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20100112-all Turner, Whitman, and Dickinson

Page history last edited by Brian Croxall 10 years, 10 months ago

Summary of class

In the nineteenth century, the nation pushed westward due to the acquisition of new territories, the discovery of gold in California, the concept of "manifest destiny," and new technologies such as the transcontinental railroad. By 1890, there was no portion of the country with less than two people per square mile and some suggested that the frontier had been closed.


In "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," (1893)][1] Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier created the American character. He claimed that people moving west repeatedly had to "return to primitive conditions" and build up society again. Americans differed from Europeans through their continual encounter with an unpopulated frontier, which resulted in a "perennial rebirth" that "furnish[ed] the forces dominating American character" (1150). Throughout US history and culture, the frontier has remained a powerful story that we tell about ourselves.


Turner's "frontier thesis" is one articulation of the difference between country and city. While he sees the city as the apex of American civilization, he believes that the loss of the frontier means that the city could lose some of its vigor. Throughout the course, we will consider how authors represent the city and the rural.


Turner's thesis represents the country positively, and Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" does the same for the city. Whitman’s work--like Dickinson's--broke radically from previous poetic tradition. Where hers is short, structured, rhymed, and adopted different personae, Whitman abandoned traditional poetic meter, choosing to write his very long poems in what becomes known as "free verse." Whitman himself is his poetry's central character, even as he attempts to write widely enough so as to democratically capture the whole of the American experience. Throughout the course, we will be interested in tracing subsequent poets' approaches to the examples of Whitman and Dickinson.


Word count: 299



"The peculiarity of American institutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people--to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life" (Turner 1149).


  • In this passage, we see Turner's "frontier thesis": that America has become what it is through the presence of the frontier. The government, culture, and character of the American people, in other words, are shaped by the presence of the frontier.


"The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, anmd thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Ioquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe..." (Turner 1150).


  • Interestingly, although the frontier is the place where the "most rapid and effective Americanization" takes place, the result of this process is someone who looks and acts very much like a Native American. Nevertheless, Turner more or less ignores native populations throughout his "frontier thesis," talking about how the loss of the large space of "free land"--free suggesting that there is no one there who might already have had a claim to it--marks the end of the first period of American development. 


"These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,

I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,

The men and women I saw were all near to me,

Others the same--others who looked back on me because I look'd forward to them,

(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)" (Whitman, 23, lines 49-52)


  • In the fourth section of the poem, Whitman opens by telling the reader that her/his experiences of the city and the waterfront (which we encounter in the third section) are identical with his own. That the reader's and Whitman's experiences are aligned so closely suggests Whitman's ability to merge with other personalities and to be representative of the American experience. In the second line of this excerpt, we see his declaration of love for the city. Whitman saw cities as important places for the democracy of the United States and felt that they were important to depict. The appeal of the city lies perhaps chiefly in the opportunity it gives him to see other people and to be aware of others within this democracy. He invites their stares back (at least before we get to the creepy seventh section of the poem). At the same time, the city is intersected by the river, which makes his journey possible, giving him the opportunity to stand close and observe so many other people. Nature is something, then, that Whitman values but--at least in this case--for how it has been subsumed and used within an urban environment.  



  • free verse - a form of poetry in which there is no regular rhythmic pattern or rhyme scheme. The line lengths can vary greatly within one poem and across different poems, but poems in free verse are still broken into lines rather than being printed in continuous lines of prose.
  • frontier - Turner defined it as the portion of the country where the population density is two people or less per square mile.


Other class materials

  • Slides from class



  • John F. Kennedy speaking about the frontier of the 1960s (acceptance speech for Democratic nomination, July 15, 1960).

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Later on in the speech, he says, "And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this state, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space" (emphasis added, Link). 


  • The introduction to the original Star Trek, also from the 1960s, makes use of the same organizing myth/story of the frontier.

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  1. This is the date for this essay that you would be expected to know for the exam. You might want to think about highlighting such dates for your classmates when it's your group's turn to write the day's notes.

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