The Ideological Frontier and a stAndsTiLl

Overall, I liked Cronon’s assessment of “The Frontier Thesis”. He points to Turner using rhetorical moves of the frontier as an idea, not a place, and he defends his points well for the most part. It’s possible, however, that he does make some assumptions that I would not have been as quick to make, but he obviously does them with good reason, and his overall argument still stands. I disagree with jewarren in that I believe we should continue analyzing Turner’s work. Cronon is trying to prove why it’s still important to embark on new theories about an environmental historian’s arguments, and if we stopped analyzing it, then his work would be rendered dead in academia.

With that said, I really want to talk about a possible new natural disaster that just occurred yesterday (northerners go ahead and laugh). In Atlanta and Birmingham, many people, young and old, were stranded on the roads last night in a complete stAndsTiLl on the roads. The interstates in Atlanta were gridlocked; for hours, no one moved an inch on the roads unless they abandoned their cars and walked. I scrolled through Facebook, and I saw people talk about their 4, 8, 9, 16, and even 20 hour commute to get back home. For the first time in Atlanta’s history, traffic going away from the city during the morning rush “hour” was gridlocked, while the city-bound side of the interstate across the median was completely empty; people were sitting in the shadows of the skyscrapers 16-24 hours after they left to go home. In texting my friends and family back home, I often heard, ‘I’m okay, but it’s CRAZY down here’. There have been over 1,000 car crashes in the past 28 hours (and counting). School kids were stranded with their bus drivers on hills. Thousands of people abandoned their cars on the interstates and highways to walk home. The city is in a state of emergency right now.

Just yesterday, we were talking in class about how to define disaster, and one major axis of conversation revolved around the inexplicability and who to place blame onto. If you go to ajc.com (The website for the Atlanta Journal Constitution), you’ll see multiple articles about the ‘blame game’. I don’t want to get into the blame game, but I’ll try to help you understand how it happened. Schools decided not to close, so all of the schools in the metro area got out at 3; businesses decided to close early… at 3. Whoever was not home at 3:00 yesterday decided to leave then. Just 3 years ago, it snowed a foot in Atlanta and people were fine, but yesterday, it snowed two inches. The reason for the disparity in the level of disastrous effect was that most of 6 million people in the city decided to drive at the same time. We Atlantans saw something somewhat similar effects in the Olympics and the NBA All-Star game in 2003, but never to this scale. Atlanta drivers have done very well in spacing out “rush-hour”, so that we’re not all on the road at the same time. That just means that for 8 hours of the day, traffic is pretty bad, but bearable (at least for an Atlantan). When we’re all on the road at the same time, the transportation system just can’t take it, and millions of dollars are lost while people sit on the same spot of the road for 4 hours. When Atlantans can space out there driving, all is relatively well, but when they can’t, chaos erupts.

Relative Abundance: Parallels between Cronon and Rozario

Cronon’s piece does, in my opinion, a remarkable job in salvaging Frederick Jackson Turner’s place in history as an influential historian. This is achieved through a historiographical study of the conditions in which Turner’s thesis emerged and also by studying the different approaches Turner took in writing his books and his essays which help to explain his essay’s somewhat questionable historic methodology as a product of the paper’s goal rather than of Turner’s historical abilities. More so, Cronon notes his ability to unite seemingly separate historical realities into a historical narrative that still endures today. This is not to say that Cronon salvaged the frontier thesis itself. Nor should he have, both AJ and Eli, despite their differing degrees of harshness, are correct in pointing out its flaws.

What interested me most about Cronon’s piece however didn’t necessarily relate to Turner’s work, but rather through a theory that he introduced to better understand Turner’s work. Cronon argues that Turner would have done better to understand the environmental history of North America (western history to Turner) through the lens of relative abundance to scarcity rather than from free to occupied land. He then goes on to more broadly say that “neither abundance nor scarcity has ever been absolute. Instead their definitiions shift always according natural and artificial constraints… and according to peoples beliefs about whether they are experiencing economic…stasis, progress, or decline.” (172) I would like to apply this this concept of understanding historical progress through population’s relative understanding of abundance and scarcity to Rozario’s economic evaluation of disasters.

