Gunfighter Nation: The Frontier Myth in 20th Century America

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On July 16, 1960, John F. Kennedy came to the podium of the Los Angeles Coliseum to accept the Democratic Party's nomination as candidate for President. As is customary in American political oratory, Kennedy used his acceptance speech to provide a slogan that would characterize his administration's style of thought and action. "I stand tonight facing West on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes ...
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Overview

On July 16, 1960, John F. Kennedy came to the podium of the Los Angeles Coliseum to accept the Democratic Party's nomination as candidate for President. As is customary in American political oratory, Kennedy used his acceptance speech to provide a slogan that would characterize his administration's style of thought and action. "I stand tonight facing West on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West.. ..[But] the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won, and we stand today on the edge of a new frontier - the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats." By invoking the Frontier as a symbol to trademark his candidacy, Kennedy also tapped into one of the most resonant and persistent American myths. As Richard Slotkin shows in this extraordinarily informed and wide-ranging new book, the myth of the Frontier has been perhaps the most pervasive influence behind American culture and politics in this century;. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America brings to completion a distinguished trilogy of books that includes The Fatal Environment and the award-winning Regeneration Through Violence. Beginning in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago with Frederick Jackson Turner's famous address on the closing of the American frontier and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Slotkin examines the transformation from history to myth of events like Custer's last stand and explores the myriad and fundamental ways the myth influences American culture and politics. Although Turner's "Frontier Thesis" became the dominant interpretation of our national experience among academic historians, it was the racialist theory of history (the ascendancy and superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race), embodied in Theod
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The myth of the Western frontier--which assumes that whites' conquest of Native Americans and the taming of the wilderness were preordained means to a progressive, civilized society--is embedded in our national psyche. U.S. troops called Vietnam ``Indian country.'' President John Kennedy invoked ``New Frontier'' symbolism to seek support for counterinsurgency abroad. In an absorbing, valuable, scholarly study, Slotkin, director of American studies at Wesleyan University, traces the pervasiveness of frontier mythology in American consciousness from 1890 to the present. Theodore Roosevelt's ``progressive'' version of the frontier myth was used to justify conquest of the Philippines and the emergence of a new managerial class. Dime novels and detective stories adapted the myth to portray gallant heroes repressing strikers, immigrants and dissidents. Completing a trilogy begun with Regeneration Through Violence and The Fatal Environment , Slotkin unmasks frontier mythmaking in novels and Hollywood movies. The myth's emphasis on use of force over social solutions has had a destructive impact, he shows, on our handling of urban violence, racial conflict and the ``drug war.'' (Dec.)
Roland Wulbert
The myth of the frontier, Slotkin argues in his conclusion to a trilogy including "Regeneration through Violence" (Atheneum, 1973) and "The Fatal Environment" , is protean. As expressed in Cooper's Leatherstocking saga, it can celebrate the authenticity of Indian life that countervails deracinated civilization--but only so long as the white hero beats the Indians at their own game. Elsewhere, native Americans in the myth personify what postmodernists call the Other--savages threatening everything civilized who must be exterminated, their infants slaughtered like hatchling roaches. Another aspect of the myth is the expanding frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner held responsible for America's exemplary democratic institutions. Another is typified by Theodore Roosevelt's "strenuous life" and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Later, the savage Indians metamorphize into the militant urban working class, and the expanding frontier absorbs Cuba, the Philippines, and other outposts of imperialist adventure. At times in Slotkin's work, though, the myth seems his transitional device for bridging accounts of the outbursts of America's heterogeneous racism. The general reader who doesn't find the tome unduly academic should be enlightened by Slotkin's exposure of the malignancy inherent in the great American myth he chronicles.
Kirkus Reviews
Concluding a trilogy that began with Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and The Fatal Environment (1985), Slotkin (English/Wesleyan Univ.) now offers a subtle and wide-ranging examination how America's fascination with the frontier has affected its culture and politics in this century. As used by Slotkin, "myth" means not a falsehood but a story derived from history that expresses a people's ideology. Beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner's landmark 1893 address on the closing of the frontier, Slotkin relates how Americans have used the unusually resonant myth of the West to explain ongoing issues of the present. Two works that helped establish the myth were Theodore Roosevelt's history The Winning of the West and Owen Wister's novel The Virginian, which pictured an Anglo-Saxon managerial elite toughened by exposure to remorseless "savage wars" against enemies, red-skinned and otherwise. Slotkin skillfully traces how the myth was used against the upstart labor movement, anti-imperialists, immigrants, and blacks. Although such media or genres as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, the dime-stock novel, and the formula fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Zane Grey, and Edgar Rice Burroughs are explored here, much of the book is given over to a searching analysis of crucial western films like Stagecoach, Shane, The Searchers, Vera Cruz, and The Wild Bunch. Allowing for Slotkin's occasional lapses into academese, overemphasis of the western's influence (e.g., the WW II combat film is interpreted in light of "the savage war," as if wars by their nature weren't), and oddly perfunctory nod to recent works such as Lonesome Dove and Dances With Wolves, the reader will get a provocative summary of howAmericans from JFK on the left to Ronald Reagan on the right have exploited the power of the myth of the West. Intellectual history at its most stimulating—teeming with insights into American violence, politics, class, and race.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689121630
  • Publisher: Macmillan Publishing Company, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/1/1992
  • Pages: 704

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Significance of the Frontier Myth in American History 1
Pt. I The Mythology of Progressivism, 1880-1902
1 The Winning of the West: Theodore Roosevelt's Frontier Thesis, 1880-1900 29
2 The White City and the Wild West: Buffalo Bill and the Mythic Space of American History, 1880-1917 63
3 Mob, Tribe, and Regiment: Modernization as Militarization, 1883-1902 88
Pt. II Populists and Progressives: Literary Myth and Ideological Style, 1872-1940
4 Mythologies of Resistance: Outlaws, Detectives, and Dime-Novel Populism, 1873-1903 125
5 Aristocracy of Violence: Virility, Vigilante Politics, and Red-Blooded Fiction, 1895-1910 156
6 From the Open Range to the Mean Streets: Myth and Formula Fiction, 1910-1940 194
Pt. III Colonizing a Mythic Landscape: Movie Westerns, 1903-1948
7 Formulas on Film: Myth and Genre in the Silent Movie, 1903-1926 231
8 The Studio System, the Depression, and the Eclipse of the Western, 1930-1938 255
9 The Western Is American History, 1939-1941 278
10 Lost Stands and Lost Patrols: The Western and the War Film, 1940-1948 313
Pt. IV Democracy and Force: The Western and the Cold War, 1946-1960
11 Studies in Red and White: Cavalry, Indians and Cold War Ideology, 1946-1954 347
12 Killer Elite: The Cult of the Gunfighter, 1950-1953 379
13 Imagining Third World Revolutions: The "Zapata Problem" and the Counterinsurgency Scenario, 1952-1954 405
14 Gunfighters and Green Berets: Imagining the Counterinsurgency Warrior, 1956-1960 441
Pt. V Gunfighter Nation: Myth, Ideology, and Violence on the New Frontier, 1960-1970
15 Conquering New Frontiers: John Kennedy, John Wayne, and the Myth of Heroic Leadership, 1960-1968 489
16 Attrition: The Big Unit War, the Riots, and the Counterinsurgency Western, 1965-1968 534
17 Cross-over Point: The Mylai Massacre, The Wild Bunch, and the Demoralization of America, 1969-1972 578
Conclusion: The Crisis of Public Myth 624
Notes 663
Bibliography 767
Index 829
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