IN 1890, THE U.S. census announced the closing of the American frontier. There was now a continuous line of “civilization” straight across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No longer would Americans need (or be allowed) to focus their energies on pushing the line of Anglo-European settlement across the continent. They had proved themselves bigger, stronger, more brutal; neither mountains nor Native Americans nor wars, civil or international, could hold them back. There were still plenty of places for restless, ambitious young men to go, but the great motivating goal of civilizing the wild frontier was gone.
This goal had been lording over the American imagination since its inception in the sixteenth century. As long as Anglo-Europeans had been on the continent, they had been thinking of the West, of how to control more of it, of how to use its resources, of how slavery would expand into it, of the glories that it could hold for them. When the announcement was made in 1890 that the frontier existed no longer, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner responded with his famous “frontier thesis.” In it he claimed that
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.”
Things would change now, Turner claimed, for the great cause of American development held sway no longer. What would the American character look life fifty years hence, he seemed to ask; what would future Americans be like?
IN 1960, THE novelist and conservationist Wallace Stegner responded to those questions in the “wilderness letter,” his most eloquent defense of wild country to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. But Stegner focused his argument on a different aspect of untamed land than did Turner, and it is on this transition that I wish to dwell for a few moments.
For the older historian, writing as he was during the second industrial revolution, the frontier was a challenge to conquer and the wilderness was a beast to subdue, to tame, to domesticate. Wild land was not valued for its wildness; it was valued for its potential to be beaten down and civilized. It was a challenge to be overcome, a task to be completed. The tragedy for Turner was that restless young men had lost their great punching bag, their huge inventor’s lab.
But by the time Stegner was writing seventy years later, it had become painfully clear what the result of all that industrial punching and inventing was. Pollution was accumulating, virgin land was rapidly disappearing. People were living in cities, confused about their relationships to a rapidly changing and ever more violent world. Mass consumerism, uncontemplated progress, haste, waste, anxiety—these were our midcentury problems, as they are today’s problems. We didn’t need more things to have or to do, Stegner reminded the Commission; we needed fewer things and more time, time to think, time to be still. We didn’t need to conquer more, we needed to conquer less.
This, then, is the transition in the American imagination about which Turner wondered. Now that we don’t have a “frontier,” the American wilderness—or at least an essential protected part of it—has ceased to be a place of the violent work of conquering; it has become a place of meditation. Now that we have no clear sense of a frontier across which to expand, we can finally stand still and see the wonder in what’s around us. When the frontier gave way to pockets of wilderness, Americans gained the ability to conceive of wild land in a whole new way. By approaching the untamed parts of our continent as “absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical,” we became able to tap into the sense of awe, the sense of magic that we city-dwellers so rarely have the privilege of encountering.
But even more than that, the wilderness offers us the understanding that we are all what Stegner describes as “part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.” It gives us the chance to see ourselves as connected to the planet as a whole and to all of its inhabitants; in some ways it offers us an antidote to the ruthless, raging individualism that Turner touted—and that some of America’s more nefarious politicians continue to tout. When we’re separate from the world around us, when everyone and everything is Other, we become afraid. And at a time when Americans seem to fear everything from terrorism to immigration to earthquakes, our wilderness is precious and urgently needed—for its peace and its quiet, for its glory and its power, and above all, for its ability to give us all a lowest common denominator by which to connect to each other, no matter how different our “civilizations” are and how different our experiences within them.
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. Her previous note, on the American ‘coloring book’ craze, is here.
Note: Altered after publication to correct an editing error. 30 October 2016.