How did settling the west change the idea of the frontier in literature?

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Answered by: Matt, An Expert in the History of Literature Category
If you think about what an American looks like, what kind of images would you come up with? It might be someone who consumes too much, who might be overweight, who is self-interested, whose ambitions lie in gaining capital, whose consciousness is limited in a way that allows him to conceive an adjective that describes an entire hemisphere in terms of his countrymen. That’s certainly an image of the modern American that we receive often. It might be someone you don’t like very much. Cast against this normative American we imagine the cultural dropouts, punks, hippies, anarchists, hitchhikers, communes, intentional communities, and naturalists living off the grid turning toward the great American wilderness to find their own space.

We don’t usually imagine the counterculture as part of what an American looks like. We imagine Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Tom Wolfe tumbling through the backwoods, highways, bars, and basements of the U.S. This was a generation of artists seeking the open spaces of the continent as well as the undeveloped, unexplored, and unimagined parts of humanity. It was a generation of artists trying to piece together an understanding of their lives and what to do with them in seeming opposition to the world around them.

Not often recognized, however, is that they were evoking a deeply embedded tradition in American Literature. Part (at least one part) of the process of Europe’s introduction to the new world has always remained in the American psyche. The part addressed here is the frontier. The frontier in literature has not been imagined as an unknown or inhospitable wilderness that is alien to the people who live beside it. Rather the frontier, as long as it existed, was incorporated into the American character.

In 1803, still new to the stage, America was a country on the outskirts of the knowledge of their cultural center, Europe. That year Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France, kicking off a surge of westward expansion that would pour out of Western Appalachia and end at the Pacific Ocean in 1853. In 1869, access to the frontier was supplemented by the opening of the transcontinental railroad. The country now thought of itself as largely composed of the vast, wild frontier.

Ideas of movement, newness, of discovery and self-determination, of confronting the unknown, and of being an outsider to the original order have been key features of American Literature. The frontier in literature has taken the form of literal space as well as metaphysical space, a place out there or within us where things still observe primal laws, untouched by human laws, where you could live according to an original, organic lifestyle. The first powerful American literary movement was that of the transcendentalists and differed from European romanticism by speaking to this idea of the frontier. Transcendentalists such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated ideals of self-determination, self-discovery, and non-conformity. They perpetuated a frontier mentality of starting from the beginning, building from the ground up returning to the source. To access transcendental truth one had only to un-obscure the truth from societal constructs and understandings- to think for one’s self from the source. Imagine the transcendentalist exploring the brush and brambles for the fountainhead of a pure mountain stream and that would be analogous to the search for actuality before it is filtered through interpretation and the senses.

These original seekers have a direct relationship the rebels and outcasts we know from the literature of the Beatniks and Merry Pranksters a century later. They are the archetypes these later artists drew on for their sense of the wise traveler and their moral values of non-conformity. We can imagine, though, that when the frontier was settled and there was an understanding that that part of the horizon was closed, something was lost to the American imagination. The need for self-discovery and undeveloped space had not waned, but it had left the mainstream of American life and later writers were left searching for that displaced center of the American spirit.

Modernist classics of the early 20th century such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying continued to imagine the unsettled West as the setting for the transcendental experience, depicting naturalistic landscape that characters traveled and that contributed to their eventual realization or epiphany about the world that they lived in. At this time travel through the rugged west was still a defining part of the American experience, but after the mid-century an unconstructed space was harder to find. Transcendental sojourners like the Beats found themselves increasingly alienated from the vital originality and newness that had become cultural values.

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