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Fences and Between Fences: Cultural, Historical, and Smithsonian Perspectives Robbie Davis and Ed Williams Along with a few Shakespearean gems, the commentary on fences from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” may be the best-known poetic icon in contemporary American culture. As Frost and his neighbor mend their common wall in a New England spring ritual, the neighbor twice trumpets : “good fences make good neighbors.” The first declaration sets out a guiding principle of the neighbor’s conservative worldview. Despite some gentle and subtle probing by Frost, the neighbor “likes having thought of it so well, he says again ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” Frost’s rejoinder is less well known. It captures the opposing position, profoundly important in understanding the significance of walls and fences in world and American cultural and historical debates, disputes, and physical conflicts. In response to his neighbor, Frost reflects, Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down. A poster designed for classroom teachers as a didactic aid for the Smithsonian Institution’s Between Fences exhibition reflects Frost’s message. It poses the same question in its headline title, asking if the several pictures on the poster signify that the subjects are “Fenced In or Fenced Out?” This essay explores the dichotomous and contentious interpretations of fences; walls; and physical, philosophical, and psychological barriers Robbie Davis is project director for the Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), in Washington, DC. Ed Williams is professor emeritus of comparative politics and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. He served as project scholar with the Arizona Humanities Council for the Smithsonian’s “Between Fences” Arizona tour. Journal of the Southwest 50, 3 (Autumn 2008) : 243–262 244  ✜  Journal of the Southwest of all types, from playpens and prisons to boundary-line real and virtual fences. The essay evolves from a description of the Between Fences exhibition as an organizational rubric, but it goes beyond the exhibition to explore other examples, nuances, and extrapolations of the thematic principles. The Between Fences Smithsonian traveling exhibition describes fences and explores how fencing has helped to mold and reflect Americans’ views of public and private spaces. As the exhibition shows, they are built of living hedges and other flora, stone, concrete, wood, or metal; they are also exemplified by a variety of ditches and moats; and, in another guise, by dogs and other creatures, including crickets. Most recently descriptions of the international boundary line’s “virtual” fencing have festooned the front pages of U.S. and Mexican print media and agitate rabble-rousing talk-show hosts and TV’s talking (shouting!) heads. Though far too seldom, virtual fencing even evokes more credible, measured debate in the corridors of power and the halls of academe. Fences skirt our properties—and our minds. They form a central feature of the American experience and the nation’s historical landscape—and urban cityscape. Beyond these shores, fences and walls play a featured role in world history. The American chronology began with palisades in the East and presidios in the West. They gave way to the forts of the American West following the Civil War. The wooden worm fence decorated the fields of early America. Young Abe Lincoln split rails for zigzagging worm fences. Barbed-wire fences took command of the rural landscape beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Ubiquitous chainlink fences dominated in the twentieth century. They defined school grounds, protected industrial sites, and discouraged domesticated and wild animals from invading our yards and our interstate highways. The gated community appeared in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It provoked a new round of social commentary from those both within and without the isolated communities supposedly protected from outside contamination. Several other facts and events also capture broader and rather different North American perspectives on boundaries and barriers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon defined their line before 1800. It later formed the boundary between...


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pp. 243-261
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