When an Epoch Began: In a Single Year the Frontier Closed, a Course toward the Information Society Was Set, and the First Hints of a Culture of Irony Appeared. Robert McHenry Pinpoints the Birth of the 20th Century

By McHenry, Robert | The American (Washington, DC), September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

When an Epoch Began: In a Single Year the Frontier Closed, a Course toward the Information Society Was Set, and the First Hints of a Culture of Irony Appeared. Robert McHenry Pinpoints the Birth of the 20th Century


McHenry, Robert, The American (Washington, DC)


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If humans had six fingers on each hand, the likelihood is that we would have names for time spans of 12 and 144 years. As it is, by sheer evolutionary chance, we count in decades and centuries. This arbitrariness is then compounded by the fact that we number our years by an entirely accidental system of reckoning. Nonetheless, when the second digit from the right, and especially when the third one from the right, clicks over to the next increment, we tend to feel that some real milestone has been achieved, that somehow what follows will differ palpably from what came just before.

Later, looking back with some sort of organizing narrative in mind, we often find that we have to adjust the transition points a bit. So it is that, for example, "the Sixties," meaning in strict numerical terms the years 1960-1969 inclusive, now seems to refer to a period that for some began about 1963 or 1964--say, for convenience, with the "British invasion" of pop music, followed by the rest of the Swinging Britain business-but for others didn't really get underway until 1967 and the rise of psychedelia and all that. Or, since there can be no single authoritative narrative, maybe what happened is that the Fifties culminated in the British invasion, the truncated Sixties died abruptly in the recoil from Altamont, and then we gritted our teeth and got on with the Seventies.

However that may be, with that thought by way of disclaimer, I want to propose that the late and to a surprising degree unlamented 20th century began not in 1900 but in 1890. There are three strands to my argument:

I.

In the introductory summary of the published results of the 1890 census of the United States appeared this almost offhand comment:

      Up to and including 1880 the country had a
   frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled
   area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of
   settlement that there can hardly be said to be a
   frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its
   westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer
   have a place in the census reports.

Three years later a young historian at the University of Wisconsin gave a paper at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in which he took that comment as his text and proceeded to develop a deep and enduring interpretation of its significance. He said:

      This brief official statement marks the closing
   of a great historic movement. Up to our
   own day, American history has been in a large
   degree the history of the colonization of the
   Great West. The existence of an area of free
   land, its continuous recession, and the advance
   of American settlement westward explain
   American development....

      American social development has been
   continually beginning over again on the frontier.
   This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of
   American life, this expansion westward with
   its new opportunities, its continuous touch
   with the simplieity of primitive society, furnish
   the forces dominating American character.

This was the "Turner thesis," named for its author, Frederick Jackson Turner. He concluded his paper with this peroration:

      What the Mediterranean Sea was to the
   Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering
   new experiences, calling out new institutions
   and activities, that and more the ever retreating
   frontier has been to the United States
   directly, and to the nations of Europe more
   remotely. And now, four centuries from the
   discovery of America, at the end of a hundred
   years of life under the Constitution, the frontier
   has gone, and with its going has closed the
   first period of American history.

The Turner thesis has been disputed but never really refuted. There may be less there than Turner claimed, but there's something there nonetheless. …

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