As we discussed in class, Rozario’s piece can be seen to be potentially flawed because of his overreliance on examples of urban disasters in exceptionally prosperous environments. This criticism is well complemented by Cronon’s observation that people only have a relative understanding of abundance that is largely based on the perceived economic climate. Property in San Francisco and New York was extremely scarce and thus extremely economically valuable because of people’s perceived economic climate. Had New York been in the midst of a depression during the fire, this newly available property would have far less relatively scarce and less valuable. Similarly, a disaster to a relatively unimportant Midwestern town during an economic boon wouldn’t result in increased capital because comparable property is relatively abundant.

Historiography Persuasion

Let me begin by agreeing with AJ’s comments about reading through Eli’s post.  Bringing in the Belk parking spot certainly made me laugh and made Turner’s article seem even more far-fetched, stereotyped, and prejudice.  While I shared many of the same initial thoughts that Eli describes, Conon’s historiography almost justified Turner’s paper into making “THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY” seem accurate and almost skillfully neglectful.  Maybe I have fallen into Cronon’s trap, yet after reading the historiography Turner’s general thesis seems much more accurate, so long as you avoid the problems about democracy, national character, theological problems, and his stereotyping of frontier “types”.  (171)

During my initial reading of Turner, I had many of the same feelings that Eli referenced and noted many of the critiques that Cronon brought up.  I thought Turner lacked detail, failed to acknowledge many of the underlying factors of western expansion, and his “analytical shortcomings.” (170)  Nevertheless, I was slowly persuaded to acknowledge Turner’s entire thesis after I finished Cronon.  Regardless by how much historians reject the structure and thesis of Turner’s work, we are still reliant on the work today.  As noted throughout Cronon, we acknowledge the article predominantly for the academic ingenuity to understand history through narrative.  If one consider Turner’s article as more of a narrative for history as a whole, using the broad theme of the American frontier, than maybe his piece has merit.  Regardless of whether Turner though of this piece as a story or strict scholarly writing is insignificant.   If Turner was trying to explain why he believed the course of American history was going to take a drastic turn in the years after 1893, than his paper narrates a plausible story behind his reasoning.

As I re-read the last portions of Turner’s article (after reading Cronon who caused me to ignore some of the obvious flaws) the general ideas seemed to make sense.  If we ignore some of details, the American frontier has a unique and possibly accurate parallel with the Mediterranean. Maybe, in 1893 when Turner wrote the article, the idea of expansion had been lost.  Without the idea of free land and the frontier, maybe Americans felt forced to modernize.  Without the possibility of horizontal expansion, was the vertical expansion (urbanization and industrialization) the next logical chapter in American history?  Certainly, I do not agree with everything that Turner is saying, but his thesis, at the most basic level, is hard to ignore.  As Cronon points out, a logical story is hard to ignore.  If we compare the expansion of American history to various country histories and the interaction with American landscape, maybe Turner was right.

My biggest take away from these two reading’s lies in my drastic openness to Turner’s argument.  Can a good historiography like Cronon’s change your mind on even the most farfetched ideas?  Certainly this will not be true for every article, but I was struck by how logical Cronon’s approach was to an article I had nearly dismissed.

Cronon: A Careful Defense

After reading Cronon’s explanation of Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” I am willing to cut Turner some slack. Rather than piggyback on the numerous critics of Turner, I think the most useful tactic is to consider what Turner got right. Cronon frames the issue succinctly, “the key question, then, is whether we can escape the analytical weaknesses of Turner’s ‘vanishing frontier’ and still retain his narrative strength (170). Cronon argues that instead of harping on Turner’s obvious shortcoming, we should analysis the weight of his work.

