The fatal environment : the myth of the frontier in the age of industrialization, 1800-1890 /

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Main Author: Slotkin, Richard, 1942-
Format: Book
Language:English
Edition:1st ed.
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Review by Choice Review

Using his expertise in American civilization and building on his earlier work, Regeneration Through Violence (CH, Jun '73), Slotkin has written a compelling book about the meaning of the American frontier experience in American myth. He draws upon the speeches and writings of a variety of Americans, especially literary figures. The author argues that the idea of the frontier as myth is as old as the US itself. It was first used to rationalize the deeds of a colonial people, and next the actions of an expanding agrarian republic. Over the years the myth has been transmogrified to justify the actions of an industrial republic, and it continues to be used to explain US policies and actions. Indeed, Slotkin maintains that as the actual frontier has receded, the myth of the frontier has intensified. Slotkin states that the concepts of virgin land and Indian-white confrontation have been basic. Since the latter part of the 19th century, he says, the most important event in the Indian-white confrontation portion of the myth was Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn, popularly known as Custer's Last Stand. Slotkin's text, footnotes, and bibliography indicate his familiarity with the American frontier in both American history and American literature. This book complements Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land (1950) and Richard Drinnon's Facing West (1980). Highly recommended for college and university libraries.-L.B. Gimelli, Eastern Michigan University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In following up on his earlier study, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1850 (1973), Slotkin, who teaches English and directs the American Studies program at Wesleyan U., treads a fine line between illumination and chaos in tracing out myths, allegories, and metaphors in a variety of 19th-century sources. Myth is understood here as a story a culture tells itself while interpreting its own history, and the myth of the frontier is certainly one we've heard about before. No one denies that there was a frontier out there: Slotkin's subject is the meaning Americans found there or projected onto it. But by considering historical records, biographies, novels, political manifestoes, and newspaper stories in terms of their contribution to myth, Slotkin comes close to turning everything into myth--particularly, myth in the service of ideology. Slotkin says that ""The Myth of the Frontier is the American version of the larger mythideological system generated by the social conflicts that attended the 'modernization' of the Western nations, the emergence of capitalist economies and nation-states. The major cultural tasks of this ideology were to rationalize and justify the departures from tradition that necessarily accompanied these developments."" This was accomplished, he thinks, willy-nilly. Slotkin points to the novels of Cooper, written when it appeared that the limits of the frontier had been reached, which portrayed a kind of natural aristocracy in the person of the frontiersman and a culture of hierarchy and deference, all of which was threatened by the close of the frontier and the encroachment of lower social orders. The relationship between expansion and social order is followed through in the literature extolling the plantation as a kind of utopia and in the many stories depicting the city as an overcrowded nest of corruption and disorder. In the 1840s, another push westward revitalized the frontier image and produced real but mythologized figures such as Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, themselves recreations, as interpreted here, of Daniel Boone and George Washington, respectively. (The ambiguity of American attitudes toward the Indian is also wrapped up in these figures.) But the main myth covered by Slotkin, and the one that remolds all that preceded it, is that of Custer and the Last Stand. Slotkin recounts Custer's life and career, loading it with significance: he is said to embody sexual ambiguity, to represent (as the Boy General of the Civil War) the revolt of sons against fathers, to reverse the life's order of a Boone or Crockett by seeking the metropolis rather than fleeing it. But in what is perhaps the study's most original part, Slotkin then goes through the newspapers and reconstitutes the interpretations of the Last Stand--concluding that the imagery of Custer's showdown with Sitting Bull served as a justification for harsher treatment of savagery, and that savagery was easily translated into the urban lower orders. Custer then came to symbolize the inevitable victory of progress over nature and the use of force in ensuring it. The myth of the frontier then ambled on, Slotkin says, until Mark Twain buried it, in literary terms at least, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). A large work covering a large literature, in which the incessant and sometimes incoherent use of the category of myth will drive some to a frenzy. But Slotkin's labors are not beyond redemption; and if a lot of this sounds vaguely familiar or wildly overstated, there's at least enough vigor and new ground to make up for the rest. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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