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20090116 Turner and Whitman

Page history last edited by Brian Croxall 11 years, 9 months ago

Summary of class

In the nineteenth century, the nation’s push westward thanks 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 where there were less than two people per square mile, suggesting that the frontier had been closed.

 

In "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," (1893)[1] Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the frontier was responsible for 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 narrative that we tell about ourselves.

 

Turner's "frontier thesis" is one articulation of the difference between the country and the 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 broke radically from previous poetic tradition. He abandoned traditional poetic diction and meter, choosing to write his poems as though they were common, democratic speech. The result is "free verse." Whitman's subject matter also broached new topics: common people, the body, and sex. Finally, Whitman's poetic persona can become those whom he observes, allowing him to understand others regardless of race, class, or gender. This identification with others happens within "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and the poem is concerned with the urban experience of crowds.

 

Word count: 305

 

Passages

"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.

 

"Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Clouds of the west--sun there half an hour high--I see you also face to face.

 

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning hom, are more curious to me than you suppose,

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose." (Whitman, 21, lines 1-5)

 

  • Whitman opens the poem by telling the reader where and when he is: on the ferry that crosses between Brooklyn and Manhattan, half an hour before sunset. In class, we discussed what the "costumes" might be that he observes on the men and women. While it could represent their daily clothing or their bodies--an object of interest to Whitman in general--I suggested that it might suggest the face and behavior that people take on when moving through large crowds in an urban environment. Whitman is interested in the relationships between people in a crowded city ("What is it then between us? [line 54]). He looks to future moments, when the reader will cross the river similarly and suggests that he is aware of us and that our experiences will be the same as his in the present moment. 

 

"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. 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.

 

Terms

  • Americanization - the process by which people became "American." Throughout the end of the nineteenth century, there were debates about national identity, as well as how and who should become citizens of the nation. The concept of America as a melting pot is one model of Americanization.
  • 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.
  • teleology - from the Greek telos or "end" or "purpose," it is the belief that there is a particular goal or end point to a process. For Turner, the teleology of the frontier was that it became the city.

 

Other class materials

  • John F. Kennedy speaking about the frontier of the 1960s (acceptance speech for Democratic nomination, July 15, 1960).
  • John F. Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech, announcing the space program at Rice University, September 12, 1962).
    • 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.

  • The slides from the lecture. 

Footnotes

  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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