I’m reading Ray Allen Billington’s biography of Frederick Jackson Turner. The book is fantastic. Billington writes well and brings an obvious passion to his topic. Though I sometimes wonder if he exaggerates Turner’s genius, I’m content to go along with Billington and read a few critical reviews to balance him out. I’ve long had a hunch that Turner is a central figure in the study of Midwestern intellectual and cultural history. My reading of the book confirms these suspicions.
Billington argues that Turner’s upbringing in post-frontier era Wisconsin was important to the development of his frontier thesis. Turner saw that what was going on in his home region was essential to the understanding of American history. The importance of the west wasn’t respected by the East Coast intellectual establishment. If the frontier was essential to the development of the American character, then the closing of the frontier at the end of the 20th century was important. Turner and others wondered what would happen in a post-frontier world. As he wrote, “the future of the republic is with her [the Midwest].”
I’m reading the bio, alongside my reading in preparation for my paper on John Steuart Curry and Midwestern pastoralism. Turner’s contention that American democracy was forged in the frontier – a space between but not of wilderness and civilization – bears an unmistakable resemblance to literary pastoralism. I’ve not gotten into the historigraphical arguments about the thesis, but I can see that it would be easy to argue that Turner’s ideas were merely the Jeffersonian agrarian myth cloaked in a veneer of scientific evidence.
One of the main problems of studying the Midwest is its seeming lack of regional distinctiveness. As Turner anticipated and as has come to fruition, the Midwest has come to be seen as the typically American region. I would argue that, as the scholarship of the Midwest advances, this lack of regional distinctiveness will emerge as the most distinctive trait of the region.
For now though, any study of the Midwest must consider the fact that the scholarly foundations of Midwestern studies are still being laid, and that what we do now will influence future arguments. One way to tease out the Midwest’s distinct regional characteristics is through comparative studies. Turner’s work speaks to the development of the Midwestern frontier, and there is voluminous literature on the South. A comparative study of Midwestern and Southern agrarianism would likely be very enlightening.