set of meanings for proponents of industrial capitalism. In tune with the recent emphasis on racial prejudices and ideology, he has also put the image of the Indian and of the struggles between whites and Indians into the foreground of frontier mythology. He thus links two sets of images and legends that earlier practitioners of American Studies had tended to treat separately. Finally, he provides a major reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American culture as a whole according to his revised and revivified conception of the frontier myth. Without question, this is the most ambitious and provocative work in American Studies to appear in recent years.

Slotkin acknowledges that the agrarian image of the frontier as free, fertile land where democracy and individualism could take root and thrive—the dream of Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Jackson Turner—was an important element in American thinking about westward expansionism. In this vision of the repeated recreation of a peaceable kingdom of egalitarian yeoman farmers, the Westward Movement was identified not only with the extension of democracy but also with its preservation. As the settled regions became congested and were threatened by rigid class divisions based on wealth, those whose desire to better themselves was frustrated by a decline of opportunity could go west and “grow up with the country.”

The problem with this view of the frontier as the safety valve and guarantor of democratic values and institutions was that it identified the health and virtue of the republic with a process that would eventually come to an end. Jefferson worried about the fate of American democracy once the West was filled up and feared that the United States would then go the way of Europe and become a society of stratified classes and social conflicts, an environment that he believed was fatal to individual liberty and equality. Turner faced the actual closing of the frontier and wondered how the spirit of agrarian democracy could be kept alive after its physical endowment of free land had disappeared.

For Slotkin, however, these Jeffersonian fears and anxieties are only one side of the frontier myth. The agrarian, democratic, and pacific image of the frontier may have dominated political discourse, especially in the pre-Civil War period, and was certainly the keynote of the promotional literature of western settlement. But imaginative writing about the frontier and the kind of frontier heroes, real or fictional, who made the greatest impression on the popular mind conveyed a different meaning. In the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and in the mass-produced popular literature that they inspired—as well as in hagiographic “nonfiction” portrayals of such heroic frontiersmen as Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Kit Carson, and George Armstrong Custer—it is race war and not peaceful settlement that is emphasized. For Slotkin this frontier of violence between “civilized” whites and red “savages” made a deeper and more lasting impression on American mythology than the West of agrarian utopianism. He goes so far as to argue that his version of the frontier myth is “the oldest and most central” of “those myths that are peculiar to our culture.”

He makes a strong case. From a vast number of novels, biographies, memoirs, government reports, polemical books, magazine articles, and even newspaper stories and editorials, he has culled hundreds of quotations portraying frontier expansion as a war of extermination against irredeemable savages. One wonders, however, about the extent and character of the audience for such writing and how precisely its message entered into the consciousness of readers and affected their attitudes and behavior. It is a persistent limitation of American Studies, traceable perhaps to its origins in literary scholarship, that attention is focused almost entirely on the production of ideas and images rather than on their distribution and consumption. But it is important to learn that cultural producers were powerfully attracted to the imagery of race war.

Slotkin does not merely document this perspective; his real achievement is that he places it in a full historical setting, describing the role played by the mythology of frontier violence in different periods, showing who promulgated it for what purposes, and arguing that it eventually produced a metaphor that applied to the postfrontier era. The book culminates in a full consideration of what Custer’s Last Stand meant to industrializing America in the late nineteenth century. The author himself has provided a succinct summary of the main argument that can hardly be improved upon:

The dominant themes of the Frontier Myth are those that center on the conception of American history as a heroic-scale Indian war, pitting race against race; and the central concern of the mythmakers is with the problem of reaching the “end of the Frontier.” Both of these themes are brought together in the “Last Stand” legend, which is the central fable of the industrial or “revised” Myth of the Frontier.

In developing this argument, Slotkin puts great stress on the emergence of a particular variety of frontier hero—“the military aristocrat.” Foreshadowed to some degree in the portrayal of George Washington as having been initiated as a heroic leader by his experiences in the French and Indian War, the characteristics of this type of American hero were more fully developed in the popular image of Andrew Jackson, who appeared at one time or another to be a frontier settler, a successful general, an Indian fighter, and a landed aristocrat. The hero who combined high status and potential leadership in “civilized” society with the ability to survive and triumph in the wilderness was for a time rivaled or even eclipsed in the popular imagination by such figures as Daniel Boone and Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, frontiersmen of common social origin and no aristocratic pretensions who had all the virtues of the Indian and none of his alleged vices.

Such pathfinders, whose noble qualities reflected the romantic view that nature itself was the source of wisdom and morality, came to be regarded by many people, Slotkin argues, as indispensable to the conquest of the West; however, since they had no place in settled society and were incapable or unwilling to adapt to it, it was clear even from Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels that the fate of the Natty Bumppo figure was the same as that of the Indian—extinction before the march of civilization. The military aristocrat, represented in Cooper’s novels of colonial Indian wars by the young officer who is guided by Bumppo and ends up marrying the heroine, has a future. The resourcefulness, decisiveness, and aptitude for command that he derives from surviving in the wilderness and fighting Indians—his ability to deal with a savage environment without developing savage traits and forgetting that he is the agent of order and progress—have important uses in postfrontier America.

