Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

By Matthew Rebhorn | Go to book overview

(1889–1896), and yet it was Turner’s definition of what the frontier meant to Americans at the meeting of the American Historical Association at the 1893 exposition that has captured the minds of critics.4 So initially successful was the thesis among historians, as Rosemarie K. Bank relates, that, by the 1930s, “the American Historical Association was branded one great Turner-verian.”5 Perhaps one of the reasons that Turner’s definition of the frontier has been so highly popular is its simplicity. “The frontier is the outer edge of the wave” of American advancement across the continent, Turner wrote, “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”6 For Turner, the frontier is a world of easily discernible binaries, a line clearly separating who “we” are from who “they” are, who is civilized from who is savage, not a “middle ground,” as Richard White has suggested, or a “contact zone,” as Mary Louise Pratt has argued.7

Moreover, for Turner, the clarity of this line helps us see more distinctly the genesis of the American character, for it is the “line of the most rapid and effective Americanization” (3–4). In the “crucible of the frontier,” he argues, immigrants and other “foreigners” are forged into Americans, that is, “a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics” (23). Turner also then obliges us by outlining exactly what those new frontier characteristics of Americans are:

The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practi-
cal, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material
things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous
energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that
buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier,
or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days
when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been
another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone
from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced
upon them. (37)

Hearing these American traits—coarseness, strength, practicality, energy, individualism—expounded on in Chicago in 1893 audience members at Turner’s lecture were encouraged to merge their ideas of what constituted an American with what defined the frontier. How they defined the frontier became synonymous with how they identified and defined themselves. As Turner put it: “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (2–3).

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