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William Cronon Interview


William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

He is the author of the prize-winning Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West and Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. He is the editor of Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature.

William Cronon

New River Media Interview with: William Cronon 
Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, 
Geography and Environmental Studies University of Wisconsin 

QUESTION: Talk about the Frederick Jackson Turner and the American Frontier. 

WILLIAM CRONON: Frederick Jackson Turner's significance to the frontier in American history is that his is arguably the most influential essay that an American historian has ever written. In it, he tries to argue that the movement of European immigrants onto North American land is the defining experience of American history. The movement of Europeans and Easterners into the wilderness, and the transformative effects of the wilderness on American culture, American identity, and American politics is what makes America or the United States what it is. 

Turner's argument was that as Europeans moved into the wilderness, they had an encounter with what he called "savagery‚" which didn't just mean Indian people, although it certainly did mean that as well. And as they moved into this savage place, they shed the trappings of civilization. They were forced to go back to primitive ways of life, and they, in effect, rediscovered their racial energies, rediscovered themselves, went back to first principles, and reinvented both their character and their democracy as a result. In Turner's view, people left crowded environments in European cities, in Northeastern American cities where work was hard to find - where the possibility of class conflict was great - and were able to move out onto free land and find a new life for themselves. They did this in a way that focused them on farm making, community-making, rather than on class conflict. And he referred to this as the safety valve function of the frontier, that by, in effect, providing an alternative outlet for what might otherwise be dangerous political tendencies, the frontier had protected America from violent class conflict of the kind that happened, say, in 1871 in Paris. It's not a very accurate reading of American labor history, but it was an argument that had a lot of political force at the time. 

QUESTION: Did Turner believe that America was a good thing? 

WILLIAM CRONON: I think you won't understand Turner if you don't recognize what a profoundly nationalistic person he was. He was immensely proud of the United States of America, regarded, with many of his generation, as one of the most compelling stories, not just in our history, but in all of human history. So, one of the things he's seeking to do in the frontier thesis is to argue that there's something exceptional about America, and that democracy and other institutions that he believed no European nation had achieved, were things that made America unique, and in his view had flowed off of the frontier experience. 

QUESTION: How did his thesis come about when it did? 

WILLIAM CRONON: The interesting context for Turner's frontier thesis is the emergence of new, quantitative style of analysis in the United States Census Office. Starting really in the 1880s, you begin to see whole new sorts of volumes produced by the Census that are analyzing various thematic aspects of the American nation, beautiful books on the American nation, beautiful books that are loaded with maps. You go to the 1880 Census and you see these fabulous volumes, an entire volume just devoted to forests and what's happening to American forests. So you begin to get analyses of natural resources and also analyses of demography. And in the demographics of the Census, Turner begins to see maps that suggest to him that there is a fundamental change going on in American population movements. What he saw was a pattern of settlement in the United States that's changing. 

The inspiration for this famous essay of Turner's comes in a curious way. He receives a bulletin in the mail, a rather obscure bulletin from the Census Bureau saying, suddenly, that there is no longer a noticeable frontier line on the demographic maps that the Census is producing. Up until that time, every decade that the Census had been taken, if you drew a map showing areas that had more than two people per square mile, and areas that had less than two people per square mile, there's a very clear demarcation on the map, and that line moves gradually westward. Come 1890, because of the changing patterns of settlement, you can no longer see that line. Turner reads those words and says, wait a second, this is history making, this is a radical turning point in American history, and everything will be different from now on. 

QUESTION: What kind of a historian was Turner? 

WILLIAM CRONON: One of the things that's interesting about Turner is that, although famous for these few essays that he wrote - and he's not a very productive scholar in terms of publishing books and articles - he's more a doer of a history than a writer of history. He takes all this new data that's coming off of the Census, and he tries to figure out ways of using it statistically, and the best technique that's available to him at the time, because he's not a very sophisticated statistician, is to map that data. He draws map after map after map showing every conceivable variable from the Census arrayed across counties, trying to correlate the demographics of the Census, the economic data of the Census, usually with political phenomena. So, he tries to explain voting patterns in national elections by linking it to soil types, or economic activity, or what-have-you. 

Turner is one of the new group of historians that emerges at the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, who are clearly progressive in their political inclinations, and who are vocal advocates for something that they call the "New History." And that new history has a couple of characteristics. One is, it is far more committed than any prior body of historical scholarship to social science analysis. It tries to use statistics. It uses the kind of data that historians had not used much until that time in order to gain new insights and make new arguments. The other strand of the new history is, those new insights, those new arguments, are pointed toward political interventions, very explicit political interventions to say history can make a difference to policy. We can change the way we govern this country by using data in new ways. 

Turner is pioneering a notion that history is not just about telling stories, it's about solving problems. And so rather than the great grand narrative histories that we associate with some of the really wonderful historical writers of the nineteenth century - whose main job it was to tell a story over many volumes about great figures doing great things in the American landscape. Turner really was interested in figuring out what had happened there, and doing it often without reference to great men, great individuals. He was really interested in ordinary folk. And one of the ways you get at ordinary folk is to turn to new kind of documents and count folks. If people haven't left letters, they haven't left diaries, they don't surface in the historical record in some other way, then the way to tell their stories are through the Census, through more obscure kinds of sources that require statistics if we're to get at those people's stories. 