Cronon’s piece contextualizes the work of Turner. Ironically, Turner was the pioneer of a field of history that celebrates the lives of individuals that found a new place for themselves in an unfamiliar domain. As the creator of an important subgenre of American History, Turner was bound to get some things wrong. As Caldwell point out in his post, Turner created the notion of the frontier. Because of Turner’s creation of the frontier and the study of the history of the west, Turner deserves to be commended for his innovation. As is the case with all new creations, those that follow constantly point out the flaws. I believe Turner’s flaws are excusable—granted we understand both the time period of his work and his addition to the study of United State’s history.

Also, I especially enjoyed Cronon’s depiction of Turner’s legacy. Cronon contends that Turner’s narrative of the west has never been changed, “we continue to follow the Turnerian plot (167).” Besides continuing to employ Turner’s narrative of the West, historians credit Turner with creating environmental history. Environmental history came from Western History and Western History came from Turner (171).

To conclude, I find it unnecessary to continue to attack Turner’s work. I believe it is more important to document his strengths more than his weaknesses. The flaws in his argument are apparent; it seems counterintuitive to keep pointing them out. Turner’s place in history and his work must be recognized going forward.

Turner: Mentor and Founder

I would like to start by agreeing with AJ’s post, especially his point that Turner’s work is useful and that it does a great job of paying tribute to the pioneers who first tamed “the frontier”. I also think that Eli has done a fantastic job of highlighting the flaws in Turner’s work, and so I will not be focusing on that. Instead, I would like to highlight  what I view as one of Turner’s greatest strengths, his importance in his own time in establishing the field of western history and inspiring a new generation of historians.

One of the biggest criticisms of Turner is his focus on white male frontiersman and ignorance of racial minorities and women. I think that this must be excused because Turner was writing in a time when these groups were not a focus of historical literature.  It also is important to focus on Turner’s influence in mentoring a new generation of historians. Cronon himself admits that Turner was massively beneficial in “shaping as it did a generation of scholars.” (Cronon 161) I don’t think it is too great of a jump to think that Turner’s dramatic and sweeping writing style helped to draw in this new generation of students.

Finally, I found myself thinking back to some of our in-class discussion of disaster as a triggering mechanism for revealing flaws in societal systems. Turner’s frontier thesis has been widely amended and criticized, and in the process a there is now a wide range of strong historical analyzes of the American west. Without Turner to to prompt such a response, who knows if we would have current body of work on the history of the American west?

I really enjoyed reading Turner’s essay and feel that it prompted me to think about a region and period of American history that I often overlook.

A Thank You Letter to the Frontier

Well after getting a good laugh from Caldwell’s post, which makes some very valid points on the lack of evidence and rather outlandish claims of Turner’s work, I do not want to add insult to injury and further coat Turner’s work with criticism. Yes, his work is somewhat glorified and possibly absurd; however, I do think some good came out of this work that is quickly noted in the post. I do think Turner accomplishes his goal of shining bright light on the memory of the “American frontier” and the history of the masses of those who courageously decided to pack up and head for the Great West. Yet, these points have been mentioned throughout Caldwell’s hilariously harsh historical critique so I won’t spend time on them. What I will spend a little time on is some of the interesting phrases I pulled out from Turner’s western frontier historiography.

Granted I do think many of Turner’s statements are beyond reasonable and he may have some misguided history of the west, but because I do not have much background in frontier history or of the great expansions into our new territory at the time, I am apprehensive to shoot down all of his claims. I find myself reading some of them and being intrigued to have this “frontier history” Turner wants expanded to shine some more light on his claims of significance. For example, the bold claim that, “Administratively, the frontier called out some of the highest and most vitalizing activities of the general government. The purchase of Louisiana was perhaps the constitutional turning point in the history of the Republic…” (10) This statement carries much weight with it and I would be interested to hear what past historians have to say about that as well as some men who held positions of office in the government before the time of the purchase. Besides claims such as those, I did find myself following Turner’s notions that the frontier was purely American and its Americanization began to diminish some of England’s influence on America. He states, “That fact is, that here is a new product that is American” and “Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.” (2) I find this argument of Turner’s a little more evidence based than others he makes and also truly just finding it more believable and significant than his other bold claims.

