Timely, rich, and surprisingly nimble, Courtwright's orderly examination of patterns of violence and disorder in American...


VIOLENT LAND: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City

Timely, rich, and surprisingly nimble, Courtwright's orderly examination of patterns of violence and disorder in American history ranges from the ""passing migratory anomalies"" that created the cultural ecology of the frontier to the critical collapse of familial mechanisms of social control in the inner city of today. Courtwright (History/Univ. of North Florida) marshals contemporary reports as well as scholarly apparatus to introduce the young/single/male societies of gold rushers and cowboys emblematic of his thesis: that violence thrived where that demographic profile mated with certain cultural givens (e.g., fierce ethnocentrism) and unwholesome social norms (drinking, gambling, prostitution). Collaterally: The spiral of commerce on the frontier made too much law and order inexpedient, and Americans' racist contempt for the Indians excluded the leavening restraints of (inter) marriage. Courtwright proceeds chronologically, uncovering distributions of disorder in tramp subcultures and among soldiers, before focusing on American ghettos in the 1960s, where deteriorating conditions re-created many of the elements of frontier life. But ""a good analogy, like a good argument, should not be pushed too hard"": Balancing the historian's search for consistency with the sociologist's respect for discontinuities, Courtwright concludes that inner-city violence is not the self-limiting, transitory phenomenon of its soon-domesticated frontier antecedents. What with the absence of fathers and the presence of long-term unemployment, drugs, racism, and a street culture that has made virtues of all kinds of vice, the domesticating influence of family is not waiting in the wings to restore social equilibrium to the ghetto. Nevertheless, Courtwright affirms the family as still the best instrument of socialization (""life's script begins early""), and his qualified ""new familism"" frames (without advancing, however) the debate. This is nonetheless an authoritative contribution to that debate, not least because of its scope; it is also intrinsically interesting material.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 1996


Page Count: 416

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1996

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