GUNFIGHTER NATION by Richard Slotkin


The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America
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 Concluding a trilogy that began with Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and The Fatal Environment (1985), Slotkin (English/Wesleyan Univ.) now offers a subtle and wide-ranging examination how America's fascination with the frontier has affected its culture and politics in this century. As used by Slotkin, ``myth'' means not a falsehood but a story derived from history that expresses a people's ideology. Beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner's landmark 1893 address on the closing of the frontier, Slotkin relates how Americans have used the unusually resonant myth of the West to explain ongoing issues of the present. Two works that helped establish the myth were Theodore Roosevelt's history The Winning of the West and Owen Wister's novel The Virginian, which pictured an Anglo-Saxon managerial elite toughened by exposure to remorseless ``savage wars'' against enemies, red-skinned and otherwise. Slotkin skillfully traces how the myth was used against the upstart labor movement, anti-imperialists, immigrants, and blacks. Although such media or genres as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, the dime-stock novel, and the formula fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Zane Grey, and Edgar Rice Burroughs are explored here, much of the book is given over to a searching analysis of crucial western films like Stagecoach, Shane, The Searchers, Vera Cruz, and The Wild Bunch. Allowing for Slotkin's occasional lapses into academese, overemphasis of the western's influence (e.g., the WW II combat film is interpreted in light of ``the savage war,'' as if wars by their nature weren't), and oddly perfunctory nod to recent works such as Lonesome Dove and Dances With Wolves, the reader will get a provocative summary of how Americans from JFK on the left to Ronald Reagan on the right have exploited the power of the myth of the West. Intellectual history at its most stimulating--teeming with insights into American violence, politics, class, and race.

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 1992
ISBN: 0-689-12163-6
Page count: 704pp
Publisher: Atheneum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1992


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