“Look how wide also the east is from the west:
so far hath he set our sins from us.”

—Psalm 103

It has been said that an intellectual is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. But the life of the mind hardly requires that William and Henry, rather than Frank and Jesse, first spring to mind should “the James brothers” be mentioned; nor is it inconsistent with “popular” culture or such “romantic” Western subjects as Indian warfare or frontier crime. Resisting seduction by frontier fantasies, scholars may choose instead to dissect them, tracing the transmutation of history into myth and flawed humans into America’s frontier pantheon. Others may adopt a sociological approach to frontier society, though their efforts may fail to evoke a deeper Truth; recently in these pages Odie B. Faulk, galvanized by two books he considered “larded with sociological and psychological jargon and motivated by economic prejudice against the entrepreneur,” insisted that he had gained more insight into the cattle trade from two cowboy anecdotes than from “some two dozen years of academic study.”

The defiant opposite to a homely brush-popper’s yarn might be a probing of Western myths and “ideology” that largely neglects the actual West in the consciousness of the dudes—those who helped hammer out for us an enduring frontier of the mind. Richard Slotkin’s The Fatal Environment excavates its “Myth of the Frontier” chiefly from the writings of Easterners, from an era when the frontier was known to be, with a ghastly finality, vanishing.

“Men live by lies,” proclaimed D.H. Lawrence, brooding over Cooper’s Leatherstocking cycle. And so with nations. Our Old West—our Frontier—is a young nation’s closest approach to a Heroic Age, to be alternately glamorized or debunked as pride or guilt takes us, its tragedy and drama famous beyond our shores. Small wonder that despite an abundance of honest and entertaining nonfiction writers, bad “historians,” catering to Wild West dementia, often seem to drive out the good—an irony summed up by anthropologist John Greenway’s comment that Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee “is the most popular book on the Indians ever written. It is also the worst.”

Yet there seems scant agreement on the Western “myth.” Does it celebrate rugged self-reliance, or violent “gun culture”? Are its Indians beasts, or does “natural” virtue hold a reproachful mirror to civilized vice? Do we welcome its passing—the arrival of schoolmarms and temperance societies—or mourn an ever-receding anarchy of ring-tailed squealers and eye-gouging brawlers? Perhaps all answers are correct, the myth, like Western film and fiction, being a catchall in which any fancy or folly can be indulged.

But for Richard Slotkin, here as in his 1973 Regeneration Through Violence, the “Myth of the Frontier” is arbitrarily boiled down to a theme of Indian or “savage” warfare, a confrontation which for generations of Americans had become “the symbolic key to interpreting the meaning of history.” Acknowledging that many never adopted this myth, Slotkin asserts that it provided the terms in which General George A. Custer’s contemporaries understood his 1876 defeat by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors—and also that these terms “continue to shape cultural discourse.” But his tiresome comments on Vietnam/Indian similes and supposedly myth-influenced U.S. adventurism (Kennedy’s New Frontier is implausibly termed “a program of renewed economic expansion and forward movement on the borders of the American empire”) prove less relevant to his central theme than an analysis of Walt Whitman’s “From Far Dakota’s Canyons,” a “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” whose jaded narrator finds in a message of massacre an affirmation of the “loftiest of life upheld by death.”

The Indian ambuscade, the
craft, the fatal environment.
The cavalry companies fighting
to the last in sternest
heroism . . .

Conceding that “fatal environment” refers literally to Custer being surrounded and killed by Indians, Slotkin insists that it also suggests “a grand fable of national redemption, and Christian self-sacrifice,” with the outcome “somehow implicit in the environment . . . as if Nature or God composed the story and assigned its meanings. . . . An environment, a landscape, a historical sequence is infused with meaning . . . which converts landscape to symbol and temporal sequence into ‘doom’—a fable of necessary and fated actions.” Whitman probably meant nothing of the kind, even his frontier locale being secondary to a grander theme of bracing heroism.

