BEYOND GEOGRAPHY: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness by Frederick W. Turner

BEYOND GEOGRAPHY: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness

KIRKUS REVIEW

An initially promising, ultimately disappointing history of the European devastation of the New World--a lively reworking of familiar material that abandons analysis for denunciation. Turner's premise is that the assault on the human and natural environment of the Americas led by Columbus, CortÉs, Buffalo Bill, et al. was symptomatic of a diseased spiritual condition. Ever since biblical days Western man's alienation from nature had been growing progressively deeper, and by the time the great voyages of discovery began Christianity's mythical reserves were largely exhausted, and so the invaders, for all their titanic entrepreneurial energies, were moral zombies: dead to the beauty around them, desperately driven to fill up their own emptiness with the wealth of the Indies. Turner makes sense, but he exaggerates and oversimplifies. He tries to blame Christianity for all our ecological woes, because it ""emphasized the capacity of rational thought to render Christians lords of all earthly creation."" But he can't find a single New Testament text to support his charge. Granting a certain insensitivity to nature and fear of wilderness in Judeo-Christian thought, what about the destructive effects of nationalism, imperialism, capitalism (not to mention cruelty and greed, which even technological primitives sometimes display)? Turner's worst mistake, though, is that he interrupts his argument for long rehashes of episodes from colonial history: the fall of Tenochtitlán, the battle of Wounded Knee, etc. W. H. Prescott, Dee Brown, John Seelye (see his excellent Prophetic Waters), and a host of others have already covered this ground splendidly, and Turner's treatment of such tragedies is both unnecessary and distracting. He might better have spent more time on the critical ideological issues which he raises. He says nothing, for instance, about his namesake (and kinsman?) Frederick Jackson Turner, whose thesis glorifying the ""free land"" of the frontier as the spawning ground of democracy contrasts ironically with the younger Turner's bitter disillusionment. And finally, he falls to round out his case by explaining where it leads us. If everything he says is true, what can white Americans now do? Provocative but unbalanced.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1980
Publisher: Viking