Some musings on my emotional reactions to words, the buffering effect of temporal distance, and Frederick Jackson Turner’s stats

The first week’s reading for my seminar touched on major historiographical milestones in the study of the American frontier and/or West. (Short version: socially constructed process or geographical region?) Turner and Webb, staking out their territory, provoked a more emotional reaction than subsequent articles and (this being a blog) I’ll touch on those reactions.

I was predisposed to like Turner: not for the thesis itself, but for the way in which he prefigures social history. And I find something appealing about his career, the focus upon teaching and the failure to produce a large body of scholarly writing. (I was particularly amused by accounts of his harried publisher in After the Fact; the Turner chapter I read a couple months ago was my first introduction to the man.) It’s not at all the way successful scholars’ careers are supposed to look, and yet with his mastery of narrative structure* he sort of ended up ruling the cosmos, or at least one little corner of it.

Turner is problematic in a very nineteenth century way. (That’s in addition to be wrong on various points, just about as objectively so as can be attained in the humanities. For all that he lost the analytical battles he won the paradigm war, at least for a number of decades, and is still engaged in a rearguard action.) But he was being problematic in the nineteenth century. At the time he presented his frontier thesis, my great-grandmother had not yet been born. When Webb’s article appeared in Harper’s, my parents were kids.

And so I barely even rolled my eyes when Turner tossed around the savage/civilized dichotomy or painfully gendered language. But Webb’s reference to the “Negro problem” and various other problematic statements or word choices set me twitching and I had to very deliberately do the “it was a different time” contortion to look at the interesting stuff. (Which, like Turner, was in fact interesting, although filled with its own wrongness.)

I know the wrongness of today—wrongness of the social ills variety, as opposed to errors of interpretation—goes back farther than the fifties. (It goes back farther than the nineteenth century, for that matter.) But I am more likely to feel angry at things that happened within living memory.

Perhaps it’s just because the effects are more obvious. But it feels less like history and more like injustice. When I was an undergrad, the rule of thumb for picking a thesis topic was to go twenty years or more in the past; perhaps because I was twenty at the time, that seemed like a good dividing line between “history” and “just prior to current events.” Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism that allows me to play with history (all but a very narrow slice) without being overly distracted by disapproval. Perhaps it’s reflective of embedded cultural assumptions: that history progresses, that we know more now than we used to, and will know even more tomorrow. Perhaps (to be truly optimistic) it’s because the recent ugliness is the stuff that might be most easily undone.

* See OotS. Given his success as a teacher, I think we can safely assume Turner made it up to at least level 9 and, given the persistence of the frontier paradigm, an argument can be made for level 18. Of course, it all becomes more complicated if he opted to multi-class.

And here I refer to things rather more concrete than articles in academic journals…which is not to say that academic work is unimportant, but an acknowledgment that sticks and stones are kinda important things to worry about.