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This inordinately ambitious, often overreaching & self-contradictory, but nonetheless  thought-provoking book takes as it's central thesis the following: "The dominant themes of the Frontier Myth are those that center on the conception of American history as a heroic-scale Indian war, pitting race against race; and the central concern of the mythmakers is with the problem of reaching the 'end of the Frontier'.  Both of these themes are brought together in the "Last Stand" legend, which is the central fable of the industrial or 'revised' Myth of the Frontier."   Slotkin proceeds to trace the impact and the changing understanding of the Frontier Myth from King Phillip's War to 1890, when Frederick Jackson Turner declared the Frontier closed.  He maintains that over this period of time the hero of the myth evolved from an agrarian/frontiersman/hunter to a soldier-aristocrat, because that was what industrial capitalism required.

Of course, this thesis begs several questions: Does Custer as culmination of the myth of the industrial captain make any sense?  He was, after all, suckered and slaughtered by a pack of illiterate barbarians, are we to believe that the overlords of Capitalism wanted to be seen as incompetent fops?  Also, why does Sitting Bull emerge as an American legend too?  Shouldn't we expect him to be remembered as some kind of monster, rather than as a noble savage?

The reason that Slotkin can not, or does not, answer these questions, is because his book is a work of ideology as much as of history.  He wanted to vilify Capitalism and 19th century robber barons and so, he finds primary sources to support his view.  But does the fact that a few novels or newspapers treated the Last stand in the manner that he hoped they had actually prove anything?  How do we know what kind of influence these contemporary writings had & did they really outweigh the opposing presentations in other periodicals and novels?   And what explains the image that comes down to us in films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where Custer is portrayed as a blindly obstinate fanatic, largely responsible for his own death?  Had Capitalism lost the need for it's own myths?  It hardly seems likely.

In the end, Slotkin's book should be read for the panoramic sweep it offers of Frontier history and for the provocative, albeit inaccurate, theories that it offers up.  His arguments are well worth wrestling with & refuting.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Redemption Through Violence (review by George Frederickson)
    -Regenerative Violence (essay by ?)
    -Richard Slotkin (bio from Wesleyan Univ.)

    -Academic Info: History of the American West (An Annotated Directory of Internet Resources)
    -The Adventures of Daniel Boone
    -The American West: Legends
    -American West (links from Mining Co.)
    -American West: Multicultural Perspectives
    -America's West-Development and History
    -Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935
    -Archiving Early America
    -Bibliographic Essay on the African American West (from National Park Service)
    -Black American West Museum and Heritage Center (Denver  CO)
    -Buffalo Bill Historical Center
    -Daniel Boone-American Pioneer and Trailblazer
    -Filibustering with William Walker
    -The Frontier in American History (Frederick Jackson Turner) (Hypertext)
    -Gerrit Smith: Harper's Ferry and The Aftermath
    -Great Characters of New Orleans: William Walker
    -Harper's Weekly
    -Horatio Alger Society
    -James Fenimore Cooper
    -James Fenimore Cooper Society
    -Kit Carson and Political Correctness (essay by Skip Miller)
    -Little Big Horn Associates Home Page: George Custer
    -Mark Twain Links from the Mining Co.
    -The Mexican American War Memorial Page
    -New Perspectives on The West (PBS)
    -Sitting Bull
    -The U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848)(from PBS)
    -The U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848
    -Virgin Land: The American West in Symbol and Myth
    -WestWeb: Western History Resource

If you liked The Fatal Environment, try:

Abbey, Edward
    -The Brave Cowboy

Alger, Horatio
    -Ragged Dick

Ambrose, Stephen E.
    -Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Berger, Thomas
    -Little Big Man

Broehl, Wayne G.
    -Molly Maguires

Connell, Evan S.
    -Son of the Morning Star

Foner, Eric
    -Reconstruction : America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Grant, Ulysses S.

Grey, Zane
    -Riders of the Purple Sage      (read Orrin's review)

Eisenhower, John S.D.
    -Agent of Destiny : The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott

Horgan, Paul
    -A Distant Trumpet

LeMay, Alan
    -The Searchers

Manfred, Frederick
    -Lord Grizzly

Matthews, Greg
    -Power in the Blood

McCarthy, Cormac
    -Blood Meridian; or, the Evening Redness in the West
    (The Border Trilogy)
    -All the Pretty Horses
    -The Crossing

McMurtry, Larry
    -Lonesome Dove
    -The Streets of Laredo
    -Dead Man's Walk

Michener, James

Nevin, David
    -Dream West

Parkman, Francis
    -The Oregon Trail
    -France and England North America (Library of America, Vol 1)
    -France and England North America (Library of America, Vol 2)

Portis, Charles
    -True Grit

Schaeffer, Jack

Simpson, Brooks D.
    -Let Us Have Peace : Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868

Snyder, Midori
    -The Flight of Michael McBride

    -Incident at Twenty-Mile (1998)   (read Orrin's review)

Turner, Frederick Jackson
    -The Frontier in American History

Twain, Mark
    -The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    -The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    -A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

West, Jessamyn
    -The Massacre at Fall Creek

Wister, Owen
    -The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains