The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

By Dan Clendenin

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Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (New York: Metropolitan, 2019), 369pp.

In an essay in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated what became known as the Frontier Thesis. Turner argued that the seemingly endless expansion westward in early American history “created a uniquely American form of political equality, a vibrant, forward-looking individualism.” No myth or metaphor, says the Yale historian Greg Grandin, “has been more powerful, more invoked by more presidents, than that of pioneers advancing across an endless meridian.”

At first, in a literal sense, the “frontier” was about geography, borders, and fronts. But Turner’s thesis argued for much more. He believed that the “frontier” was a powerful, explanatory myth in the most comprehensive sense of that word: “the advance of American settlement westward explains American development.” The literal expansion westward symbolized an optimistic cultural expansion of a vibrant political equality, the promise of social and economic progress, the reduction of racism, and the end of poverty. At least that was the thesis; reality, it turns out, has been something darkly different.

This myth of the endless expansion of American ideals came at a tremendous cost. Embedded in the myth was a perpetual race-based violence toward indigenous Americans, Mexicans, African Americans, Chinese, Japanese Americans, and today’s Latinos. Imperial expansion carried with it a messianic sense of exceptionalism and supremacy, which in turn meant exclusion, extermination, and extinction for those who were targeted for liberation. That, in turn, led to political “blowback” and retaliation, and thus a recurring cycle of violence. Grandin calls this America’s founding paradox: “the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation.”

And so across the centuries there’s been a growing gap between the optimistic myth about American expansion and the political realities. With the election of Trump, says Grandin, “America finds itself at the end of its myth.” Our new explanatory myth, symbol, or metaphor, he says, is the border wall and “the closing of the frontier.” Grandin’s sweeping history of the consequences of American frontier exceptionalism won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2019.

Dan Clendenin: dan@journeywithjesus.net

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