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Taking as his point of departure the classic though not unassailed frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, that the American frontier, seemingly forever and "vaguely realizing westward," contributed immensely and positively to the shaping of American consciousness, Harold P. Simonson explores, in Beyond the Frontier: Writers, Western Regionalism and a Sense of Place, the tragic implications for Americans in the closing (circa 1890) of that idyllic and archetypal West. In an uneven, sometimes repetitive but altogether intriguing book, Simonson probes the impact, first of the open and then of the closed frontier, on writers of American fiction and concludes by attempting a synthesis of the polarities of western optimism and tragedy in what he calls "the experience of place."
In "The Open Frontier" section of his three-fold study, Simonson reconsiders the pre-1890 American West as the mythic embodiment of the promise of America. Although he fails to support his interesting assertion that Turner underwent a "private agony" parallel to that of Henry Adams, "in seeing the American Dream change into something more violent than he had earlier envisioned," [End Page 586] Simonson uncovers in Turner an aesthetic vision remarkably similar to Henry David Thoreau's and demonstrates how Turner drew upon this innate Transcendentalism to endow the American West with an epoch-like mythic quality, whose visionary frontiersmen responded to the ideals of individualism, competitiveness, and democracy, which he saw as inherent in the American westering experience.
Searching for literary examples of the American Dream, Simonson makes a curious sidetrip into the Romantic consciousness of John Muir, who, despite undergoing spiritual rejuvenation and rebirth in the Alaskan and Yosemite wilderness, missed seeing the American West "as the archetype of America, and the so-called western experience as the American's apotheosis"—which apotheosis the Indian, the Mountain Man, the Beat poets, and the flower child as well as William Everson (in his important book Archetype West: The Pacific Coast As a Literary Region ) did not miss, and together keep alive the apotheostic impulse of the idyllic West.
In "The Closed Frontier" section of the book, however, Simonson examines the tragic implications for the American artist of the closing of the frontier. He illustrates the disillusioned American writer's shift to the tragic mode in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Ole Rölvaag's trilogy, Giants in the Earth (1927), Peder Victorious (1929), and Their Fathers' God (1931); and in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939). Simonson breaks with Twain critics in insisting, convincingly, that Huckleberry Finn is a dark tragedy that centers on the irony that Huck must practice deceit on himself and others in order to achieve his free and simple life, which turns out to be neither—and never will be. Simonson's fresh reading lends new depth to Huck and a literary integrity to the controversial last twelve chapters of the book, which are grounded in a "prisons" metaphor full of resonances for the whole novel. Rölvaag's trilogy likewise focuses, Simonson asserts, not on man's epic accomplishment in the West but on the tragedy of what Henry Steele Commager calls "earth's humbling of man." And West's The Day of the Locust centers on a doomed and frenetic California where, forced to paste an artificial rainbow across a faded frontier, Americans confront in an "apocalyptic holocaust" the consequences of the frontier's closing, a doomsday prefigured by Mark Twain in the horrific ending of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and by Henry Adams in the The Education of Henry Adams (1907).
In his concluding section, "Frontier Synthesis," Simonson attempts to give his reader reassurance and hope—and a non-poststructural closure of tension between the open and closed frontier. He proposes that modern American western regionalism may span the poles of tragedy and possibility, apotheosis and eschatology, by creating a special sense of rootedness in a home place "that one can identify with and connect with inside his own soul...