History, frontier, and section: three essays

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But almost all agree -- some jubilantly, some ambivalently -- that the history of the American West will never look the same. Central to almost all descriptions of the new history is an obligatory, almost ritualistic repudiation of Frederick Jackson Turner. The "frontier thesis" may long ago have lost its allure in other areas of American history, but it retains a perverse hold on students of the West.

Turner, who was born in the frontier town of Portage, Wis. He is, the revisionist historians believe, the idol who must be toppled if the field is to revive and grow. The new historians fault Turner and his latter-day disciples for many things, but most of all for what they consider his ethnocentrism, his triumphalism, his emphasis on individualism and his insistence that Western history as a distinct field of study ends in The essence of the new Western history lies in its effort to challenge the Turnerians on each of those points. Where Turner saw the 19th-century West as free land awaiting the expansion of Anglo-American settlement and American democracy, the new scholars reject the concept of a frontier altogether and go to considerable lengths to avoid using the word.

They emphasize, instead, the elaborate and highly developed civilizations Native American, Hispanic, mixed-blood or "metis" and others that already existed in the region. In their view, white English-speaking Americans did not so much settle the West as conquer it. That conquest, moreover, was never complete.

The Comparative Imagination

Anglo-Americans in the West continue to share the region not only with the Indians who preceded them there, but also with the African-Americans, Asians, Latin Americans and others who flowed into the West at the same time they did. Western history, the new scholars maintain, is a process of cultural convergence, a constant competition and interaction -- economic, political, cultural, and linguistic -- among diverse peoples.

The Turnerian West was a place of heroism, triumph and above all progress, a place where Anglo-Americans spread democracy and civilization into untamed lands. The West the new historians describe is a much less happy place -- a land in which bravery and success coexist with oppression, greed and failure; in which decaying ghost towns, bleak Indian reservations, impoverished barrios and ecologically devastated landscapes are as characteristic of Western development as great ranches, rich farms and prosperous cities.

TO Turner and his disciples, the 19th-century West was a place where rugged individualism flourished and replenished American democracy. To the new scholars, Western individualism is a self-serving myth. They argue that the region was always inextricably tied to a national and international capitalist economy; indeed, the only thing that sustained Anglo-American settlement of the West was the demand in other places for its natural resources.

Western "pioneers" were never self-sufficient. They depended on Government-subsidized railroads for access to markets, Federal troops for protection from Indians, and later Government-funded dams and canals for irrigating their fields and sustaining their towns. And while Turner defined the West as a process of settlement that came to an end with the "closing of the frontier" in the late 19th century, the new historians see the West as a region.

Its history does not end in It continues into our own time. Anyone looking for a clear indication of what the new Western history actually looks like as opposed to how its champions define themselves theoretically would do well to begin with Richard White's " 'It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own,' " an excellent new synthesis of Western history designed for the textbook market. That market has been dominated for years by one of the monuments of the Turnerian West: "Westward Expansion," by Turner's biographer and indefatigable disciple Ray Allen Billington.

It was recently revised by Martin Ridge. White has launched a formidable challenge to it. He is a lively, graceful writer which by itself makes this an unusual textbook , and he tells a story very different from the traditional picture of the progress of Anglo-American civilization, but no less compelling. White emphasizes the complicated interactions among the many peoples of the West, not just the seemingly inevitable triumph of English-speaking whites. He challenges the heavily masculine bias of traditional Western history and makes women and gender relations central to the story, illuminating the ways in which the harsh realities of frontier life provided opportunities for women to exert influence far beyond the home.

The Frontier in American History

He stresses the continual and decisive involvement of the Federal Government in almost every area of Western development. He tells the story of harsh battles over land, water, language and political power -- battles that were not confined to and did not end with the defeat of the Western tribes. He devotes nearly half his book to the 20th century Billington's narrative essentially stopped in the 's.

And he situates the development of the West solidly within the larger story of the advance of industrial capitalism.