With that being said, I did found Turner’s work extremely enjoyable to read one, because I don’t know much about the west and its formational significance to the greater picture and two, because of the consistent bold claims by Turner that seemed to keep me flipping the pages. Also, someone teach me how to hyperlink on this thing.

The Omnipotent Frontier

There is no God. You might think that there must be a God, who created the universe, and perhaps drives its course. You might even think that God made sure you got that parking space in Belk lot. But he doesn’t exist, because the Frontier did all of those things, or so Frederick Jackson Turner might like you to think.

Clearly, I am about to add insult to injury by further criticizing what Cronon calls the “‘blood -drenched field’ of the frontier thesis”(157). Yet, because I read “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” I must add my own two cents, which will likely follow the critiques of past historians. Clearly, Turner embraces a vision of the frontier that is heavily stereotyped, and generalizes broadly from these stereotypes. For example, Jackson argues that “the wilderness masters the colonist” and turns him into a man who “has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion”(2). This vision is so prejudiced and stereotyped as to be laughable, and Jackson provides no evidence that anything of the sort ever actually occurred. The multitude of examples of Jackson’s hilarity and absurdity would take a great deal of space and time to mention, but to do so would be neither interesting nor original. I will say, however, that the most glaring pattern that threw his thesis into question was that he never examined any individual, region or town to substantiate his multitude of claims; much of his evidence comes from people making generalizations, as he did.

More interesting than the opportunity to criticize Turner is Cronon’s analysis of the frontier thesis and Turner’s work. In his work, rather than in Turner’s own, I was much more sympathetic to Turner. Knowing little of western history and even less about western historiography, I can still acknowledge the truth of Cronon’s argument that Turner succeeded in establishing the idea of the frontier in the American memory, perhaps more concretely than it ever existed in the minds of frontiersmen. I also empathized with Turner’s desire, which Cronon describes, to write a history for the mass of people. Turner fails to do so, of course, in his frontier thesis, in that he ignores the native Americans, women, and others who experienced the frontier; yet, his work seems like an attempt in that direction.

I also enjoyed reading about how Turner’s work “codified the central narrative structure which has helped organize American history ever since”(166). Certainly, such an impact seems both positive and significant (high praise, considering Turner’s love of ‘significance.’). In the end, I must apologize for my rude mocking of Turner’s argument which ascribes so much to the frontier: he was a storyteller, and his efforts to contribute to history were certainly successful, even if his ideas were sometimes outlandish or unsubstantiated.

As the first poster for last week’s post, I have been widely commented on and cited, appropriately for a historian of my eminence. First, I think that Catherine’s expansion of my point (which, oddly, I don’t believe to be the point that I actually made) that disasters have archeological benefit is interesting. I am loathe to claim that any loss of human life could be considered beneficial, even if it does result in great learning for later generations. Yet, we must acknowledge the transience of human life; perhaps it is acceptable that some of the myriad fleeting lives of the past ended disastrously to teach us something.

Furthermore, I question Sarah’s argument that capitalism is not as destructive as I claim it to be. We constantly see the ways in which capitalism destroys in order to create. Think about the way that corporations, once the mightiest in the nation, fall by the wayside as others replace them: Sears fell as Walmart consumed it, and Amazon forced Walmart to adapt, and others will soon take their place. Standard Oil and its progeny, ExxonMobil being the most prominent, will die as humans shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Or look past corporations, to the ways that capitalism consumes resources: the very measurement of a nation’s wealth is GDP, which is not measured by our happiness, or the sum of items we possess, or our savings, but by what we have consumed this year. Capitalism destroys resources, though it certainly drives progress; however, a critical examination of that progress and its direction–and the associated cost–is the duty of every citizen.

