The Everlasting Frontier

Wilderness Democracy

Although the American frontier was officially closed 118 years ago, Americans remain in thrall to its mythic spell and the romance of the American West.  Europeans have always viewed our cultural obsession with condescension, though they themselves—the Germans and the Italians especially—are hardly immune to its allure.  (On my first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1977, the mule-back party I joined on the ride down to the Tonto Plateau above the Inner Gorge included a very tall German with silver hair, wearing a powder-blue Hopalong Cassidy suit and ten-gallon hat to match it.)  It is true that popular perceptions of the West have changed over the decades, and that Americans at the beginning of the 21st century imagine the West differently from how they did 50 years ago.  The measure of that distance is the measure between the movie True Grit and the recently released No Country for Old Men, the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s antimythic novel published in 2006.  Nevertheless, the American public has yet to lose sight of the Western frontier, including those aspects of it that carry over into the present day, just as the modern West was adumbrated in its 19th-century incarnation.

The search for a convincing explanation for America’s love affair with the West is as old as the phenomenon itself.  Detractors have habitually associated the myth of the West with the...

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