Slotkin introduces his themes with the Centennial Exposition, which celebrated America’s near-miraculous growth and was shadowed by the news of Custer’s annihilation. Slotkin sees an Exposition designed to show the superiority of the “American experiment,” with a child and singing blacks declaring that here “industrial progress was not in conflict with humane values . . . did not lead to class hatred and oppression.” But Slotkin finds the imagery “a mask, the oratory hollow,” the pageant’s “corrosively ironic context” actually being economic depression and Grant-era corruption.

The dilemma of inequality in a nation based on republican principles engendered a Marx-flavored thesis that inevitable ideological “contradictions” belied fantasies of the frontier as a permanent “safety valve,” either for the landless poor or for slaveowners seeking to expand slavery farther west—or south, into Latin America. Apparently forgetting his history-as- Indian-war theme, Slotkin even redefines the myth’s “central tenet” as the theory that economies and societies must grow or violently perish. The “central illusion” of this theory was faith in Western resources vast enough to satisfy industry while providing amply for each individual. Denying access to new lands, Slotkin argues, would have upset America’s “peculiar balance” of aristocracy and democracy with the “frustrated rage of masses doomed to eventual disappointment in their quest for upward mobility. How were the lower orders to be placated, without the carrot of expansion held before their eyes as an inducement to submit?”

Analyzing early fictional stock figures such as the obsessed Indian hater (“simply writ large” in Melville’s Ahab), Slotkin sees Fenimore Cooper’s influence everywhere. He also scrutinizes historical heroes. Daniel Boone, the preindustrial archetype of Regeneration Through Violence, is succeeded by Kit Carson and the Texas demigods Crockett and Houston, the central theme of the latter two “legends” being self-renewal sought after “moral or material ruin” in Metropolitan struggles. Sam Houston, fleeing to the Cherokees, partly imitates Cooper’s “natural aristocrat” ideal, but his rocky marriage “suggests some fundamental incompatibility in the mixture: a bride/civilization too enervated by gentility . . . a hero too much the man of the wilderness to blend his nature with that of civilization’s highest type.” One could almost forget there was a real Houston (and Mrs. Houston), whatever Sam’s success in having “brought off his “living or acting out” of a Leatherstocking “scenario.”

Slotkin sees the “Last Stand” as the chief fable in industrial America’s “Myth of the Frontier.” He finds in Custer’s 1874 exploration of the goldrich, Sioux-claimed Black Hills of the Dakotas—dreamed of as a kind of Last Frontier and economic safety-valve for the “Panic of ’73″—the “best case” for studying the “interaction of western realities and Metropolitan ideologies” and a “contradiction at the heart of liberal ideology: the imperatives of industrial development versus those of social justice or reform.” Using the atypical New York World as an “index” of conservative ideology (and making the “myth” seem chiefly the World‘s plaything by generally ignoring more moderate newspapers), he views editor as auteur in juxtaposing features and editorials. (Postbellum newspapers frequently compared Indians to striking workers or other dissidents, and the World, favoring the Hills’ seizure, “consistently” paired reports of labor agitation and tribal unrest.)

Devoting much space to Custer’s upbringing and private life in studying his public myth, Slotkin rejects the determinist view that a similar doomed hero would have been “invented” had Custer not died at the Little Big Horn. He ponders Bruce Rosenberg’s theory that such defeat acquire a familiar “Last Stand” pattern through a collective, largely unconscious process and insists that glorifiers of Custer saw in man and massacre “realizations of the myths in which they believed.” Shrewdly upsetting Custer-as-rebel fantasies (“an early type of organization man, hiding in the costume of the cavalier trooper and the Frontier buckskin”), he indulges wildly in pretentious amateur psychobabble: citing “Long Hair’s feminine characteristics,” he claims that Custer enjoyed the adjective’s “implications of sensual attractiveness” and an “ambivalent linkage” with his half-sister Lydia. Journalists of 1865 would be shocked at what he finds in their hasty scribblings on a trivial incident in which Custer, at the Grand Review of victorious Union armies, mastered a runaway horse. Dubbing this critter a “surrogate for the man’s animal self,” Slotkin suggests that “Thus brought again under strict discipline by the rider (the intellectual being), the presence of the hero reveals itself.” But then, only Slotkin would assume that in a magazine article by Custer he “solicits the aid of Delaware Indian scouts (Cooper’s favorite tribe)” in keeping with a Leatherstocking-like self-image.

