Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History", and Other EssaysBook - 1998
In 1893 a young Frederick Jackson Turner stood before the American Historical Association and delivered his famous frontier thesis. To a less than enthusiastic audience, he argued that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development"; that this frontier accounted for American democracy and character; and that the frontier had closed forever with uncertain consequences for the American future. Despite the indifference of Turner's first audience, his essay would soon prove to be the single most influential piece of writing on American history, with extraordinary impact both in intellectual circles and in popular literature. Within a few years his views had become the dominant interpretation of the American past. A collection of his essays won the Pulitzer Prize, and for almost half a century, Turner's thesis was the most familiar model taught in schools, extolled by politicians, and screened in fictional form at local movie theaters each Saturday afternoon. Now, a hundred years after Turner's famous address, award-winning biographer John Mack Faragher collects and introduces the pioneer historian's ten most significant essays. Remarkable for their truly modern sense that a debate about the past is simultaneously a debate about the present, these essays remain stimulating reading, both as a road map to the early-twentieth-century American mind and as a model of committed scholarship. Faragher introduces us to Turner's work with a look at his role as a public intellectual and his effect on Americans' understanding of their national character. In the afterword, Faragher turns to the recent heated debate over Turner's legacy. Western history has reemerged in the news as historians argue over Turner's place in our current mind-set. In a world of dizzying intellectual change, it may come as something of a surprise that historians have taken so long to overturn the interpretation of a century-old conference paper. But while some claim that Turner's vision of the American West as a great egalitarian land of opportunity was long ago dismissed, others, in the words of historian Donald Worster, maintain that Turner still "presides over western history like a Holy Ghost.". Against this backdrop, Faragher looks at what the concept of the West means to us today and provides a reader's guide to the provocative new literature of the American frontier. Rereading these essays in the fresh light of Faragher's analysis brings new appreciation for the richness of Turner's work and an understanding of contemporary historians' admiration for Turner's commitment to the study of what it has meant to be American.
Publisher: New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 1998.
Characteristics: 255 pages ; 22 cm