Although the American frontier was officially closed 118 years ago, Americans remain in thrall to its mythic spell and the romance of the American West.  Europeans have always viewed our cultural obsession with condescension, though they themselves—the Germans and the Italians especially—are hardly immune to its allure.  (On my first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1977, the mule-back party I joined on the ride down to the Tonto Plateau above the Inner Gorge included a very tall German with silver hair, wearing a powder-blue Hopalong Cassidy suit and ten-gallon hat to match it.)  It is true that popular perceptions of the West have changed over the decades, and that Americans at the beginning of the 21st century imagine the West differently from how they did 50 years ago.  The measure of that distance is the measure between the movie True Grit and the recently released No Country for Old Men, the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s antimythic novel published in 2006.  Nevertheless, the American public has yet to lose sight of the Western frontier, including those aspects of it that carry over into the present day, just as the modern West was adumbrated in its 19th-century incarnation.

The search for a convincing explanation for America’s love affair with the West is as old as the phenomenon itself.  Detractors have habitually associated the myth of the West with the myth of violence in America, suggesting that the direct connection between the two is guns and gun ownership, that supposed shibboleth of angry white men misguidedly protected since 1789 by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A recent book (Democracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe) by Pierre Manent, a political philosopher at the Sorbonne and former associate of Raymond Aron, provides an invaluable insight into the matter.

Considering why the United States, so often the bellwether of Western liberal-democratic policy, diverges from the European nations in both her condemnation of abortion and her support for the death penalty, Manent offers an intriguing explanation.  “In my view,” he says,

it is because the Tocquevillian country par excellence has not broken with the Hobbesian scheme of the Western nation-state. . . . [T]he connection between the state that holds a monopoly of force and the experience of the state of nature has never completely been forgotten there.

Americans’ recognition of the legitimacy of the death penalty, Manent continues, has a direct philosophical connection with their insistence on the right to bear arms in self-defense.  Europeans believe that cession to the state of the right of personal defense under the Hobbesian contract makes insistence upon that right contradictory.  The opposing American view holds that, as the state is incapable of rendering the threat of violence nonexistent, a personal right to self-defense must be recognized in perpetuity.

Europeans think and act as though the sovereign state has fulfilled its purpose so completely that they can now consign it to the thrift store, filed under “accessories.”  Americans, on the other hand, retain the feeling that they are living in a condition which makes this “accessory” necessary, even indispensable.

The truth of this aperçu seems as inarguable as it is obvious, once Manent has brought the point to our attention.  For nearly three centuries, the frontier was America’s state of nature, against which the pioneers and the settlers who came after them had ceaselessly to contend.  As the fundamental reality behind our growth and westward expansion, this frontier state of nature became indelibly ingrained in the American psyche.  When the actual frontier closed, and the Rocky Mountain and Far West were finally tamed (relative, that is, to the rest of the country), the frontier state of mind remained wide open.  The reality of the frontier was no more, but nostalgia for that reality remained.  Yet not nostalgia only.  First necessity, then romantic myth determined that the state of nature should remain an integral part of the American imagination.  But a third component also played a role.  That component was—and is—the American myth of freedom, meaning individualism and self-government, grounded in the conviction that, even if the achievement of an all-competent, all-protective Hobbesian state were possible, it shouldn’t be.  For Americans, even when they do not practice at the polls what they preach to one another, all-protective government is tyrannical government, worthy to be combated tooth and nail, and pulled down.  Europeans, with their monarchical and authoritarian past, do not share what appears to them, paradoxically, a reactionary view.  For the peoples of Europe, democratic progress—indeed, freedom itself—means, as Manent argues elsewhere in his book, the total embrace of a depoliticized administrative state dedicated to the enforcement of “rights.”

The myth of the American West is essentially an expression of Americans’ commitment to that part of human nature that never can—nor should—be removed from the state of nature, and a celebration of limited government that must never be permitted to realize the Hobbesian contract as embodied in an all-powerful and all-embracing state.  Yet this myth has allure for some Europeans as well, whether they understand the basis of its appeal or not.

Historically, the Western mystique assumed popular form through the media of yellow journalism, pulp fiction, frontier memoirs, painting (Remington and Russell), movies, and television.  In this form, it has indeed placed a preponderant and excessive emphasis on guns, violence, ethnic warfare, and lawlessness, though even in the popular imagination, law and order always prevail in the end over savagery and chaos.  Above the popular level, however, the mythology of the American West displays a sophistication and profundity embodied in universal themes.  What, in the popular imagination, takes form as the vulgar contest between good guys and bad guys, black hats versus white ones, is raised by the artistic imagination to the eternal opposition between civilization and barbarism, metaphysical order and chaos.

