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.
-Redemption Through Violence (review by George Frederickson)
-Regenerative Violence (essay by ?)
-Richard Slotkin (bio from Wesleyan Univ.)
If you liked The Fatal Environment, try:
Broehl, Wayne G.
Connell, Evan S.
Grant, Ulysses S.
Eisenhower, John S.D.
Turner, Frederick Jackson
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd