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The concept of the wilderness has only been an issue of contention or debate for a little over two centuries according to some of our more modern writers. Before this period, it was considered a place of evil to be feared. This concept began to change as the processes of industrialization began taming the wilderness and making it safe for short-term visitors. These visitors, proponents of the Romantic ideology, saw in nature a reflection of the God they thought had abandoned them in the face of mechanization. However, not everyone saw it in the same way, particularly from one side of the ocean in the relatively more tamed environment of Europe to the other side of the ocean in the as yet to be explored empty stretches of the American continent. One writer who explored the meaning of the wilderness going into the 20th century and the modern period was Frederick Jackson Turner. This writer was fascinated by the implications for nation-building he saw as arising from the question of wilderness and what it meant for the people who entered it. It was the Great West, he argues, more than the growing East that shaped the American nation we know today. As revealed in the first chapter of his book The Frontier in American History, Turner sees the frontier as the defining principle of the American spirit in the way that it offered true freedom, encouraged individualism and survivalism to a much greater extent than in the old world and forced rapid social development ideas that William Cronan calls into question.
Freedom and Possibility
One of the first concepts that Turner equates with the wilderness is the concept that it represented an irresistible promise for freedom and possibility. Cronon points to Turner for the association of the wilderness with the foundational elements of true American identity. “Built into the frontier myth from its very beginning was the notion that this crucible of American identity was temporary and would pass away. Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever. That world and all of its attractions, Turner said, depended on free land—on wilderness” (Cronon, 23). This in itself represented a shift from the constrained and containable populations Europe and enabled a new discovery of self unequaled elsewhere. “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” (Turner, 2). The wilderness was directly next door to civilization and continued to be pressed further and further away from the eastern coasts, increasingly losing the identification with European, particularly English, sensibilities in favor of the true necessities of life and survival. “In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Turner, 3). As individuals who had spent the first several years of their lives in the colonies as indentured servants, slaves for all intents and purposes for the duration of their indenture, the wilderness provided free land and opportunity in exchange for hard work and intelligent effort regardless of the size of the pocketbook. They were happy to leave the rules of the old world behind and began forming a new identity.
Looking at it from Turner’s perspective, then, the wilderness becomes the birthplace of the individualism that is at the heart of the quintessential American spirit. “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, and thought … It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin … 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” (Turner, 5). This idea is echoed in Cronon’s work when he says “Seen in this way, wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American” (Cronan, 22). People came to the frontier for various reasons – as hunters, trappers, ranchers and farmers – but they quickly changed the face of this frontier as a means of both reaching it and then bringing in those supplies that they needed from outside the frontier and to take their frontier-produced goods in for trade even as they clung to the belief that they were completely self-sufficient and independently beyond the rule of law. “Among the core elements of the frontier myth was the powerful sense among certain groups of Americans that wilderness was the last bastion of rugged individualism. Turner tended to stress communitarian themes when writing frontier history, asserting that Americans in primitive conditions had been forced to band together with their neighbors to form communities and democratic institutions … By fleeing to the outer margins of settled land and society—so the story ran—an individual could escape the confining strictures of civilized life” (Cronan, 24). This dedication to the idea of individualism led people to necessarily depend on each other as communities began to grow and rule of law became necessary.
The independence that was thus fostered in the wilderness in the hearts and minds of individuals thus extended to decrease the settlers dependence on England and encouraged the spread of civilization into these untamed areas of the continent. “Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population. The effect reached back from the frontier and affected profoundly the Atlantic coast and even the Old World. But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism” (Turner, 44-45). The strange relationship between the extreme individualism of those pioneers who entered the wilderness and the necessity for civilization to enter these areas in order to meet their needs is also reflected in Cronon’s criticism. “The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape. Ever since the nineteenth century, celebrating wilderness has been an activity mainly for well-to-do city folks. Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image” (Cronan, 28). In addition to the non-wilderness of wilderness discovered through the processes of expansion noted by Turner and examined by Cronon, Turner points out the potential dangers of these individualistic ideals in attempting to forge a moral, socially-responsible nation. “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit” (Turner, 47). While the independence born of wilderness living may have contributed strongly to the birth of a new nation, Turner suggests that this was also at the expense of a unified nation while Cronon suggests that the perceived divisions are non-existent.
With the more modern approach of Cronon to the subject of the meaning of wilderness to the development of society, it seemed to me that the information presented by Turner was not so much intended to demonstrate a separation between wilderness and civilization as it was an exploration into the reactions and behaviors of people as they moved away from social expectation into a world in which personal action and self-preservation led to a greater confidence and ability to organize thus creating a national identity different from that of the various nations from which these settlers originated. This stance that human reaction to wilderness illustrates the interconnectedness of wilderness and civilization is the point that Cronon is attempting to make in his own argument in this century. Although Turner treats wilderness and civilization as two things that are diametrically opposed at several points in his argument, he brings these thoughts around full circle by illustrating the way in which these individuals sought to make connections with themselves and others by connecting with the natural world that was necessarily a part of both wilderness and civilization. Like Cronon, Turner seems to end his argument with the idea that while the physical frontier no longer exists, the elements of nature on which the unique American spirit was founded can still be found where they always were – within the spirit of Americans.
Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995: 69-90.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1935.