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The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 Review


The Frontier is not only an inherent part of American history, but it is also an indelible source of American culture, ideology, and mythos. Its aspects are as boundless as its great size: the perception of its opportunity that would offer Americans a route to social mobility and upwards development towards a boundless future, as a check on social disorder as a safety valve, the association with renewal, with newness and youth, with disorder, anarchy, with savagery from the Indians, extermination and racial conflict, and the development of the psychology of the American people. With such a list of attributes, barely scratching the surface, it’s unsurprising that a book seeking to cover it would be of tremendous size: The Fatal Environment matches the bill with a gargantuan length that exceeds over 500 large pages of very tightly written and dense text.

With such a brilliantly and lengthily researched book, it has helped to provide for an incredible wealth of primary sources which drive home in crushing power the influence of American racialist thought in the 19th century and its reach throughout society. Reading the direct, primary quotes, which are provided in great detail and length, is an oft horrifying experience: to hear the description of the Anglo-Saxon race be as a great exterminating force, and to have this be a good thing: it’s completely shocking to the human conscience to hear the idea of exterminating entire races of people be not only be calmly admitted, but furthermore declared a positive act, justified by the right of conquest – that the superior race would drive out and exterminate the weaker race, a tautological exercise where because it exterminated the inferior race it was superior, and by being superior it had the right to exterminate the inferior race, thus proving its superiority. This applies to all of the races involved against whom the Anglo-Saxons entered into conflict, be they Hispanic, black, or Indian, and in all cases there were designs mooted about simply wiping them out, displayed in painful starkness in the Fatal Environment.

This is also accompanied by an excellent selection of textual analyses, spreading out over the course of a century: starting with the 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer by Jean de Crèvecoeur, and finishing with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, along the way examinin books from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans with its characters and their racial and generational facets which functioned as a historical romance of the American nation and the frontier, to 1877 responses to labor disputes. But it continues its analysis via more obscure books, such as the Mexican-American War, and how the differing racial and political context was dealt with. Although less textual analysis than looking at publication, its analysis of Custer’s Last Stand is the penultimate foray of the book, and through its far-seeing review of newspapers publishing about it puts into context the newspapers and their presentation of the affair, such as to what events it was compared to.

Furthermore the influence of the book on later texts is easy to discern, in its key argument: the belief that society can be reinvigorated, and regenerated, through violence. General history books like Jackson Lears' Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 have taken such arguments and stressed them to define the half century after the Civil War. Reading the Fatal Environment is great to help understand much of the scholarly discourse since its publication.

There’s no doubt that it argues exceptionally well the influence of the frontier in providing a model for exterminationist rhetoric. In doing so, it also is refreshing, perhaps due to its age, in that it principally applies this to the American circumstance: a modern book would segue off into other subjects, probably like the basis of the American extermination of the Indians and how this was used by Nazi Germany as a rubric for their own war of genocide against the Slavic people. But I also find the focus upon this aspect to often be to the exclusion of other aspects of the frontier: the book is a very heavy, serious, literary tome, which neglects much of the more conventional, social, or cheerful side of the frontier: it focuses, by the end of the book, overwhelmingly on its discursive role in priming an American conception of extermination, total social conflict, and racialization.

In this, it seems likely that the book itself was heavily influenced by the time when it was written, in the ashes of the Vietnam War and its search for answers, of how Americans were able to conceptualize the world in an us-and-them mentality against Communism, and the roots of American historical violence against foreign people. All of this is true, but the focus of it is greatly magnified by the pressing needs of the period when it was written. It’s a brilliant foray into the dark side of the American frontier and its role in the great questions of American ideology, racialism, and social structures, but which leaves much ground left for other histories to ponder, as they doubtless have pursued them.

An excellent book to read, although focused (not exclusively it must be said!) on a singular aspect of the frontier, and dedicated to textual analysis, The Fatal Environment is a massive tome to work through but well worth the labor.

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