The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1995, Volume 41, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Frontier in American Culture.
By Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 129 pages. $15.00 paper.

Reviewed by Richard W. Steele, Professor of History, San Diego State University and author of The First Offensive, 1942, (1973) and Propaganda in an Open Society (1985).

This interesting volume was inspired by a 1994 Newberry Library exhibition of mostly nineteenth and early twentieth century posters, photographs, paintings, drawings, and other materials reflecting popular images of the American West. The book consists of a short introduction, two essays on frontier image themes, a set of color plate illustrations drawn from the exhibit, and a checklist of the materials exhibited.

Together they form a thoughtful and stimulating introduction to the origins of the frontier myth and its twentieth century legacy. Over the past twenty years professional historians have totally revised the picture of what had been called “Westward Movement,” and “the American frontier.” But while the late nineteenth century understanding of the West is no longer tenable, the imaginings of Americans on the subject is of continuing interest and significance. From whence did this selective rendering of real events spring? Why did it capture the imagination of the American people and assume the mythical properties that persist in the public’s mind to this day?

In “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill,” the first of the two essays in The Frontier in American Culture, Richard White explores the origins of Western mythology by analyzing the story of the West implicit in Turner’s essay on the frontier and in Buffalo Bill’s popular Wild West show. White’s piece is particularly useful in placing both Turner’s work and the Wild West show in cultural context, demonstrating by reference to the Newberry materials, that the images and themes evoked by the late nineteenth century chroniclers had long been part of American popular culture.

White’s analysis reveals a striking contradiction between the two stories, which nevertheless leave intact the underlying myth. In Turner’s account, the pioneers’ heroic efforts centered around civilizing a passive natural environment consisting of a largely empty wilderness. In Buffalo Bill’s, nature was not just there, but included hostile Indians who aggressively challenged the white man’s march of progress. But his depiction of these encounters, following a long tradition of such accounts, turned the natives’ defense of their homelands into their victimization of the whites. Thus, while he “included” the Indians, Buffalo Bill achieved the same effect as Turner by objectifying them as “natural” obstacles to be overcome. The process of including them in his show without acknowledging their role as dispossessed, left unambiguous the uplifting saga of westward expansion.

The ready public acceptance of the varying and at some levels contradictory, images offered by the scholar and the showman, rested on the glorious implications of their shared conclusions, and on the fact that many of their countrymen lamented with them the passing of this brief but inspiring epoch in the life of the nation. Patricia Nelson Limerick, in her essay “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century,” carries the story down to the present. Limerick begins by reviewing the inadequacies and distortions conveyed by the traditional version of “westward expansion,” but notes that the revisionist scholarship has left little impression on the general public. Americans continue to base their image of the experience on the versions of western history presented by Turner and Buffalo Bill, though they have adopted the traditional story to contemporary life. Her essay seeks the current popular understanding of the western experience and of the meaning for Americans now of the words “frontier” and “pioneer.” It is clear, she writes, that while historians may be anguishing over definitions, the public has no such uncertainty. The frontier today evokes what Americans almost universally take to be the spiritual essence of that particular historical experience. The pioneer then, as now, exemplifies the treasured instinct of “man” (and increasingly of woman as well) to pursue adventure and innovation. For most Americans, regardless of their differences, the efforts of the nation’s cultural forebears represent the value of the search for challenges, particularly those posed by the unknown. The locus of these pursuits, Limerick observes, is no longer principally a place, except in regard to space (“the final frontier”), but rather primarily in the opportunities of technological and commercial enterprise. “Pioneering” has also come to denote the activities of Americans (especially those of racial minorities) who have been exemplary in their efforts to “stand for the right and the good” (p. 93). This unspoken consensus on its meaning, Limerick argues, is of considerable cultural significance in that it serves as the “common property of the imagination that helps provide a degree of cultural unity” (p. 94) to a nation otherwise divided by its peoples’ varied cultural heritages and experiences.