American Progress by John Gast
Take note of the bison in the painting above, fleeing from America’s angel of death, a now-fallen angel named Manifest Destiny.
Take note of the bison, fleeing alongside horseback-riding natives and dwindling wildlife.
Take note of the bison, pressed ever-more westward towards a finite boundary, towards the Pacific Ocean.
Now, notice the complete lack of fences.
Destiny, in the painting above, carries a reel of telegraph wire, but I can’t help but see it as barbed wire. Sure, this picture was trying to depict civilization as this beautiful, progressive thing, pushing out the dark and violent primitive land. You don’t find many paintings from the late 19th century showing smallpox victims, deliberate starvation, and ecological destruction. But then again, who really knew then? The effects weren’t to be immediately seen. Do we, even now, fully grasp the ramifications of manifest destiny?
Frederick Jackson Turner argued in the 1890’s that the advancement of the American frontier shaped American culture. (This is known as the Frontier Hypothesis.) With a background in anthropology, he analyzed history like a scientist:
"The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s "trace;" the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads. The same origin can be shown for the railroads of the South, the Far West, and the Dominion of Canada. The trading posts reached by these trails were on the sites of Indian villages which had been placed in positions suggested by nature; and these trading posts, situated so as to command the water systems of the country, have grown into such cities as Albany, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Council Bluffs, and Kansas City. Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent." (The Significance of the Frontier in American History: Chapter I)
Many historians have criticized Turner’s ideas, in part because of his conclusion: When the American frontier closed, the progress of American culture would come to a halt. Even Turner wouldn’t say for certain that progress would halt, but expected the future would follow similar trends: "The future alone can disclose how far these interpretations are correct for the age of colonization which came gradually to an end with the disappearance of the frontier and free land." (Preface)
But why, as a classmate of mine asked me, should we say that the frontier was ever really closed? Turner’s criteria for "frontier" was based on population density and the idea of "free land":
"The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier--a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile." (Chapter I)
If you’ve been to North Dakota recently, you’d see we have plenty of land that qualifies:
Would this suggest that some land is reverting back into frontier?
On the other hand, our settlement of unused territory has continued to expand, but not necessarily in the westward fashion depicted above. The expansion could happen inwardly, like a fractal, rather than outwardly. The bison trails that eventually turned into railroad tracks and stagecoach roads kept advancing long after Turner’s day. We next built roads for cars, which turned into interstate freeways. The cites kept growing, adding on suburbs, constantly expanding into increasingly smaller scales. Then came computer networks, BBSs, the world wide web.
Much to the rest of the world’s chagrin, American culture didn’t stop at the Pacific coast, but surreptitiously slipped across to the rest of the world. American nationalization (in the nation-building sense) became a part of globalization. The trader’s trace reaches across borders and oceans, as the frontier continues to expand in newly-built factories, strewn across the world. And all the while, the amount of free land, free space--the distance we can reach before the effects we cause become apparent--is growing ever smaller and more detailed. We can see the effects of our actions, and the effects of the actions of those who came before us, unfolding around us in seemingly cataclysmic proportions. (Need I mention the economy? Climate change? The emergence of antibiotic-resistant diseases?)
The bison aren’t the only ones who are doomed to stay behind the fences we brought; we are as well. Destiny doesn’t look like an angel anymore. She looks more like a prophetess of doom.
A section of Manifest Destiny by Alexis Rockman
(Click the image to see the entire mural.)
There’s more... I’d like to discuss some of the suggested approaches to dealing with our destiny. From the anarcho-primativists to the climate change denialists, there are some wildly divergent views. Yet, more moderate solutions often seem inadequate. But, that will have to wait for next time.
Painting credits: "American Progress" by John Gast in 1872, via "The Davin Report: Shakespeare and Canada’s Manifest Destiny". "Manifest Destiny" by Alexis Rockman via Grand Arts.
Thanks for the wild turkey and
the passenger pigeons, destined
to be shit out through wholesome
Thanks for a continent to despoil
Thanks for Indians to provide a
modicum of challenge and
Thanks for vast herds of bison to
kill and skin leaving the
carcasses to rot.
Thanks for bounties on wolves
Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.
Thanks for the KKK.
For nigger-killin' lawmen,
feelin' their notches.
For decent church-goin' women,
with their mean, pinched, bitter,
Thanks for "Kill a Queer for
Thanks for laboratory AIDS.
Thanks for Prohibition and the
war against drugs.
Thanks for a country where
nobody's allowed to mind the
Thanks for a nation of finks.
Yes, thanks for all the
memories-- all right let's see
You always were a headache and
you always were a bore.
Thanks for the last and greatest
betrayal of the last and greatest
of human dreams.
-William S. Burroughs
ted, what a fantastic way to comment. I've been an admirer of Burroughs for a long time,(I even have a silhouette of him printed on a record that hangs above my desk) but I'd never run across this particular poem. It's quite fitting... thanks for bringing it out!
The way that robe drapes over Destiny's left breast looks unnatural. I suspect double-sticky tape.
Ha! no kidding. Wouldn't want Destiny to pull a Janet Jackson, now would we?
I love Robert Hughes's comment on the Gast painting in an episode of American Visions ("Wilderness and the West"). He describes Destiny as a "blond blimp" with a star stuck to her forehead--and goes on to make some of the points you do. Since the series is now difficult to find, it's nice to see folks carrying on the critique.
The way that robe drapes over Destiny's left breast looks unnatural
but I'd never run across this particular poem. It's quite fitting... thanks for bringing it out!