Review- Slotkin, “Regeneration Through Violence”

Richard Slotkin, “Regeneration Through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860” (1973) – This is a great big humdinger of a book, and the first of three laying out Slotkin’s thesis on the roots and branches of American culture in violent frontier myth. Historiographically, it lays at a transition point in American Studies. The original American Studies scholars explicitly founded it as a Cold War enterprise, a way to foster their vision of America —more or less, that of Cold War liberalism — back when people still thought culture was a big Cold War weapon and that Jackson Pollock was worth CIA money. Slotkin turns away from their vision of America as the culmination of western humanism but still uses a lot of the old American Studies concepts and tropes. These include canonization — Slotkin both crams old AS favorites like Melville and Hawthorne into his thesis and tries to canonize new ones, like frontier writer Nathan Filson — and an attachment to the concept of myth as an explanatory category. Analyzing the frontier as myth goes a long way in American Studies. It’s poignant, in a way- the American Studies cadre included many of the first generation of American Jews given equal footing in American schools, and in general it was more nerdy New Yorkers and immigrant’s kids — names like Slotkin and DeVoto — defining this picture of America and the frontier than it was sons of the pioneers.

Like the American Studies guys (and like me in some areas), Slotkin is an arch-lumper in this book. American culture as a whole, he argues, is defined by a series of tropes descended from the English encounter with the wilderness. Because some of the first English to do it (and especially to write about it) were Puritans, one major strand of processing that encounter entails seeing the wilderness as a place of evil, a place where good Christians go to become bad and die, a reflection of the dark spaces of the mind and soul. One of the ways the Puritans processed this was through captivity narratives, where a Puritan is captured by Indians, lives with them for a while, and then escapes or is bought back into the fold, chastened and stronger in faith.

But as the frontier expanded and white people got more used to it, the idea of the wilderness as a place of fulfillment got bigger, but with caveats. American litterateurs struggled mightily with how to cope with the identification between the wilderness and the Native Americans (so too, for that matter, does Slotkin, who lumps them all together into one culture more or less at one with nature, etc etc). The whites wanted to master the wilderness the same way they thought the Native Americans had, but it was important that they maintain their special white, Christian status. As mythic figures like Daniel Boone became national (and international) favorites, the frontier became, in narrative anyway, a place for whites to prove their mettle by entering into the wilderness. They could learn from the natives and even befriend them, but would eventually master them at their own wilderness abilities, initiating themselves into the mysteries of the hunter and the warrior. This would lead to the ushering in of white civilization, where the frontiersman would either need to assimilate or move on, the sort of prepackaged tragedy narrative from which Anglo culture gotten so much mileage.

There’s a lot of interesting material in this book, overstuffed in that classic AS way with block quotes, stories about publishing, etc. There are fascinating characters like Gilbert Imlay, a Kentuckian conman and lover of Mary Wollstonecraft who sold an enlightenment-tinged vision of frontier democracy to get radical French and British to sponsor a western breakaway state before fleeing a pregnant Wollstonecraft with the money. There’s also some interesting stuff where European and northeastern writers wanted to depict the whole thing as capital R Romance, which culminated with James Fenimore Cooper’s lachrymose and intricately symbolic tales of the noble savage white guy who was more native than the natives but also white and what a dilemma! But western writers — and most audiences — wanted more realism, i.e. shootings and scalps.

The basic thrust of the analysis seems sound, especially when it leaves the Jungian myth stuff to one side and hews to the material. One thing that encouraged an American monomyth more than anything unconscious was a monolithic capitalist publishing industry centered in New York, that had to try to sell books the whole country would buy. The frontier story appealed to all sections, even as Slotkin details how the different sections interpreted Boone and other figures according to their peculiar lights. My understanding is that American Studies turned more towards questions of creating a national consciousness — and even more to questions of race, which Slotkin does not interrogate enough — after this transition point in the 1970s. It’ll be interesting to see if Slotkin’s later books, bringing the story of frontier myth to the twentieth century, handles that. ****’

Review- Slotkin, “Regeneration Through Violence”

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