- Frederick Jackson Turner, New Historian
Do not be misled by the subtitle of Bogue’s new biography of Turner (1861–1932). This is not another bashing of the man and his famous “frontier thesis.” The title phrase, which comes from a favorite poem of Turner’s by Rudyard Kipling, is meant to signal the restless and exploring spirit that propelled his intellectual life. Bogue writes that Turner “provided an explanation of American development and character that was not to be matched in popularity during his lifetime or later” (464). Turner addressed the big questions confronting historians at the beginning of the century, and Bogue credits him with leaving an imprint on the practice of history greater than that of any other American historian.
Bogue is appropriately respectful and fair-minded, if considerably more critical than Billington, whose 1973 biography of Turner still sparkles with wit and charm. 1 Both Bogue and Billington fully utilized the massive collection of Turner papers at the Henry E. Huntington Library, but Billington’s laudatory tone, as well as his self-conceived role as defender of the frontier thesis, seriously dates his book, especially in light of the sustained critical commentary of the past decade. By highlighting Turner’s limitations along with his contributions, Bogue’s scholarly and readable study sets a new standard.
Some of the freshness of Bogue’s biography comes from his use of new materials. Consider the question of Turner’s relations with his graduate students. During a career that spanned four decades, he worked with dozens of men and women, many of [End Page 283] whom became eminent historians and leaders of the profession. Turner invariably comes across in their recollections as dedicated and caring, ready and willing to produce the necessary letter of recommendation or offer a bit of sage advice. His students also remembered him as a mentor with the ability to strike intellectual sparks. Louise Phelps Kellogg, who studied with him at the University of Wisconsin, described his seminars as a “clash of mind on mind,” and praised Turner’s genius at creating a sense of “comradeship” and an atmosphere of “intellectual democracy” (64, 124).
Bogue’s research also turned up exceptions—notably the case of Orin G. Libby, one of Turner’s first graduate students, a brilliant scholar who developed the technique of mapping electoral data in his still valuable 1895 dissertation about the geographical distribution of the ratification vote on the Constitution. Turner arranged for the publication of Libby’s work in the university’s monograph series, and, pronouncing his student “full of earnestness and vigor,” hired him as an instructor in the department. Libby held that position until 1903, when he accepted a professorial appointment at the University of North Dakota (171). Libby’s papers, however, reveal a bitter young man who believed that Turner took the credit for his methodology and prevented his promotion at Wisconsin.
In a letter to his fiancée, Libby described a difficult meeting with Turner in 1899: “He said my line of investigation was too much like his for us both to stay in the department. “That I never could be more than an instructor unless I would teach and work in another line. . . . It was dastardly of him to ask me to leave my work for pay and do what I am not fitted to do” (173). Bogue is admirably judicious in his evaluation of this evidence. “The ambitious Turner saw Libby as evidence of the quality of a history program that he was developing and for which he sought national eminence,” while “the ambitious Libby perceived Turner as unsupportive, even parasitic” (175). These details neither surprise nor shock—such conflict is the ordinary stuff of academic life. Yet, nothing of it was apparent in Billington’s book. The story contributes to both the credibility and verisimilitude of Bogue’s.
This same critical stance shows up in Bogue’s treatment of Turner’s infamous “writer’s block.” His fame rested on a handful of important essays, which he later republished in two...