His book suggests that the "new Western history," which proclaimed its own birth only a few years ago, is rapidly coming of age. White said recently, at a conference of new Western historians in Santa Fe, N. The novelist Larry McMurtry, for example, published a long essay in The New Republic two years ago maintaining that by their emphasis on the many failures and tragedies that undoubtedly characterized the Western past, the new Western historians overlooked the bold dreams and romantic hopes that drove so many people to "go west" to start anew.

The creators of what he called "Failure Studies" had themselves failed, he said, "because they so rarely do justice to the quality of imagination that constitutes part of the truth. AND in , the National Museum of American Art in Washington mounted "The West as America," a large, ambitious exhibition of 19th-century Western American art accompanied by an extensive commentary that reflected some of the assumptions of the new Western history.

The critical reaction was remarkably harsh. That was, in part, because of the condescending didacticism of some of the wall texts, burdened, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times observed in an article on the controversy surrounding the exhibition, "with forced analyses and inflammatory observations. But in larger part, it seems clear, it was because the exhibit -- by calling attention to the propagandistic quality of the art -- debunked some of America's most cherished myths.

It was, critics such as Robert Hughes and Benjamin Forgey charged, an exercise in simple-minded "political correctness. It refused to acknowledge that the Anglo-American presence in the West had contributed anything positive to the region. The exhibition and the revisionist scholarship it reflected had left no place for the romantic, individualistic West of the Anglo-American imagination. In fact, the new Western historians are well aware of the role of myth and imagination in the history of their region, but they are wary of its influence.

The first major work of revisionist scholarship in the field was Henry Nash Smith's "Virgin Land," published in --a brilliant exploration of the myths and symbols that shaped American images of the West. Its influence is very much alive today in the work of the new revisionists, many of whom are centrally concerned with the role of myth and imagination in the Western past.

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What distinguishes them from most earlier historians and from their own present-day critics is their insistence on stripping Western myths of their spurious factual support -- of exposing them for the self-serving illusions they usually were. Shattering the myths of the American West is indeed startling to the millions of people around the world whose image of the region has been shaped by Hollywood and the rest of American popular culture.

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But to academic historians in other fields, it is sometimes difficult to understand what all the shouting is about. For much of what is new in the history of the West is not new at all to American history generally, which has been preoccupied for years now with issues of racial diversity, class conflict and gender relations, and which rejected the progressive, triumphalist, ethnocentric assumptions of the Turner thesis two generations ago.

Most of the new Western historians share a belief, as the editors of "Under an Open Sky" put it, "that one cannot understand the modern United States without coming to terms with its Western past. It requires considering not so much what is new as what is distinctively Western about the history they are attempting to explain. Rating details. All Languages. More filters. Sort order. Terrance Hayes rated it really liked it Oct 13, Via rated it liked it Jul 31, Adam Barnhart rated it really liked it Sep 03, Priscilla rated it really liked it Aug 30, Steihl rated it really liked it Sep 03, Valerie Curtis marked it as to-read Dec 01, Rkq added it Jan 24, Alexander marked it as to-read Mar 01, Heidi marked it as to-read Aug 24, Max marked it as to-read Sep 25, Amani Malika marked it as to-read Aug 24, Erin marked it as to-read Aug 01, TK marked it as to-read Apr 05, Hallie Rose marked it as to-read Apr 12, Max McDevitt added it Apr 28, There are no discussion topics on this book yet.

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About Frederick Jackson Turner. Frederick Jackson Turner.


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Frederick Jackson Turner was an American historian in the early 20th century, based at the University of Wisconsin until , and then at Harvard. He promoted interdisciplinary and quantitative methods, often with a focus on the Midwest. He is best known for his es Frederick Jackson Turner was an American historian in the early 20th century, based at the University of Wisconsin until , and then at Harvard.

He argued that the moving western frontier shaped American democracy and the American character from the colonial era until He is also known for his theories of geographical sectionalism. In recent years historians and academics have argued strenuously over Turner's work; all agree that the Frontier Thesis has had an enormous impact on historical scholarship and the American soul.