Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

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This book offers an explosive look at violence in America—why it is so prevalent, and what and who are responsible. David Courtwright takes the long view of his subject, developing the historical pattern of violence and disorder in this country. Where there is violent and disorderly behavior, he shows, there are plenty of men, largely young and single. What began in the mining camp and bunkhouse has simply continued in the urban world of today, where many young, armed, intoxicated, honor-conscious bachelors have reverted to frontier conditions.

Violent Land combines social science with an engrossing narrative that spans and reinterprets the history of violence and social disorder in America. Courtwright focuses on the origins, consequences, and eventual decline of frontier brutality. Though these rough days have passed, he points out that the frontier experience still looms large in our national self-image—and continues to influence the extent and type of violence in America as well as our collective response to it.

Broadly interdisciplinary, looking at the interplay of biological, social, and historical forces behind the dark side of American life, this book offers a disturbing diagnosis of violence in our society.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Courtwright (history, Univ. of North Florida) has written a timely book on one of the most hotly debated issues, violence in America. Observing historical, biological, and social origins of the problem in the United States, Courtwright squarely lays blame on males ages 12 to 28. Paralleling the findings of David Blankenhorn's in Fatherless America (LJ 1/95), the author finds that violence stems most frequently from young men without fathers or families and from bachelors. Courtwright states that historical patterns of violence that flowed from a high point during the frontier days, ebbed in the 1940s and 1950s, and resurged in the 1990s can be related to the strength of family relationships. To control violence, we must therefore support the family unit. Courtwright's theories of violence will no doubt provoke controversy, but his book is a valuable addition to the body of literature for public and academic libraries.-Michael A. Lutes, Univ. of Notre Dame Libs., Ind.
James Q. Wilson
"Fascinating... [A] masterful book." -- Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Timely, rich, and surprisingly nimble, Courtwright's orderly examination of patterns of violence and disorder in American history ranges from the "passing migratory anomalies" that created the cultural ecology of the frontier to the critical collapse of familial mechanisms of social control in the inner city of today.

Courtwright (History/Univ. of North Florida) marshals contemporary reports as well as scholarly apparatus to introduce the young/single/male societies of gold rushers and cowboys emblematic of his thesis: that violence thrived where that demographic profile mated with certain cultural givens (e.g., fierce ethnocentrism) and unwholesome social norms (drinking, gambling, prostitution). Collaterally: The spiral of commerce on the frontier made too much law and order inexpedient, and Americans' racist contempt for the Indians excluded the leavening restraints of (inter)marriage. Courtwright proceeds chronologically, uncovering distributions of disorder in tramp subcultures and among soldiers, before focusing on American ghettos in the 1960s, where deteriorating conditions re-created many of the elements of frontier life. But "a good analogy, like a good argument, should not be pushed too hard": Balancing the historian's search for consistency with the sociologist's respect for discontinuities, Courtwright concludes that inner-city violence is not the self-limiting, transitory phenomenon of its soon- domesticated frontier antecedents. What with the absence of fathers and the presence of long-term unemployment, drugs, racism, and a street culture that has made virtues of all kinds of vice, the domesticating influence of family is not waiting in the wings to restore social equilibrium to the ghetto. Nevertheless, Courtwright affirms the family as still the best instrument of socialization ("life's script begins early"), and his qualified "new familism" frames (without advancing, however) the debate.

This is nonetheless an authoritative contribution to that debate, not least because of its scope; it is also intrinsically interesting material.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674278707
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1996
  • Pages: 372
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

David T. Courtwright is John A. Delaney Presidential Professor at the University of North Florida.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Historical Pattern 1
1 Biological and Demographic Roots 9
2 Cultural and Social Roots 26
3 The Geography of Gender 47
4 The Altar of the Golden Calf 66
5 The Cowboy Subculture 87
6 The Ecology of Frontier Violence 109
7 Women and Families 131
8 Chinatown 152
9 The Floating Army 170
10 Marriage Boom, Urban Bust 198
11 Ghetto Violence 225
12 The Crack Era 247
Conclusion: Life in the New Frontier Society 270
Bibliographic Note 283
Abbreviations 285
Notes 287
Index 347
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