QUESTION: What are some of the ways Turner's thesis influenced Americans at the time? 

WILLIAM CRONON: One of the things that's so interesting about the frontier thesis is the very disparate effects it has in American popular culture, in American politics in the decades following the publication of Turner's essay. On the one hand, the frontier thesis becomes a source of support for immigration restriction, on the grounds that if the frontier had been the melting pot of America, the new immigrants coming to the United States would not become American citizens in the same way that earlier peoples had. Likewise, for those like Teddy Roosevelt, who believed that America needed a frontier experience, the frontier thesis could become a justification for imperialism, could become one of the things that would justify the Spanish American War, or the occupation of the Philippines. And then, seemingly very different still, but also linked to Teddy Roosevelt, if you believe that wilderness is fundamental to American national identity, then you need to protect wilderness to protect that part of America. So what do you do, you set aside national parks. And so, curiously, the frontier thesis can support immigration restriction, extra-national imperial expansion, and national park formation all at the same time. 

QUESTION: Did people recognize the importance of his essay at the time it was presented, in 1893? 

WILLIAM CRONON: At the time that Turner delivered it at the Chicago World's Fair, nobody noticed. It was delivered at the American Historical Association Meeting. Newspapers don't pick it up. It could almost not have ever been delivered at all. And it's only when people like Teddy Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson embrace it and say, here's this amazing piece of thinking done by this young obscure assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, that it begins to attract attention. And it gradually builds from that point to become, in many ways, the central narrative synthesis of all of American history for the next two or three decades. 

It's easy to forget that Turner delivered this essay at exactly the moment when American history was emerging as a serious academic discipline. Up until that time, really what was taught in the university was classical history, Greek and Roman history, and so modern history, meaning history since the Renaissance, was a brand new subject. Turner provides a template, a paradigm, for how American history can be taught, and he provides many of the young scholars trained in his graduate seminar who will shape the American academy as it thinks about American history as a subject. And so, really, for the first twenty years in which American history is written, Turnerian history is a defining story that is always told. And even when people begin to resist that Turnerian story and ask why aren't cities here, why aren't factories here, why don't we know more about immigrants, they're all kind of doing it in counter-point with Turner, so Turner defines that story for decades. 

QUESTION: Was the Frontier Thesis all that new, and how accurate was it? 

WILLIAM CRONON: Although we now talk about the Turner thesis, and we attribute to Frederick Jackson Turner responsibility for the frontier as a part of American history, in fact all that he really did was to take ideas that were very much in the air at the end of the nineteenth century, and truth be told had been present in American writing since the middle of the eighteenth century. These are very old ideas that the frontier defines America. He takes them, writes them brilliantly, and this is crucial, gives them academic legitimacy. He says, "These are serious ideas." One of the ways he does that is with statistics, with the Census data that he adds to the story. And so, having done that, suddenly he takes the familiar American notions that many Americans believe defined their nation, and he says, "this is true. The university says it's true. You can believe this." 

One of the hard things about taking the Turner thesis seriously is recognizing that its arguments about the frontier as being the source of American democracy or the engine that defines American character, are probably not right, they're probably wrong. Subsequent scholars have argued at great length that, in fact, democracy comes to America at least as much from British common law or Magna Carta, or the struggles of the American Revolution as it does from anything that happened on the frontier. And so, we can take each element of Turner's argument and say it's inaccurate. But you then have to couple that with the other insight, which is that people at the end of the nineteenth century believed that he was right, believed that the frontier thesis was correct. And so it helped explain culture at that moment. 

Probably the most problematic aspect of the Turner thesis, and of the whole idea of the frontier, is what it does to Indian peoples. It defines Indians as not even existing on those census maps, because when we draw those maps of two people per square mile we're not counting Indians on those maps, and we're acting as if that's virgin land, uninhabited land, we're erasing Indians from the map. Worse, we're defining their land as a savage land, and we're saying that the land of savagery, which is being attributed to Indians, is the space where this American encounter with wilderness happens. From an Indian point of view that land didn't get savage until the white folks arrived. So there's something deeply racist about this way of thinking of the frontier, which is very much of a piece with the end of the nineteenth century. Turner is very much a man of his time in thinking this way. But, for us to embrace that way of thinking is to do great violence to Indian peoples and Indian history in this country. 

One of the challenges of doing Western history, or frontier history, is that the frontier operates in American culture not just as true history, somehow an accurate rendition of the past, it's also profoundly important as a myth. And the fact that people believe in that myth means that it operates as a historical force whether or not it's true. And the fact that Americans believe that the frontier is where they come from, that they believe that John Wayne, and the Marlboro man, and Buffalo Bill define who we are as a nation, means that we as historians have to take that myth seriously. We have to write about the myth in history, even when it's not a very accurate depiction of what actually happened back there. 

QUESTION: Is there a link between Turner and social science? 

