Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History

Not long ago, Penguin decided to release a "Great Ideas" series, with sharply done and iconic-seeming covers, that offered selected pieces from volumes on its backlist of important books. When I heard of it I thought it a terrific idea, and now that I've seen big displays of these books (in airport bookstores, as it happens), I think the same.

At the Frankfurt airport I picked up Frederick Jackson Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History, selections from his 1920 The Frontier in American History. The cover really looks fantastic, I have to say, and the text is presented well (albeit without footnotes). Penguin manages simply to stay out of the way, letting Turner's words hold their own, and they do, brilliantly for the most part. The best lines are perhaps those quoted on the cover:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin.
And what's not quoted on the cover, too:
In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. (p.4)
Yes, naturally there are the badly dated remarks about "savages" and that sort of thing, but there are also some ringing lines that reminds a Canadian of how different our founding myths are from the American:
This new democracy that captured the country and destroyed the ideals of statesmanship came from no theorist's dreams of the German forest. It came, stark and strong and full of life, from the American forest. (p.52)


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