And yet, unlike its European counterpart, the American imagination has injected a new element into the classic opposition between the civilized and the savage, an element that complicates this opposition by creating a tension internal to the notion of savagery itself.  This element is “wilderness,” and it is a wholly American one, “native to this place” as Wendell Berry would say.  It does not at all reflect, for example, the romantic pre-civilizational fantasies of Rousseau, who invented a creature he called “the noble savage.”  Before the 1960’s, the American imagination never tended toward ennobling the American Indian.  Instead, it ennobled the wilderness in which the Indian dwelt.  We see an entirely different mind from the European one at work here.  For Americans, innocence was the essential quality of the wilderness, not of the wild man.  Nor did the white man—the pioneer, the settler, even the soldier—who ventured onto the frontier, and into the wilderness that lay beyond it, discover innocence by going native.  (Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, describes in some amazement visiting pioneer cabins surrounded by primeval forest in the wilds of the Upper Midwest in which the householder sat in a crude chair on a dirt floor, reading his newspaper and hungry for the visitor to drop by and argue politics with him.)  What westering Americans could find, on the frontier and in the wilderness, was a society simpler, more sincere, more democratic, more free than the civilized society they left behind in Massachusetts, New York, or Virginia—a society that, more often than not, they had to construct for themselves.  Paleface society (to adopt Bernard DeVoto’s distinction) was constrictive and hypocritical, and Redskin society (an obvious misnomer) was freer, more honest, more open, more basic, more real—more civilized, in short, in all essential ways, just as the individual himself, being free, was more authentic, as we should say today.  It was in quest of such a society, not of a wilderness utopia, that Huck Finn’s creator has him contemplate “light[ing] out for the territory” at the end of his novel.

America gloried in her frontier, and in the life that wilderness offered.  She also had to endure it—those men and women who wrested the land from the Indians, settled it, subdued it, and held it against the lurking aborigines.  And to endure, the frontiersmen needed law and order—and government, but no more of it than was necessary.  Their dilemma was this: The Western frontier required political and civic institutions to transform itself into an ordered society in order to survive and flourish, but no political institutions imaginable in that time and place could relieve the frontiersman and settler of the necessity to assume a personal responsibility for his physical safety and economic security.  Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie will recall how the sparsely scattered settlers across Indian Territory in Kansas and Missouri were dependent in the early 1870’s for their safety on the soldiers stationed at Fort Dodge.  But in case of an Indian raid, those soldiers might, or might not, arrive in time.  There was of course no organized police force, and Mrs. Wilder never mentions the presence of a sheriff and deputies.  Charles Ingalls had his gun, his powder horn, his home-molded bullets in a deerskin pouch, an ax, and a Bowie knife with which to protect his wife and daughters.  Ingalls, in spite of his wanderlust and taste for solitude, like most frontiersman was never a man to refuse the benefits of progress when they came his way.  Probably, he would have welcomed a sheriff had one been deputized by his few neighbors; perhaps, he might even have become a deputy himself, for a few dollars’ monthly pay.  Nevertheless, any social or political contract Ingalls or men like him would have willingly entered into would have been enormously less comprehensive than the Hobbesian contract.  (Theodore Roosevelt, the apostle of American organization and empire, once praised Dakota Territory as a place where “you can plug a man in the stomach and get away with it.”)  So long as there was a general store and a school within reasonable distance, Ingalls was content to live under a government 1,500 miles away in Washington whose hand he hardly ever felt, like that of the few mediating institutions between him and it.  For the Ingalls family, civilization—the Bible, literacy, Christian morals, civilized manners, cleanliness and sobriety, nourishing food conscientiously prepared, Pa’s careful craftsmanship, Ma’s china shepherdess brought out from the East—was a domestic project.  Wherever they could, they did for themselves—by choice and by necessity.  In the mythology of the West, the two go together, always joined by the conjunction.

From the foundation of “a city upon a hill” lifted above the surrounding wilderness, the single great theme of the American imagination has been the tension between civilization and wilderness, and the conflicting merits associated with each of them.  It is the ultimate concern of much of our literary heritage, from the Puritans to William Faulkner, including those instances where the terms of opposition are not identified directly or explicitly as such.  (Even the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, that aloof English urbanite transplanted to Los Angeles in the 1920’s, can be read as portraying the American frontier at the end of its string, baffled by the obdurate Pacific and thrown back upon itself to create a new urban frontier populated by white savages of a thoroughly modern kind.)

After 30 years, my mind goes back often to the German tourist in his powder-blue Hopalong suit precariously astride a mule, descending by winding, narrow scratches on the cliff face through clouds of red dust, and so bewitched by the view into the purple abyss below that he failed entirely to notice the thick-bodied rattlesnake that slithered across the trail between the fore and rear hooves of his mount.  The Germans, of course, have always been fascinated by geology and paleontology, and the Grand Canyon, for a student of these sciences, must have an effect equivalent to that of the Beyreuth Festival on an acolyte of Wagner.  Still, I wonder, what did the man see—not just there in the canyon depths, but also in the vast and varied Wagnerian landscape stretching beyond it, from San Diego and El Paso as far as Denver and Great Falls?  Perhaps, he saw what I see: bombastic, fantastic nature in its untamed natural state, existing from eons before the state of nature was ever thought of and as unbindable by the Hobbesian contract as the universe itself; nature that finds barely an echo in the well-populated, well-cultivated, well-regulated, comfortably civilized landscapes of Europe.  We Americans have our origins in Europe, and in our genes are the ancestors of our European contemporaries.  Is it so strange that they—at least, some of them—should be liable to the same visceral instinct that we find so powerful and undeniable?  I think not, and I believe further that our European cousins should work to discover that instinct and, having discovered, develop it.  In doing so, they might discover themselves and, in the process, a means to the ultimate salvation of their own beleaguered continent.