- The Neo-Turnerian Frontier
Judging by the profound force and richness of the ongoing dialectic it set in motion over a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis persists to provoke and haunt the most compelling debates on how to most accurately narrate the Euroamerican conquest of Native America. And in its strenuous, at times agonistic, efforts to get that story straight, contemporary American historical discourse invariably reflects the ambivalent regret within cultural memory for the imperial origins of the democratic self; uncovering those origins would seem to entail confronting the unwelcome idea that the transition from colony to nation required the betrayal of, rather than the aspiration toward, its democratic ideals.
Certainly, some of the strongest and most celebrated recent works in early American historiography-in the field of American history generally-are in many ways powerful revisions of Turner's vision of the frontier as the westering liminal space where American democracy was built from raw nature, where the white liberal subject was forged through his efforts to wrest civilization from a pristine, because "unsettled," wilderness. Beginning with Richard White's pathbreaking The Middle Ground (1991), and continuing with James H. Merrell's Bancroft Prize-winning Into the Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (1999), and Jane T. Merritt's At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier (2003),Turner's monolithic frontier would seem to be replaced by multiple and discrete frontiers. No longer the "edge" of an advancing and world-redeeming Anglo-American history, Turner's frontier has been broken up into distinct contested spaces, frontiers of cultural convergence and (occasionally) [End Page 163] successful mutual understanding. Writing against Turner's Victorian narrative of democratic progress-against the ethnocentrism at the root of its triumphalism and its deterministic teleology-these historians resurrect and reconstruct forgotten colonial border spaces of intercultural and interethnic contact, mediation, and creative accommodation. They collapse Turner's binaries between wilderness and settlement, savagery and civilization, as they explore transcultural zones where democratic practices thrive among Native and Euroamericans in expressly unsettled conditions-within a "wild" more democratically civil.
Social diversity and fluidity, political mutability, individual determination, innovative cultural adaptations, and heroic community building in response to a bewildering and threatening otherness-these, for the most part, are as much American democratic values as they are conventional features of the American frontier. Hence, this historiography raises several important questions about its own methodology. To what extent is its recovery of a more democratic intercolonial America driven and circumscribed by an abiding, even conservative, investment in the frontier as metaphor for democracy? Might this exploration of hybridity and more fluid border identities thriving along multilateral margins of civilizations rather elaborate what the historian Kevin Sweeney aptly terms a "Turnerian postmodernism" that obscures more typical, less "egalitarian" patterns of colonial cross-cultural encounters? In relying on the frontier metaphor to mediate the retelling of these moments of colonial history-particularly in its pastoral-utopian extension where frontier conditions in themselves engender democracy-do we thus incur the risk not only of predetermining what we recover from that past but also of indulging in an entirely retrospective radicalism, a sentimental democratic pastoralism which seeks elegiac compensation for the felt betrayals of democratic ideology in the present?
Sure enough, this historiography, deeply indebted to the self-reflexive work of Clifford Geertz and other ethnohistorians, has succeeded in exhuming the interethnic encounters that lay buried beneath Turner's colonialist abstractions of Anglo-American civilization and indigenous wilderness. Ironically, however, the revision itself may prove to be a fundamentally Turnerian one: the new frontier transcends Turner's narrative of oppression just asTurner's frontier (ostensibly) transcended an oppressing European history, and democracy thrives again in this regenerated geographic [End Page 164] and imaginative space. So deeply entrenched are the associations between "frontier" and "democracy" in American culture and historical discourse that they tend to replicate, even naturalize, each other in that space whenever it is reconstructed. And the force of that...