In conclusion, just remember to thank the frontier when you get that parking spot next time.

Distinguishing Between Planned and Unplanned Destruction of Capital

The argument made in Kevin Rozario’s “What Comes Down Must Go Up: Why Disasters have been Good for American Capitalism,” is extraordinarily informative and particularly relevant to the many of us who are American citizens, or who those of us who live in beds of economics growth. But in that relevance lies one of the shortcomings of Rozario’s argument; at many points he seems to attempt to extrapolate the lessons and evidence surrounding the disasters in economic hubs, such as San Francisco or New York City, into a broader understanding of the economic implications of disasters on the whole. I would argue that this evidence speaks less to the general nature of disasters and more towards the “creative destruction” facet of capitalism as it relates to areas of economic interest.

Eli’s blog post noted the parallels between disasters and capitalism present in this article; I found this parallel to be extremely interesting and would like to try to take it a step further by arguing that Rozario, while successful in pointing it out, errors in overemphasizing the parallels between all disasters and all capitalistic endeavors.

When describing the conditions during which New York experienced the New York Fire of 1835 Rozario notes that the City was still economically stimulated by the recent opening of the Erie Canal, that, as a financial center, New Yorkers enjoyed “singular access to international capital,” (79) and that there was abundant credit made available by the expansion of state and “wildcat” banks. All of these features created confidence in a swift recovery that led to little hesitance to rebuild. Similarly, when discussing San Francisco Rozario quotes a writer for the Times who noted that San Francisco’s natural advantages (its location as a hub of trade for the entire west coast) ensured its recover rather than an “artificial enhancement by investment.” Rozario’s evidence is centered on disasters in uniquely valuable locations.

Citing little other evidence he combines this analysis of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the New York Fire of 1835 with theoretical economic analysis from reputable thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter, John Stuart Mills, and Karl Marx concerning the necessity of “creative destruction” (Shumpter) or the “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces” (Marx). (80) His analysis, which often calls for logical jumps such as substitutions in Marx’s theory (changing “calamity” for “crisis), often stretches what seems to be the initial meaning of these economic theories. By this I mean that these theories seem to refer to destruction as a more controlled and thoughtful decision to replace low-productivity capital with high-productivity capital. Rozario then replaces these conscious decisions for unplanned disasters.

The danger of this sleight of hand in which he equates these unique disasters with all disasters and also replaces conscious destruction with unplanned disasters becomes clear when he argues that “one of the primary benefits of a calamity is that it destroys urban environments and thereby liberates and recycles capital.” It is only in these highly valuable urban spaces such as San Francisco or New York that this land in itself is capital that needs to be liberated. A counterexample is found in the Peshtigo Fire which, though causing up to 2500 deaths and creating a massive loss of capital, in no way “liberated” or “recycled” capital.

A Positive Understanding of Disaster: New Confidence From Gilded-Age “Innovation”

Blog Post 3 (for Tuesday, 1/28)

In his introduction to American Disasters, Steven Biel reinforces a notion that our class has grown familiar with over the last few weeks: the category of disaster is a seemingly arbitrary catchall for unusual destructive events. The essays that follow further demonstrate how the study of disaster can be approached from almost any angle.

Sheila Hones, in “Distant Disasters, Local Fears”, describes how local characterizations of distant disasters can illuminate “areas of immediate cultural or social concern” (171). In particular, she examines how a Boston publication called The Atlantic Monthly described disastrous events during late 19th century. For example, “His Best” is the fictional tale of a working class Irishman who falls in love with an upper class girl in the midst of a flood. The narrative integrates the natural disaster as a metaphor/parallelism of the social instability that the romance represents. The working class man’s passion is a threat to societal order. Perhaps the “immediate… concern” that this particular story addresses is the problem of incorporating the immigrants that were “flooding” America during the late 19th century. Additionally, Hones also explains that distance makes the event feel like a “safe theater” for social introspection (171). Because “His Best” is set in fictional Virginia, rather than real Boston, the author is free to explore the issues of class in a non-confrontational manner.