WILLIAM CRONON: Turner really is one of the very first American historians who conceives of his intellectual activity as a social science. He really does think of history as a problem solving activity, not a storytelling activity. So he draws from all sorts of sciences, natural and social that are going on around him. He's much inspired by Darwin. Evolution is everywhere in his thought. He's influenced by an Italian economist, who really gives him his ideas of ow people operated on the frontier. And maybe one of the biggest influences on Turner is geography, he's in love with maps. And the application of maps as statistical tools, as a way not just of depicting information, but of analyzing information, is the heart of what Turner is about. His seminars with graduate students are full of these analytical maps in which he asks them to map soil types on one map, and votes for populists on another map, and argues that soil causes the populist vote. And you know, those maps are still available . 

QUESTION: What happened to Turner himself after 1893? 

WILLIAM CRONON: Turner's life after this famous 1893 essay is like an academic dream story, but with a funny hook at the end of it. He becomes one of the most famous historians of his generation. His graduate seminar at the University of Wisconsin trains many of the most important historians of the preeminent place that an American historian could move, but curiously all through this period he publishes almost nothing. In fact, he becomes one of the great non-publishing historians of his generation. He publishes mainly little essays, not whole books, and the only books he publishes, really, are collections of essays. He retires from Harvard in the middle of the 1920s, moves back to Madison, Wisconsin, for just a year before being called out to the Huntington Library in California, where he spends the rest of his life. 

QUESTION: Is there a connection between his origins in Wisconsin, and his thesis? 

WILLIAM CRONON: Turner grows up in this little town in central Wisconsin called Portage. Interestingly, his father is the editor of the local newspaper. And in many ways his father, Andrew Jackson Turner, is a kind of frustrated amateur historian, and his son takes over that desire to understand how we tell stories about the American past. And I think for both father and son, it is a story of Portage as the quintessential American frontier town. Turner writes about all the different ethnic immigrant groups who fill the landscape, the rural landscape around Portage. And he tells the story of that town as a kind of microcosm of this American melting pot that he thinks of as the frontier. 

He comes out of that experience, he goes off to college, goes off to graduate school, but he never loses track of the fact that he's a child of Wisconsin, and even more a child of the Mississippi valley. And the frontier experience of Wisconsin and the Mississippi Valley is for him the defining frontier experience. You can't actually read the Turner frontier essay in 1893 without seeing that what he's really doing is taking the story of Portage, Wisconsin, and mapping it onto the American map, so it becomes the story of all of America. 

QUESTION: How well has his work aged? 

WILLIAM CRONON: Over the course of the twentieth century there's great controversy about the Turner thesis, and the feeling on the part of many historians that it really can't be salvaged. But, one of the most interesting efforts to salvage it comes from a scholar named David Potter who writes a book called People of Plenty, in 1954. In that book Potter argues that Turner was right, but for the wrong reasons. It wasn't free land that defined American character, or was the source of American democracy, or shaped American culture, it was abundant natural resources. Free land is just a special case of abundant energy, abundant good fertile soil. And it was really having vast quantities of resources for a small population that made Americans special. That's a more plausible version of the argument in some ways, than just focusing on land that you could buy for low prices. 

QUESTION: What about the frontier concept in general? 

WILLIAM CRONON: A part of the frontier myth that I think continues to define American culture even now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is this notion that the United States is a place where people start over again. Turner doesn't invent this, it goes all the way back to John Winthrop's City On A Hill in Boston. But, the notion that you go the United States, you go to the wilderness and you start over, you shed the trappings of civilization, you wipe clean the slate, start from first principles, invent the good society, that is operating in American politics long after we're concerned about the frontier. When John Kennedy talks about the new frontier of space, and when Star Trek talks about space the final frontier, those are all about the newness of America, and the possibility of being new in this landscape, and the frontier is very much a part of that vision. 

The power of this frontier myth in American culture remains very potent indeed. The commitment to individualism, the notion that everybody is as good as everybody else, that you can kind of meet people where they are, all those qualities that when Europeans visit the United States they comment on, they get ascribed to the frontier. Whether they really come from there, you and I can't say, but people think they come from the frontier. That's what Turner tells them. And so people celebrate the frontier as a place where people can really be down home people, a place where they can be real Americans, and that experience remains pretty sacred to an awful lot of people in this country. 

QUESTION: Talk a bit about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as an experience. 

WILLIAM CRONON: The Chicago World's Fair was one of the wonders of its age. One way to think of it is as an immense Sears Roebuck catalogue in which every page is there to be fingered, and touched, and looked at directly. So there's so much stuff going on there, at the same time that Turner is delivering this essay that nobody is paying any attention to at the time, Buffalo Bill is performing his Wild West Show, so that both versions of the frontier are present at the same time. You have congresses of virtually all of the major sciences, scholars from all over the world gathering. You've got electrification on display for the first time, so that visitors are coming to the fair and experiencing this extraordinary new technology that will define the twentieth century. All these things that are looking toward the future of America are present right on this site. And people come to the Fair, experience it, and report ever afterward that it's one of the most powerful experiences of their lives.


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