In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.” In it, Turner bucked the prevailing historical wisdom of the day to say that American history was in fact quite distinct from that of Europe, and that this was due to the existence of the frontier. The opportunity to move freely into unoccupied land, and the struggle with nature to carve civilization out of that land, that wilderness, gave America and Americans a unique character.
…according to Turner, at any rate.
Suffice to say, the Turner thesis caught on, not just in the historical professions, but also throughout American popular culture. One can hardly imagine western fiction without it, or even the lyrics of mainstream country music. So, when I say, according to Turner, I of course mean, “and a whole lot of other people right along with him.” The Turner thesis has become so ubiquitous it would be hard to find a single genre of artistic expression or a vein of American politics it has not influenced, or for that matter a person who doesn’t invoke its themes from time to time.
To say that all of this is problematic is putting it rather mildly, and countless books have been written exploring the many problems of the frontier thesis, just as countless books have been written applying it to various aspects of American history.
Needless to say, Native Americans have come up a few times, particularly in reference to that notion of free and unoccupied land so central to the frontier thesis. We’ll save that for another post.
…or maybe 10 other posts.
One of the most interesting problems with the frontier thesis has to do with the timing. See, most people would reckon that the frontier was basically closed by 1893, not too long before that, to be sure, but by most accounts, it was certainly closed by 1893. So, if that frontier is what makes America and Americans unique, then what do we make of everything that comes after its closure? If the frontier was the driving force in American history, then what is significant about America and Americans long after the became an ex frontier?
To raise the question in a more practical tone; if the original is already gone, then can we find another? What is the new frontier?
Yes, that question has been asked many times by many people.
Various answers have been offered.
What has me thinking about all this today is a recent visit to a museum, The Spirit of the West Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. More specifically, I am thinking of one of the exhibits on the second floor of this museum. It is entitled, “From the Mountains to the Moon,” exploring the life work of the artist Paul Calle. The man was an amazing artist, and the exhibit carries a good deal of his work, much of which deals with themes quite closely connected to the frontier, but what specifically gives the exhibit its title is the contrast between his many paintings of mountain men, and his depiction of the Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, taking man’s first step onto the moon. This might seem a Hell of a leap, from Mountain Men to the moon, but of course, there are certain elements of continuity.
You can see these traces of continuity in at least two of the paintings in this exhibit, along with the narratives attached to them. The first of these is entitled “The Great Moment.” It is most remarkable for its presence in an exhibit otherwise filled with western Americana (and a few other things to be sure), but the mere presence of this great painting alongside so many depictions of mountain men, Indians, and western landscape creates an interesting juxtaposition. It is enough to get someone asking, how and why did this piece get here?
“This painting of my friend Neil Armstrong by my friend Paul Calle combines for me the best of two worlds. NASA’s technological achievements and an artist’s exquisite interpretation of it. It looks as beautiful today as it did forty years ago, and it will one hundred years from now.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11, Command Module Pilot
So, how and why did that painting get here?
Well, the best explanation can be found alongside one of Calle’s more typical pieces.
“I have always liked the image of mountain man John Colter his moccassin clad foot first stepping on the newly fallen snow of the Yellowstone Valley to the Moon boot of Neil Armstrong stepping in the dust of the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Two worlds apart, yet each of a new frontier. – Paul Calle
Captain Kirk could not have said it better himself.
A few extras (click to embiggen!)