Reading the National Romance
Although definitions and descriptions of America have varied considerably over time, one aspect of the national imaginary remains constant, if contentious: America is at heart a frontier nation, newly born, created out of the wilderness. Its character and spirit can be traced back to and accounted for by its frontier origins. This ideology of national identity was given coherent and persuasive articulation by the influential historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 address at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Discussing “the significance of the frontier in American history,” he proposes that to study the “advance of the frontier,” the “men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history” (4; emphasis added). Turner identifies the frontier as the primary factor responsible for “the formation of a composite nationality for the American people” (22) and [End Page 275] characterizes “the forces dominating” this “American character” (3) as those of the rugged male pioneer, thus claiming national history and identity as male properties. 1
Turner and his adherents define the uniqueness of American character through an idealized and nostalgic vision of America as a “wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top” (Slotkin, Regeneration 5); in the “virgin soil of the frontier” (Turner 21), this “thrusting” male pioneer enacts the violent heroics of masculine creativity that expand national borders. The wilderness “appeal[s] to [him] as a fair, blank page on which to write a new chapter in the story of man’s struggle for a higher type of society,” drawing out the “manly exertion” (Turner 261) that produces and enforces national sovereignty. Richard Slotkin has proposed that violence “is central to both the historical development of the Frontier and its mythic representation” (Gunfighter 11), adding that “what is distinctively ‘American’ is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent, and the political uses to which we put that symbolism” (13).
Among the many uses of this symbolism, naturalized to the point of invisibility, is the production of a national erotics of male dominance. In the romantic script of frontier violence, America was begotten by self-made men on the sometimes pliant, sometimes resistant, but always feminized wilderness. 2 Annette Kolodny’s work in The Lay of the Land, tracing the prolific and aggressive equation of American landscapes with “the female principle of gratification” (6), establishes that there is nothing “new” about this “new world”: it materializes around the oldest of gender/power dynamics—the woman-nature/male-culture binary. Equating nation-building with male sexual conquest, the romantic version of American history emphatically closes down women’s access to the scene of self-making by equating “woman” with the “fair, blank page” for male creativity, with the wilderness that men conquer, subdue, and transform. As I have pointed out elsewhere, 3 this historical narrative demands that women find fulfillment as productive bodies, as the fertile ground for a male’s inscription of his story, a naturalized and nationalized biological destiny that positions women as mothers, and mothers, in Eva Cherniavsky’s terms, “at/as the phantasmatic limit of the political order” (2). [End Page 276]
Nation-building may evoke “the idea of popular unity,” but, Anne McClintock argues, it has “historically amounted to the sanctioned institutionalization of gender difference” (89). Turner’s narrative of the frontier serves to organize and prioritize a fragmented and discontinuous set of stories about American beginnings around an eroticized process of male self-making. And, because it establishes the “really American part of our history,” the valuable elements of American character, and the proper direction of national destiny in a male-dominated heterosexual romance, this frontier mythology also prescripts roles for men and women in the nation’s best and most promising future. The presentation of history as romance functions as an embodying discourse; it both sanctions and perpetuates...