Race to the Frontier: "White Flight" and Westward Expansion

Race to the Frontier: "White Flight" and Westward Expansion

Race to the Frontier: "White Flight" and Westward Expansion

Race to the Frontier: "White Flight" and Westward Expansion

Excerpt

At the end of Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn, his eponymous young hero, Huck, makes up his mind to leave all his troubles behind, escape the constraints and woes of society, and forge a new life for himself by heading west: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” Huck confides to the reader, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to sivilize [sic] me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” For Huck, the vast, nebulous mass of land on the far side of the Mississippi stands for all that the world of kindly aunts, riverboat pirates, fast-talking charlatans, fugitive-slave hunters, and cutthroat murderers he has come to know lacks—freedom, independence, a kind of radical innocence. To him, the West offers a fresh start, a new beginning. Moreover, it seems to Huck a place where he and his companion, the former slave Jim, can become true friends —where hatred between the races does not exist, and where blacks and whites can travel and live together, and no one else will object, send the law after them, or take Jim away, sobbing, in chains.

It was a grand but delusory hope—19 -century American optimism at its fullest—faith in the untrammeled natural world out there somewhere, far beyond the corrupting taint of civilization, where people were still good, and good to each other, no matter what the color of their skin. Blithely impervious to the true nature of the continent stretching all the way to the shores of the Pacific, oblivious to the fact that it was already populated—by people of many races already warring with one another over its land and other resources, a character like Huck saw the West as a tabula rasa. In his eyes, the frontier was a romantic refuge, a postlapsarian Garden of Eden. To many Americans of his era, it beckoned like a shimmering phantasmagoria, irresistibly alluring yet forever retreating into the mists as one came closer and hesitantly reached out to touch . . .

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