Before the soldier-aristocrat could become the protagonist in a reformulated frontier myth, according to Slotkin, the sectional conflict and the Civil War were required to remove the obstacles raised by the South to the progress of industrial capitalism. The breathtaking ambitiousness and scope of his study first become apparent when Slotkin tries to reinterpret the ideological conflict over slavery as reflecting frontier mythology. Both sides attempted to appropriate aspects of the frontier myth. The northern Republicans not only argued that the expansion of slavery into the territories threatened to close prematurely the safety valve that insured the North’s allegedly open and democratic society against social stratification and upheaval. They also used race warfare on the frontier as a metaphor for the sectional conflict itself, seeing the “barbaric” southerners as Indians, and Yankees as the defenders of civilization.

Southern sectionalists on the other hand identified their rule over “savage” blacks with efforts to conquer savagery on the frontier, and argued that slavery was the only alternative to a war of extermination when distinct and unequal races confronted each other. Neither set of analogies was fully consistent with the original myth, and efforts to transfer the redeeming aura of frontier heroism to sectional violence and its practitioners did not quite work. Attempts to cast John Brown or William Walker (the proslavery filibusterer who seized power in Nicaragua during the 1850s) as Natty Bumppo or as a military aristocrat foundered in the face of glaring contradictions. The nation had to be reunified by force before the frontier myth of “regeneration through violence” could be reconstituted to generate meanings for an industrial age.

After the Civil War, according to Slotkin, the version of the frontier myth that envisioned a peaceable occupation of the West by yeoman farmers was played down and the image of race war to the death achieved greater salience than ever before. The book’s most original and important argument is that the myth makers of the Gilded Age made the frontier of Indian wars into a metaphor for class conflict in industrial society, turning the soldier-aristocrat into the savior of civilized society in urban America as well as on the edges of settlement. In the wake of great strikes, such as the insurrectionary railroad strike of 1877, spokesmen for the dominant class of industrialists, financiers, and merchants became apocalyptic in their view of future relations between capital and labor; they not only adopted the language of Indian fighting, turning striking workers and unemployed “tramps” into “savages” who had to be tamed or exterminated, but also advocated methods for dealing with “the dangerous classes” similar to those employed against “Redskins” on the frontier.

In John Hay’s popular antilabor novel The Breadwinners, the hero is a cultivated ex-army officer fresh from years of fighting for civilization in the West. When his neighborhood is threatened by mobs of strikers during a great labor upheaval, he first seeks in vain to enlist the help of a civil authority dominated by a political machine based on immigrant votes. He then leads a private paramilitary force that stands up to the mob in defense of property, order, and female virtue. In this novel and in similar expressions of elite anxiety about industrial conflict, Slotkin finds that a confrontation of social classes is being redefined as a struggle of races and cultures. As the frontier closes, the urban-industrial East is seen as the new combat zone in the perpetual war between civilization and savagery, which is the price of progress.

It is against this background that Slotkin views the myths of Custer’s Last Stand. His detailed account of Custer’s popular image and of the meanings that were assigned to his annihilation at Little Bighorn in 1876 serves as the climax of his study. His principal sources here are the newspapers that reported in great detail on Custer’s expeditions and on his ultimate martyrdom. He shows how editors placed stories about the troubles Indians were giving to army commanders seeking to pacify the West alongside accounts of violence involving industrial workers and the urban poor. He also documents similarities in the language used to describe frontier wars and industrial disorders in the cities. Some editorials drew explicit parallels between the two.

When Custer and his men were slaughtered, the event rapidly became the basis for a myth with wide application. Custer himself became the archetype of the soldier-aristocrat who dies with his boots on to defend civilization against its class and race enemies. The manner of his death showed the barbarity and viciousness of savage hordes or masses, and made legitimate the use of deadly force against them. After the massacre, the Indians were easily defeated and forced onto reservations, but the emotions, images, and myths brought to the surface by the Last Stand were indelibly etched into the culture. In Slotkin’s view they greatly strengthened the enduring conviction that preserving the American way of life may require willingness to use violence to the point of extermination against alien races, rebellious social groups, and ideological movements that threaten the nation’s commitment to liberal capitalism.3

This is a book that is not easily read and digested. It shifts back and forth between a close reading of particular texts and a kind of general commentary on American culture that some readers may find prolix, repetitive, and didactic. It reconceives the central concerns of nineteenth-century American culture in a way that no serious student of the American mind and imagination can afford to ignore, but like many authors with a good thesis Slotkin sometimes rides it too hard.