Custer was, of course, ambitious. But Slotkin imagines a hero always the opportunist, facade always “on.” Coldblooded calculation is insisted upon even in stating (wrongly) that the Custers were “childless by choice,” or that Custer endorsed Negro suffrage before a Congressional committee while privately condemning it, though his actual testimony records no such endorsement. The reduction of a complex man to a two-legged calculating machine climaxes in denying Custer ability to reveal his true feelings (if any) even in writing to his own wife about Indians raping a little girl. Slotkin concludes: “This is of course the archetypal raison d’etre of the Indian war, and Custer responds appropriately: ‘Woe to them if I overtake them.'” A more levelheaded writer might assume that the fiery Custer desired retribution.

While fair-mindedly terming Custer one of our Army’s best Indian fighters, discounting silly stories of alleged presidential ambitions, and exploding his buffoonish modern image (the Montana disaster “retroactively discredits his professionalism”), Slotkin repeats several hoary fables. He writes of Custer’s supposed cohabitation with a female Cheyenne captive. (It would be interesting to find out whether similar liaisons of Seventh Cavalry officers with Cheyenne women involved coercion, as Slotkin believes, or simple sexual collaboration with the white enemy.) Higher standards of evidence might also have benefited his interesting thoughts on Custer’s “hunger for cash” and “rather flexible” Gilded Age business ethics. He even tries to establish Custer as the railways’ tool, parfly by charging him with plagiarism from a Northern Pacific propaganda brochure—though the two paragraphs he quotes have virtually nothing in common.

In the book’s final section, “The Last Stand as Ideological Object, 1876-1900,” Slotkin credits the newsmen of Custer’s day with some awareness that the Little Big Horn “would become a ‘legend,’ ” because in writing about it they used “the full range of legendary references and metaphors, from the Trojan War to Horatius at the Bridge, to the Alamo and the Charge of the Light Brigade.” (Considering the inability of modern electronic reporters to come up with anything deeper than the usual “It was like something out of a spy movie,” Slotkin’s misconceptions are explicable, if not pardonable.) The Last Stand, though an ill-wrought fable in an age of rapid but irregular communications, became an “exercise in applied mythology” for a generation painfully aware of the final death of the Frontier. Custer became cast as civilization’s martyr, while his foes achieved status as mythic savages. The Indians’ stunning success actually inspired demands for “extermination”—though, as the author observes early on, the more such rhetoric was broadcast, the less killing seemed to get done. Of course, the Custer “legend” is capable of assuming many shapes, and we may doubt not only the author’s assertion that the “Boy General” had achieved “mythic” status even prior to his death but also the importance assigned to Custer as an element of scholars’ racewar myth.

Aware that his “Myth of the Frontier” is but part of the mythic West, Slotkin ignores certain well-known legends (such as those of outlaw-heroes or lawmen) as well as many familiar modern fantasies (though his Gunfighter Nation promises to carry his trilogy’s “myth” into our own era). Instead, he provides neglected information and a fascinating thesis which may permanently alter, or at least stimulate, the reader’s thinking on Westward expansion. Yet an academic sterility hangs over it—a coldness that does little justice to frontier, frontiersmen, or even Eastern stay-at-homes. The West, and America itself, seem barren places, and we are left, intentionally or not, with crass racialism, greed, paternalism, and “contradictions.” It is hard to help feeling there was more—if only that hard-bitten love of individual liberty we associate with the Frontier. Or that sense of opportunity, however exaggerated, that moved Irish-born Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Myles Keogh, destined to die with Custer, to write that in America—that “queer country” where “impudence and presumption” carried great weight and “a certain lack of sensitiveness” was vital to success—”you are judged only by your merits as a man.” It was no Eastern journalist but a simple cowboy who, asked by an English visitor whether his “master” was at home, summed up the Frontier philosophy by remarking: “The son of a bitch hasn’t been born yet.”


[The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1900, by Richard Slotkin (New York: Atheneum) $37.50]