Book Review

Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of Native America, 1890-1990. By Kerwin L. Klein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Bibliography. Notes. ix + 377 pages. $45.00 cloth.

Reviewed by James O. Gump, Professor of History, University of San Diego, author of The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux, a History Book Club Selection.


In 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner stood before members of the American Historical Association in Chicago and read his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” he presented a view of America’s past that resonated with his audience’s intrinsic faith in American exceptionalism. Turner’s claims that the “frontier” experience produced American democracy and shaped the American character met little resistance from fellow historians until the Yale historian George W. Pierson advanced a systematic critique of the frontier hypothesis in the early 1940s. Other trenchant reviews followed, and by the 1970s the Turner thesis, in the estimation of most professional historians, had been reduced to a historical relic. Kerwin L. Klein, an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, traces the rather familiar historiographical trajectory of Turner’s frontier hypothesis in part one of his Frontiers of the Historical Imagination.

In part two, however, Klein moves beyond these familiar Turnerian debates to explore the epistemological contours of Turner’s emplotment of history. Klein tells us that Turner, at his grandest, was an “American Dante.” Turner, admittedly no systematic philosopher, conceptualized history as a dialectical process “in which dramatic conflicts between moral forces resolve into higher, transcendent syntheses without ever fully vanishing” (p. 59). At its simplest, Turner’s narrative projects a celebratory romance of the white male frontiersman and his conquest of nature and “savagery.” Native Americans, the personification of Turnerian savagery, do not figure prominently in Turner’s story of the West, except insofar as the indigenous “threat” helped forge a collective identity among the Euro-American pioneers.

Klein’s book examines how scholars since the time of Turner have imagined this western past. He then proceeds to delineate the various narrative strategies they have employed to tell about it. As Klein puts it, his book “traces a critical genealogy of the narrative traditions through which historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and literary critics have understood the European occupation of Native America, and explores how these understandings shaped and were shaped by changing conceptions of history” (p. 6). At times, Klein’s ponderous prose overwhelms the reader and undermines an otherwise rich and varied text. On the other hand, Klein’s mastery of contemporary historiography and philosophy of history, outlined in his bibliography, is impressive indeed. Such command is especially noteworthy in parts three and four, in which Klein surveys the scholarship of William Christie MacLeod, Ruth Benedict, Gloria Anzaldua, Americo Paredes, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Edward H. Spicer. According to Klein, the ethnohistory practiced by such writers “helped to realize the original promise of scholarly frontier narrative by returning the colonial encounters with Native America to the very heart of national memory” (p. 210).

Klein contends that ethnography transformed the Turnerian frontier into multiple frontiers, divided along ethnic lines. Hence, the frontier narrative itself became more complex, configured variously as an assimilationist tragedy, a tale of cultural continuity, a story of native resistance, or in the case of Edward Spicer, “a frontier tragicomedy of differentiation and homogenization” (p. 278). Spicer, in particular, succeeded in constructing a nuanced and convincing frontier narrative. In his Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960 (1962), Spicer analyzes the encounter among Native Americans, Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Mexicanos, a story that includes assimilation, accommodation, resistance, and the invention of novel ways of being Indian, Mexicano, and Anglo. For Spicer, a frontier is both an imaginative as well as a geographic space, a place of destruction as well as creation. As Klein suggests, Spicer’s major thesis, “that European imperialism had produced a globe in which cultural differentiation and homogenization interwove in a periodic tragicomedy,”(p. 277), compares very well to the apparently more sophisticated postmodern studies by James Clifford, Jacques Derrida, and Stephen Greenblatt. Certainly Spicer’s work, if not Klein’s, is far more readable.