When I first read his claims that the myth of redemptive frontier violence vitally affected perceptions of such deep American problems as the place of slavery and its black victims in a democratic republic or the relations of classes in an industrial capitalist society, I kept asking myself how different these perceptions would have been if the West had been literally uninhabited and no Indian wars had been necessary to settle it. It seems likely that the conflicts inherent in slavery and industrialization would have generated apocalyptic fears and fantasies of violent and final solutions even if there had been no frontier myth. But perhaps I was being too literal minded and missing the point. Policies and attitudes might have been similar, but the myths that people used to pattern their beliefs and experiences would presumably have taken a different form, and this might well have affected their relevance for future generations seeking to meet new challenges in ways that conformed to traditional expectations.

Possibly, however, my uncertainty about how much Slotkin is claiming derives from a lack of clarity in the book about the relationship between myth and behavior. At one point Slotkin denies that the peculiar place of violence in American mythology means that the United States has actually been more violent than other modernizing societies. He suggests that genocidal fantasies and imagery do not necessarily lead to genocidal actions. One might conclude, therefore, that myths are like Freudian dreams and reflect repressed wishes rather than real intentions to act. But in his discussions of how various groups have made use of the frontier myth in the pursuit of social and economic dominance over other groups, classes, and races or to justify American wars abroad, Slotkin goes further than this. It becomes clear that, in his view, myths can perform the ideological function of persuading people to act against what one presumes are their real interests.

In his theoretical discussion of the relationship between myth and ideology, Slotkin in effect subsumes myth under ideology by distinguishing between “ideology proper,” which takes the form of rational argument, and the promulgation of similar, socially determined meanings in the form of stereotyped narratives and images. If myth is thus a variety of ideology or performs much the same function, what are we to make of the stories and images that persist in a culture even though they appear to convey meanings and values that are contrary to dominant and official ideologies? A classic example is the “bad man” myth which glorifies bandits and other apparently antisocial types. Jesse James is not mentioned by Slotkin, and one wonders what he would have made of this species of western hero.

Even in the case of the Indian frontier, there often appears to be a conflict between formal ideologies and the prevalent narrative images. The respectable and official way to think about resolving the “Indian question” was to put emphasis on curing the aboriginals of their savagery and assimilating them into civilized society. But, as Slotkin reveals in great detail, the portrayal of relations between Indians and whites in popular writing dwells on the violence that is required to subdue the “savages” and betrays a strong conviction that native Americans are irredeemable. Similarly, no “proper” ideologists that I know of ever advocated a war of extermination between capital and labor, except a few on the extreme left.

The dominant view of the middle and upper classes of the Gilded Age was that proper education and indoctrination could instill bourgeois values into the working class, thus ensuring social order and harmony. The explicit portrayal of labor conflict as a kind of savage or race war is actually hard to find except in a few cataclysmic novels, most of which were written as cautionary tales by radicals. Slotkin finds such a correlation implied in the analogies made between strikers and Indians, but was it the ideal of extermination or cultural assimilation that was at work? No doubt some members of the privileged classes had fantasies about a world without workers, just as southern white supremacists fantasized about the total elimination of blacks. But in neither case was such a solution possible or really desired. Only in the case of Indians could the fantasy come to a limited fruition, but even here such a final solution was rarely recommended as a deliberate policy. Official ideology in all of these cases was pacific, progressive, and allegedly benevolent, while mythology revealed a darker strain of hatred and aggression.

In suggesting that the mythology of race war was in harmony with the dominant ideology of liberal capitalism, Slotkin probably underestimates the degree of ambivalence and contradiction in American culture. Makers of ideology and makers of myth may at times have been working at cross-purposes. We may suspect that bloodthirsty mythology provides a deeper insight into popular values than official ideologies of a more pacific nature. But we should also recognize that the preachings of idealists and humanitarians could put some limits on how far apocalyptic fantasies could be carried. Slotkin reveals much about a particularly virulent strain of American mythology that can still influence popular attitudes—for example, in a hostage crisis when graffiti demand that we “nuke” Iran or the Shi’ites. But he has raised more questions than he has answered about the complex interplay between what we say we believe in our “proper” ideological discourse and some of the meanings that arise from the myths and images that we venerate.

  1. 1

    Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Harvard University Press, 1950); Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953). A revised edition of Pearce was published in 1965 under the title Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind

  2. 2

    Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Wesleyan University Press, 1973). 

  3. 3

    The Custer story continues to fascinate the reading public, as evidenced by the recent popular success of Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (North Point Press, 1984). But Connell’s fine narrative history seems to break out of the mold of Last Stand mythology as described by Slotkin. He neither portrays Custer as a hero nor inverts the myth, as there was a tendency to do in the 1960s, by making Custer a villain and his Indian opponents exemplars of absolute virtue. Connell’s Custer seems to be more of a fool than anything else. The conflict of soldiers and Indians on the Great Plains is presented as so confused, sordid, and brutal a business that it is hard to find in it the basis for any kind of heroic myth.