American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

frontier which produced Anderw Jackson, wrote Turner with approval in 1903, was "free from the influence of European ideas and institutions. The men of the 'Western World' turned their backs upon the Atlantic Ocean, and with a grim energy and self-reliance began to build up a society free from the dominance of ancient forms."1 It was only later, when he was trying to find a theoretical basis for democracy outside the frontier, that Turner criticized the American attitude of "contemptuous indifference" to the social legislation of European countries.2

But if interpretation of the West in terms of the idea of nature tended to cut the region off from the urban East and from Europe, the opposed idea of civilization had even greater disadvantages. It not only imposed on Westerners the stigma of social, ethical, and cultural inferiority, but prevented any recognition that the American adventure of settling the continent had brought about an irruption of novelty into history. For the theory of civilization implied that America in general, and the West a fortiori, were meaningless except in so far as they managed to reproduce the achievements of Europe. The capital difficulty of the American agrarian tradition is that it accepted the paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization as a general principle of historical and social interpretation. A new intellectual system was requisite before the West could be adequately dealt with in literature or its social development fully understood.

Perry Miller


Errand into the Wilderness

{The title of an election sermon preached in 1670 provided the fitting title for an exhibition of New England imprints at the John Carter Brown Library in Brown University, where I delivered this address on May 16, 1952. Only thereafter did I discover that the Reverend Samuel Danforth had also given me a title.

In his own language, Danforth was trying to do what I too am attempting: to make out some deeper configuration in the story than a mere modification, by obvious and natural necessity, of an imported European culture in adjustment to a frontier. He recognized, as

____________________
Reprinted by permission of the publishers from Errand into the Wilderness by Perry Miller, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright 1956 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
1
The Frontier in American History, p. 253 ( 1903).
2
Ibid, p. 294 ( 1914). In the 1903 article Turner had emphasized the contrast between American democracy, which was "fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West," and the "modern efforts of Europe to create an artificial democratic order by legislation" (ibid., p. 266). The implication is clearly that American democracy is the opposite of artificial, i.e., natural, and that this natural origin establishes its superiority.

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