The Significance of Old Historiography in American History

Frederick_Jackson_TurnerIn designing courses, professors and teachers face a number of competing claims for time and attention: skill development appropriate to the level of the course, the content described in the course catalog, campus, system, or state requirements for content, the primary sources and scholarship that will promote the best discussions and consideration of the course topic. As many of us have written here at the Junto, not to mention elsewhere, much therefore ends up on the cutting room floor—and some of it painfully so.

That often means, at least in my experience as an undergraduate, graduate student, and professor, that the earliest considerations of a field often go by the wayside. For these purposes, I’m thinking less of foundational scholarship that still holds sway in the field (about which I wrote last year with respect to the history of gender during the American Revolution) and more about scholarship that is largely out-of-date even as it provided the basis for entire fields of study. In other words, I’d like to take advantage of the blog as a space to think through problems to consider whether undergraduate history majors should read older, out-of-date historiography as part of their training.

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier.[1] As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

But where? As an undergraduate, I encountered Turner in a historiography seminar for majors because we did a unit on the frontier, but did not read him, interestingly, in a course called “The Frontier in Early America.” When I consider my course offerings, Turner doesn’t really fit anywhere, given those varying demands on my time. I don’t particularly teach an upper-level course where his argument is all that germane (save, perhaps, the Native American course, but it doesn’t focus exclusively on the parts of North America that became the United States). In my survey course, it would require major reconfiguration because it’s so far afield from everything else we read. There would be benefits to reading Turner: we would have to think more explicitly about the United States as an empire, whether and how that empire was racially based, and it would cast in a new light our readings about Native-European interactions in the colonial era, Manifest Destiny (I assign John O’Sullivan). But to do so would require a major retooling of the course that on first glance would detract from a number of other worthwhile goals (not to mention that I could accomplish the above without assigning Turner himself).

And the problem, of course, is not limited to Turner. We still talk about and find relevance in the work of Charles Beard, for example, and I suspect my grandchildren will be subjected to Gordon Wood a few decades from now. People still refer to Ulrich Phillips and the Dunning School (if rarely on a positive note). I’m not, to be sure, calling for some sort of canon that enshrines a group of white men whose notions of historical scholarship were deeply tainted by their contemporary racial, gender, and ethnic views. It may well be enough to get a brief reference to this outdated work in recent scholarship so that undergraduates are aware that it exists and held influence. To engage fully would require that our courses be held captive by scholarship that has long since lost its edge.

[1] Andrew C. Lipman, “Murder on the Saltwater Frontier: The Death of John Oldham,” Early American Studies 9, no. 2 (2011): 268-94.

[2] For anyone not familiar, Turner was a historian who delivered a lecture on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. The text is available as part of the Hypertexts Project at the University of Virginia.

6 comments on “The Significance of Old Historiography in American History

  1. Jay E. says:

    I introduce my 11th grade students to Turner in American History II; I doubt many of them remember him, but at least they encounter his ideas and other lessons may spark the old tinder.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Joe. I think whether or not one assigns Turner depends a lot on what you want the course to achieve. No, I don’t think you need Turner to understand the content related to early American or Native American history. Where he seems most likely to be useful (to my mind) is in a course where one of the stated goals of the course is to teach students to get a handle on historiography.

    Whether or not you do that probably depends on the class level, and on the students taking it. As an undergrad I always had the option to write final papers that were historiographical, but I never opted to do so–and in fact, I managed to get away with largely ignoring historiography for most of my undergraduate career. My students now are much more comfortable engaging with the historiography than I ever was, or at least, they’re much more comfortable reading and critiquing historians (whereas it takes them a bit longer to get to the point where they feel confident analyzing a primary source). What they still struggle with, historiography-wise, however, is being able to assess how the historiography has changed over time.

    All of this is a long way of saying that I could see assigning Turner as one of two or three readings on frontiers in American history, that moved from Turner to something on borderlands to something on settler colonialism or maritime frontiers. I’m not sure it would be as easy to cut him from that set of readings.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I actually think my concern is not so much at the individual course level. As I noted above, there are lots of places where Turner doesn’t fit naturally into a course given its stated goals and objectives (or, in the case of upper-level courses, topics).

    But I’m a little old-fashioned sometimes, and so I was struck by the idea of my students getting through the coursework for a history major without having been exposed to Turner (or other scholars in the same boat). There are plenty of ways to get the historiographical “bang for the buck” with more modern scholarship, but isn’t there something about working one’s way through the discipline and its history? That’s taking one definition of historiography as “the history of history” quite literally, but it has at least some value as a lingua franca among scholars.

  4. gunlord500 says:

    Interesting piece. To expand on Rachel Herrmann’s comment, I wonder if one way to incorporate Turner–or anyone else who’s outdated, like Phillips–would be in a lecture or small module aimed at getting students to think about historiography and the process of historiographical development. To give a brief example, after assigning an article like the one which mentioned the frontier thesis, you could spend a little time explaining who Turner was and what his frontier thesis entailed, and then explain why it fell out of favor through the frame of historical scholarship–describing advances in social history, noting how the voices of Native Americans themselves fought to be heard, and so on.

    Even if students don’t necessarily have to know exactly what Turner argued, the ways other historians engaged with his thesis, along with the reasons his thesis is no longer popular, can give young folks an idea of how historians think and the methodologies through which historians work in a practical and professional sense. That would have a bit more wide-ranging value, I think–a glimpse behind the curtain, or perhaps at how the sausage is made!

  5. Turner’s thesis regarding the closing of the frontier appears in the Prentice-Hall high school text “Pathways To The Present” as an argument that motivated US imperialists in the 1890s. Some students may remember that point when they get to college, but it isn’t a particularly in-depth discussion of his entire argument or nor does it get into FJT’s place in the historiography.

    Interesting blog post. Probably talking about Turner for a few minutes would be better than retooling an entire course — there is only so much time, and so many better readings. But clueing students in on historiography as undergrads could be/should be slipped in when possible to discuss how the field reinvents and argues with itself, something I recall not being exposed to until reaching grad school. Sausage-making indeed!

  6. […] It should also be noted that this use, if not appropriation, of the frontier is quite deliberate. According to Lipman, Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “Frontier Thesis” projected the “land as the defining feature of the American past,” and in doing so erased Native Peoples from the water every bit as much as from the land. In short, Lipman inverts “the old ways we used to think about geography, indigenous people, and the writing of history,” and to instead imagine the “Native past…as a sea story.” (For more on Turner–Lipman, see Joseph M. Adelman’s “The Significance of Old Historiography.”) […]


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