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  • Dialogic Frontiers:History and Psychology in Lonesome Dove and Blood Meridian
  • David Willbern (bio)

Before it serves as a geographical marker, the frontier is an idea, a metaphor of position or process. That idea is simultaneously physical, political, and psychological. At the same time that Frederick Jackson Turner published The Frontier in American History, one of the twentieth century’s most influential historical works, Sigmund Freud published The Ego and the Id, one of the century’s most influential psychological works.1 Turner described the frontier as “the outer edge of the wave, the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (3). Freud characterized the ego as “a frontier creature,” managing stimuli from within and without, occupying a “position midway between the id and reality” (56). Turner distinguished European frontiers, with established and fortified borders, from the American frontier, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a fluid marker “at the hither edge of free land.” Initially that edge bordered the Atlantic coast colonies; then explorers, armies, and settlers gradually pushed it westward, as the idea of “the West” became a mythic part of American lore. Freud’s metaphor of the frontier ego blends a European model of the border agent, managing tensions between established boundaries, with an American model of boundaries discovered in a continuing process of negotiation: ego with id, superego, and external reality. The process of exploration, struggle, compromise, then settlement or fortress, describes both psychological and social expansion. “Frontier” means confrontation. In psychology, the gradual separation of self from the object world establishes “ego boundaries” that must be regularly maintained [End Page 81] by often antagonistic relationships. In describing the history of American boundaries, gradually expanding westward, Turner dryly noted that “each [frontier] was won by a series of Indian wars” (9). The process was a mutual transformation. First the wilderness forced the civilized colonist to its own harsh terms; then the colonist transformed the wilderness into occupied territory (4).2

My essay examines two major American novels, both published in 1985 by contemporary authors, in terms of their dual, dialogic conceptions of “frontier.” By “dialogic” I mean the intertextual discourse these books sustain across history and literature, the multiple voices of their characters, and the uncanny ways in which the novels mirror each other. Although they create and inhabit different fictive universes, I want to place these books in conversation, especially during the cultural moment of 1980s America. Both novels merge geographical and psychological versions of “frontier.” Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove understands the advance of civilization as positive achievement; Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian diagnoses the march of “civilization” as destruction. Lonesome Dove supposes the frontier as a limiting boundary (like a fence or rope), while Blood Meridian supposes it as an expansive edge (like a knife). The veteran Texas Rangers, Augustus “Gus” McRae and Captain Woodrow Call, of Lonesome Dove propose to bring order to a lawless land: custom, civility, and the enduring legacy of their legend. In Blood Meridian, the gang of Glanton and his confederates intend only the rule of savagery and mayhem: the endless iteration of unrestrained violence, what Judge Holden extols as the “dance” of war.

In his epigraph to Lonesome Dove, McMurtry quotes an eminent American historian and student of Turner, T. K. Whipple: “Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves; the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we lived, and what they lived, we dream” (Whipple 65). This blend of external and internal conditions, reality and dream, is an apt epigraph for McMurtry’s novel as well as its evil twin, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. At one point in that book, the narrator muses on the meaning of the sudden abduction of an Indian scout, plucked from his saddle by an immense grizzly bear. However unknown or monstrous creatures of the wild might be, he states, “yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearts alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts” (138). The [End Page 82] episode offers an allegorical analogy between external and internal wildernesses. Men in their adventures are...


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