 

Kevin Rozario, in his essay “What Comes Down Must Go Up”, writes about the economic opportunities that result from disasters. Just as disasters promote social progress by revealing the “challenges to established ways”, they also promote economic progress through “creative destruction”—the idea that outdated systems must be eliminated to make way for more modern replacements (Biel 3, Rozario 73). For example, a businessman named George Harvey who witnessed the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 expressed excitement for the “resuscitated capital” (73). By this he meant the physically rebuilt capital city, but also alluded to “the revitalizing role of the calamity for American capitalism” (73). Inevitably, innovation and progress would replace what was destroyed by the quake. For Harvey, the San Francisco quake was an economic opportunity. This philosophy seems particularly well paired with the rapid industrialization that characterized the Gilded Age. And on a deeper level, the notion that “destruction breeds progress” is consistent with the Gilded Age’s lack of policy regarding industry regulation. Eli Caldwell describes how Gilded Age businessmen were hardly concerned with the ethics of industrialization, saying: “the so-called progressives of San Francisco cared as little about the effect of their plans on the working class as did Haussmann, though at least they did not blast away their housing with cannon.”

These two articles illuminate the cultural and social milieu of the Gilded Age while also demonstrating the manner in which disasters were understood during this period. Personally, I think that “His Best” and George Harvey both show that people who lived during the late 19th and early 20th century felt more confident in the face of disaster, because of social, intellectual, economic, and technological changes that they believed were “innovations.” The fictional story seems comfortable utilizing the disaster as a literary metaphor, and Harvey views disaster as an economic opportunity.

The Benefits of Disaster

The detrimental losses and challenges of homeowners, widows and politicians after a disaster often obscure the disaster’s economical, historical and geographical advantages. That is not to say that the human aspect of disasters should be removed, but rather that those who study disasters should do so using two analytical methods: one which recognizes the immediate impact and one which considers the historical legacy.

As Kevin Rozario points out in “What Comes Down Must Go Up” economic loss is the initial stage, but economic growth is the latter stage. Similar to Sarah’s post, I also, find this concept strange. However, redevelopment of cities, through reconstruction and urban planning can adapt cities to meet the current more modern needs while bringing in jobs. Following the fire in New York City in 1835 property prices increased from $93,000 to $765,000. Additionally, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed about five acres worth of property and left hundreds of people dead, but allowed the city to recreate itself following the Parisian model of transformation (Rozario). Given that this era was abundant in disasters and therefore demanding of reconstruction, the argument James Connolly made in “Bringing the City Back in” about urban planning in the Gilded Age gains credibility.

But further than Eli’s point in “The perverse and often baffling economics of disaster,” I believe disasters have more than just an economic benefit. In year 79 Pompeian citizens lost their lives when Mount Vesuvius exploded. Over 1500 years later archaeologists and historians excavated the site and made discoveries that have contributed to the modern understanding of the Pax Romana time period. Similarly the King Manor Museum (KMM) in Jamaica, Queens experienced a fire in 1962 that “damaged the upper floors of the manor house” but left artifacts such as “bottles and jars, household ceramics, flower pot fragments, tin cans, buttons, nails, bricks, animal bones, plaster and foil” (Matthews, 737). Archaeologists were then able to interpret these remains to understand how the museum served as a “center for cultivating elite women’s agency” (734). Disaster as a means of preservation seems contradictory, especially when descriptions of disaster include: economic loss, damage, emergency, tragedy, victims, and mortality rate (Hewitt).  Maybe in another 2000 years historians and archaeologists will make discoveries about our society and culture based on artifacts from Hurricane Sandy or the 2010 Haitian earthquake.