Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860

Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860

In Regeneration Through Violence, the first of his trilogy on the mythology of the American West, Richard Slotkin shows how the attitudes and traditions that shape American culture evolved from the social and psychological anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world to claim the land and displace the Native Americans. Using the popular literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries-including captivity narratives, the Daniel Boone tales, and the writings of Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville-Slotkin traces the full development of this myth.

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The first time through, my mind kept wandering away like a toddler chasing bubbles. The captivity narrative is a genuinely American literary tradition, a first-person memoir of a white persons (usually a woman) survival among the savage Indians of the dark woods. Slotkin parses these narratives chief among them, Mary Rowlandsons The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson to analyze the Puritans anxieties about life in the New World. One of the great heroes of King Philips War was Benjamin Church. During the war, Church utilized Indian tactics to defeat the Indians, thus making him the forerunner of the archetypal frontiersman who dresses, fights, and lives like an Indian in order to destroy the Indian. In the process he created the prototype of the myth that was to mingle with the Puritan mythology as a characteristic American vision of American experience In the course of his hunt for the Indian king, Church became more and more like the Indian. It was the figure of Daniel Boone, the solitary, Indian-like hunter of the deep woods, that became the most significant, most emotionally compelling myth-hero of the early republic. The other myth figures are reflections or variations of this basic type The figure and the myth-narrative that emerged from the early Boone literature became archetypal for the American literature which followed: an American hero is the lover of the spirit of the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against that spirit and her avatars. This is a book with a thesis, and its written like a dissertation. Many of these reviews say things like this is the best book on the frontier Ive ever read. Ive been reading about the frontier my whole life. And Ive got to say, this isnt a book about the frontier at all. The concept of a national myth is itself notional; Slotkin takes it another step, pounding out ivy-tower passages that are almost parodic: A significant example of this romanticization is the medieval and Renaissance treatment of the myths and rituals of sacred marriage, an archetype in which the hero-king achieves sexual union with the goddess of nature in the wilderness, thus ensuring the seasonal renewal of human and vegetable life. Here, the prose, the verbiage, the offhand allusions to some author Ive never heard of, combine to create an arms-length reading experience that did not get better the second time around.

Personally, whenever I read works on cultural history, I often wonder how scholars can allow themselves to be led up Hegelian or even more labyrinthine French post-modernist garden paths in that they fail to see the interaction of mind and matter and, in reaction to Marxs dictum of mens social being determining their consciousness, rather simply have it the other way around. The Mythology of the American Frontier: 1600 1860 is an honourable exception to this one-sidedness in cultural history in that Slotkin not only insists on man being a myth-making animal and the power of myths to shape social reality, but also shows how the reality in which men see themselves contributes to these mythopoetic processes. Slotkin starts with the assumption that a society that does not know the essence of its own myths and their social functions is doomed to re-living its history and to making the same mistakes all over again. Slotkin sees, at the core of American culture, the concept of finding personal and social regeneration in an act of destroying what one has set out to redeem or to improve. The hunter myth became an important motif in Western literature, e.g. in the Daniel Boone myth, but since the white men did not share the complex traditions of the Indians, they lacked the sense of self-confinement e.g. the limitation to hunting and killing for the sake of preserving themselves , and the experience of the hunt became, for them, a means of proving their prowess and their ability to improve and therefore to take over the land. At this point, it might be best to quote from Slotkin himself: Believing in the myth of regeneration through the violence of the hunt, the American hunters eventually destroyed the natural conditions that had made possible their economic and social freedom, their democracy of social mobility. (p.564) What may sound like a rather simplified and biased indictment of American capitalism and expansion, of bigoted conformity born out of a desire to fend off and maybe sublimate the urges of libido and the subconscious, which are generally associated with Indians, is more complex and more convincing because Slotkin thoroughly shows how the hunter myth and the Puritan heritage interacted and how the myth developed and renewed itself in American literature in both its more popular (e.g. the Boone myth, the popular image of Davy Crockett, the Leatherstocking tales) and its more artistic (e.g. Hawthorne, Thoreau and Melvilles Moby-Dick, which is regarded as the American national myth) forms. What makes his study extremely convincing is the attention he pays to the interplay between the myths and their shaping in literature on the one hand and the social realities that existed in a particular region at a given point in time.

Regeneration Through Violence is an in-depth study of the ways in which the literature of the American frontier created and supported mythologies arisig out of the westward movement from the earliest colonies till the 1850s. So the mythology of the frontier moves from Puritan attempts to save the Indians to personal redemption to a regeneration of the wilderness by its destruction.

Sometimes this book is damn captivating, and the other half of the time I'm delving through repetitious meanderings and wondering if Slotkin could have said just as much with half the paper.

This is a great big humdinger of a book, and the first of three laying out Slotkins thesis on the roots and branches of American culture in violent frontier myth. The original American Studies scholars explicitly founded it as a Cold War enterprise, a way to foster their vision of America more or less, that of Cold War liberalism back when people still thought culture was a big Cold War weapon and that Jackson Pollock was worth CIA money. Slotkin turns away from their vision of America as the culmination of western humanism but still uses a lot of the old American Studies concepts and tropes. Its poignant, in a way- the American Studies cadre included many of the first generation of American Jews given equal footing in American schools, and in general it was more nerdy New Yorkers and immigrants kids names like Slotkin and DeVoto defining this picture of America and the frontier than it was sons of the pioneers. The whites wanted to master the wilderness the same way they thought the Native Americans had, but it was important that they maintain their special white, Christian status.

From these Slotkin pulls out the foundational archetypes, narratives, and myths of the American frontier and by extension American culture and a sort of American psyche. The two main archetypes/myths that Slotkin argues are core to understanding the culture are the twin narratives of captivity and the hunter. (Indeed, Moby-Dick is a book that seriously interrogates The Hunter archetype and fails to really resolve the myriad of questions it asks.) One interesting thing (to me, anyway) is how Slotkin integrates Jungian psychoanalytic criticism (and Campbell's later mythopoeic approach) without taking an absolutist approach that some critics in this vein tend toward. Jung, rather, provides a useful framework by which to understand how foundational myths development and the collective psyche is formed.

  • English

  • History

  • Rating: 4.29
  • Pages: 670
  • Publish Date: April 15th 2000 by University of Oklahoma Press
  • Isbn10: 0806132299
  • Isbn13: 9780806132297