The Frontier Thesis Redux, or a Semi-Ode to American Men

From the time the mountains rose between the pioneer and the seaboard, a new order of Americanism arose. The West and the East began to get out of touch of each other.
~ Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History

I have a real soft spot, a penchant you might say, for American men. [Okay, truth be told, I like men in general, but I really like the American variety.] In fact, I have mentioned before how I do not think they get enough press; there are so many songs about American girls, and stuff… what about the men…? I have been accused of being provincial, even boring ,because of this. I have to chuckle a wee bit here because I am hardly provincial and it is not like I have not tried out a lot of other varieties. I just like the American ones the best. Of course, I am not talking about just any American man, like, being American alone is not necessarily enough, but it is a good start…

The lure of American men is not new, I know. In fact people, particularly women seem to have been waxing poetically on it for centuries. Which is impressive since America has only been around for just… centuries. Take the British travel writer Isabel Bird, writing about American men in 1850:

It is impossible to give an idea of the ‘Western Men” to anyone who has not seen at least one specimen… tall, handsome, broad-chested, and athletic, with aquiline noses, piercing grey eyes, and brown curling hair and beards… Dullness fled from their presence; they could tell stories, whistle melodies, and sing…. Blithe, cheerful souls they were, telling racy stories of Western life, chivalrous in the manners and free as the winds.

Well – howDEE! That certainly paints a pretty picture. The mystique has not been lost, I can assure you of that, as I sit in Asia and hear my female Asian counterparts tell me how they will only date Westerners, preferably Americans. Hm. And then there was this study that came out, indicating that American men make the best husbands. And of course there is the ironic twist in my own life that has made me ever more enamored of America since leaving America.

In keeping with the subject at hand, which has been brought to the forefront of my mind after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, I think myth goes a long way. And while the sentiment seems to tend toward American arrogance… I get it. Gilbert quotes an unnamed Brit who said of my tribe: “There are perhaps no people, not even excepting the French, who are so vain as the Americans. Every American considers that it’s impossible for a foreigner to teach him anything, and that his head contains a perfect encyclopedia.” Um, yeah. That was in 1818. So, we are nothing if not consistent then…

But is arrogance ever justified? I am not sure, but when I read about people like Eustace Conway, John C. Fremont, John Muir, (even those old biddies Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) or Emerson and Thoreau, and then Kerouac and Kesey and HST, I do feel like there is something somewhat unique going on there. And maybe a little crazy. But you know me – I like the crazy.

In spite of numerous counter-arguments I am sure will arise, I do think that there are some things of which we can rightfully say: Only in America. [And I am not speaking only of Twinkies, spray cheese, Deliverance and Real Housewives of Atlanta.] Gilbert points out that “while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and was transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the opposite.” True that. Good old Freddie Turner went on in his work, which has now been basically reduced to the contentious “Frontier Thesis,” to say, “the frontier is productive of individualism. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. [The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression.]”  And though a lot of Turner’s thesis has been challenged in the newer traditions of Western history, by scholars like Patricia Limerick, who [correctly] claim that Turner romanticized the imperialist nature of the Frontier and Westward movement, the fact remains, it had an impact. Turner goes on to say:

To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Sounds pretty much like Ms. Bird. And the Marlborough Man. Or… Eustace Conway?

If we are a product of our environments to any degree, then I guess this all matters. As I watch the kids I teach come of age and I see the cyclical patterns in ideologies I wonder about how it is we become who we are, and why. It is true that each generation seems to go against the grain of the one that preceded it (at least initially) and also that modernization, be it industrial or technological, is going to have an impact, but certain myths endure. In the 1950s the emergence of the Beats sent a whole new generation out looking for ways to get back to the “Frontier” for some sort of spiritual rebirth. Embracing Transcendental ideas and getting off the ‘grid’ that was the result of a seemingly ubiquitous American culture that had risen out of a ‘golden’ age and the loss of a “Frontier.” Turner said, “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists.”

Oh dear. In that case, it looks like trouble ahead.

There is no doubt that people are calling the competency of society [again, correctly] into question. You hear the complaints all the time: People don’t listen! Nobody cares! People are so lazy/fat/stupid! If these are only complaints leveled against American I cannot say, but I know they are fairly constant where I come from. And there has got to be a reason. Add to this the conundrum of dating [already been done here, so I’ll skip it for now] and websites like Why There Are No Girls In San Francisco (coincidentally, the lead story today? “Unaggressive Guys”) as well as the Roxanne’s Revenge-like comeback (sorry, UTFO) site, Where Are the Men in San Francisco, and you start to see there is a dilemma in spite of the mythology.

I listen to my friends bemoan the lack of hombres out there constantly. Oh yeah, and I guess I do too. Gilbert says we are living in a world that is “undergoing a total cultural and gender upheaval.” Though men are still largely in charge, college educated men have seen a 20 percent drop in incomes; women complete high school and college at significantly higher rates than men; one third of all wives make more $ than their husbands; women are making choices about when where how and if they will have children – and if they will do this with a man (hello to all you guys who made a buck donating to sperm banks back in college…); the necessity of men is being called into question by some (not this girl, btw). [Parenthetical references are obviously mine…] If this is really the case then we are in trouble and perhaps it does have to do with the loss of competence and ingenuity that might stem from a hyper-advanced society. Have we, and our men in particular, become soft, with no need to be otherwise?

I will be the first to admit there is something appealing about the macho – but it is that old alpha male dilemma…. How much macho is too much macho – y que es mas macho anyhow? Eustace Conway is not so much my personal cup of tea, but I certainly like his attitude and his conviction to something – to anything really. Self-sufficiency is sexy because it takes creativity, ingenuity and intelligence. Idealism is attractive as well, as long as it is tempered with action – I mean action.  Sounds pretty much like what you might put down for what you were looking for on a match dot com profile, doesn’t it? I am not sure that American-ness guarantees this result, but whatever it is that might… I’d like some more of it please.

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About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Books, Geography, Philosophical Underpinnings, Population and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Frontier Thesis Redux, or a Semi-Ode to American Men

  1. Shiva Ho says:

    Hey I hear ya… there’s a great lil movie out there called “Interstate 60: Tales of the Road” that quotes Freddie & is about spiritual awakening…by finding oneself. I Highly recommend seeing it.. I think if you want to hear songs about American men you need to listen to Country Music… unfortunately its usually just wives whining about how their cheating husbands went off & got drunk again & slept with someone else’s wife…

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