The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890

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9780060976262: The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890

In The Fatal Environment, Richard Slotkin demonstrates how the myth of frontier expansion and subjugation of the Indians helped to justify the course of America’s rise to wealth and power. Using Custer’s Last Stand as a metaphor for what Americans feared might happen if the frontier should be closed and the "savage" element be permitted to dominate the "civilized," Slotkin shows the emergence by 1890 of a myth redefined to help Americans respond to the confusion and strife of industrialization and imperial expansion.

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Review:

The Fatal Environment is the second volume of Richard Slotkin's epochal study of the frontier myth in the cultural history of the United States. Like its predecessor, Regeneration Through Violence, the book discusses the archetype of the lone frontiersman/Indian hunter and how it has been used to rationalize the destructive excesses of American territorial expansion. Time and time again, the hunter/killer exerts a power over the wilderness that rests not upon the inherent superiority of his white civilization, but on the psychic absorption of the "barbaric" customs of the peoples on the uncharted landscape.

Slotkin begins by elaborating on the themes of the previous study, specifically showing how the mythic Indian fighter, who defined sectional interests in the decades prior to the Civil War, evolved into the frontier aristocrat, who not only possesses the virtues of the "leatherstocking" hero but also demonstrates the ability to lead men in erecting large-scale, technologically complex enterprises. Thus, Slotkin argues, popular imagery concerning the conquest of the West was made to reflect the interests of post-Civil War industrialized capitalism.

Custer's Last Stand epitomizes the transformation of the frontier hero from warrior to robber baron. In the book's most vivid chapter, Slotkin shows how the popular press turned the Boy General's defeat into a call not only for the destruction of the Plains Indians but for social controls over the immigrants who formed the emerging, potentially militant, urban proletariat. The Fatal Environment makes a compelling case that the culture of cowboy capitalism was steeped in the suppression of class conflict. --John M. Anderson

From the Publisher:

The second volume in the award-winning trilogy that includes Gunfighter Nation, this important historical work examines the origins of the mythical American frontier and traces its development in the nineteenth century.

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Richard Slotkin
Published by Perennial (1994)
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