NR Digital

Locked in at Last

by Charles C. W. Cooke

The frontier and its absence have both shaped the American imagination

For Americans who had become accustomed to pushing reflexively westward, it must have come as quite a shock to the psyche when, in 1890, in the faraway eastern city of Washington, D.C., the authors of the last U.S. Census report of the 19th century pronounced indifferently that there was no longer such a thing as a frontier line — and so, in Frederick Jackson Turner’s immortal phrase, “closed the first period of American history.”

Because, as Mark Twain quipped drily, they are no longer making land, the second period — which we might for the sake of simplicity call “post-frontier America” — continues to this day. Throughout it, Americans have searched in vain for a new hinterland to conquer and worried as to what might happen to the national character if there were none in store. It is by no means an overstatement to say that the most popular parts of American history involve some sort of perilous travel — the more onerous the better — nor to recognize that it is still primarily these stories that fashion the American conception of self.

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