Seminar Paper, 2011
12 Pages, Grade: 2,0
2. The Frontier in American Society
2.1 Concept and Myth
2.2 Thoreau and Walden
2.3 Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park
This paper will try to work and point out parallels and differences between a classical piece of American literature, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and contemporary Hollywood blockbuster cinema, represented by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Point of departure and main focus of this paper will be the concept and aspects of the frontier and it’s reoccurrence as a mythological tool throughout American cultural history. After establishing the historical concept of the frontier, I will therefore go ahead and dig for traces of how this is woven into both works, which in conclusion will hopefully show the assumed American cultural connection between the later acclaimed book written some 150 years ago looking deep into the romantic soul of its protagonist and a consumerist movie from the early nineties that was able to use the benefits of a huge marketing machine to attract its viewership and became a worldwide box office hit. The usefulness of such an undertaking may be questionable for followers of classical cultural American studies but I would like to go with Paul Lauter here and filter out the trivial in mass culture to get to the subject’s core of meaning. Essays from his book From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park inspired to look for similarities in those two pieces and maybe find a development of what the concept of the frontier has been transformed into through societal and cultural changes within the last century.
In search of what makes America special, exceptional, and generally different from the origin of its Caucasian settlers, Europe, Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History introduced the nation-building concept of his frontier thesis to the academic historian branch and was widely accepted from there on. At the same time Turner announced that very frontier to be closed. The word frontier itself may be defined as the borderline between wilderness and civilization or “the meeting point between savagery and civilization”. Naturally, for a cultural definition of a myth which formed and still shapes American society this won’t be enough. Turner described the correlation generically as “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, [which] explain American development”. The necessity of the frontier idea generates from the need to be exceptional and forward-going as a people as well as from the urge to be different than the corrupted and stagnated Old World. The further the frontier grows the more American it gets – away from European influences. As Turner points out, “the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist.” Turner defined American culture as progressive, but the progress he envisioned was achieved, paradoxically, by retreating to the primitive along successive frontiers. Being in “continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society” shaped American character. For Turner the corner stone of this American character shaped through westward expansion was the simple self-subsistent, mobile farmer. He states, “Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation. Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population. The effect reached back from the frontier and affected profoundly the Atlantic coast and even the Old World.” Nevertheless, once the frontier was closed there was a myth missing; a fountain that provided the water for the ideational growth of the nation had run dry. New ways to provide this mystic water were needed to be invented to drive the “recurrence of the process of evolution [..] on a continually advancing frontier line”. The most prominent political reinvention of the frontier to reinforce the American spirit in his people has probably been Kennedy’s proclamation of space as the final frontier. But the concept itself has inscribed itself so deeply into American culture that it is almost omnipresent today in transcended metaphors of everyday life. In post-modern American society identity construction is channeled through popular culture. There we can find a frontier around every corner. The frontier is no longer just the borderline between wilderness and civilization but has been extended to become the borderline between America and every “unknown territory” either of the individual or the society as a whole. Fronting the line of frontiers that come out of this thinking is the scientific and/or technological frontier which involuntarily drags history books full of philosophical problems with it.
Walden has found its entry into the literary canon of America long ago. Although at first broadly neglected by its potential readership, Henry David Thoreau’s fictionalized experience of his solitary time at Walden Pond provides valuable insight into the contemporary society of the mid-nineteenth century as well as unique philosophical questions and answers derived from his complex point of view throughout the narrative. While the frontier is arguably not Thoreau’s main focus – Walden ’s field of interest is too wide to reduce it to only one overall topic – there are several different versions of the frontier thesis and its permutations immanent in his writing, which I’d like to trace and point out in this chapter without becoming too exegetical in the process.
Right from the start, the clearest distinction can be made between an outer and inner frontier line. By choosing his solitary confinement in the woods, Thoreau obviously tries to reconnect with Nature and at the same time goes back to the rural life of the American pioneers in a frontier environment, a form of life that already has been overcome in his home state. Thoreau is settled quite in the middle of the huge page which Turner declares America as “we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life”. The topographic shape of the Walden scenario is that of the receding American frontier – wilderness to the West, Concord in the East, and Thoreau´s hut right in the middle. His proclaimed necessities of life – fuel, shelter, food, and clothing – given in sufficient quantities are all which men need to live a civilized life. Thoreau denies the course of action that civilization seems to impose upon the citizens of America and postulates to improve mankind itself before it improves the tools and circumstances around it, “While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.” Certainly, compared with Turner’s later published thesis, Thoreau tries to push the frontier envelope to a higher transcendentalist level. Nonetheless, this is the place where American character is formed and “made” exceptional. To conserve this important stage Thoreau suggests in the chapter “Economy” to make life in a simple frontier environment permanent, as to receive the highest possible freedom from the civilized forces that hold back the mind. Those forces include religion, government, and wealth. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”, he argues in “Where I Lived” and adds in “Solitude”, “It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live. The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him.”
This last notion hints to the second, inner frontier agenda that Thoreau debates in Walden. Thereby, the self-chosen solitude is a simple means to an end, not to flee company or civilization itself but to minimize the influence of every human contact in his experience with nature. When freed of all the disturbances of civilization he was able to concentrate on his inner frontier as “money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul”. The anti-capitalist, anti-materialist sentiment Thoreau utters throughout the book clears the stage for his declaration of what this inner frontier is all about during the chapter “Higher Laws” and his final imperative in “Conclusion”, “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes, - with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign.” Thoreau suggests that there is a frontier line between the savage and the civil or spiritual when he states, “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct to a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Those two poles are sort of drawing the soul to their respective side. The wilderness Thoreau was looking for and met as Nature at Walden Pond is also part of the nature of mankind. “He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established”, Thoreau formulates the goal to overcome and finally transcend the wild into the pure - individual discipline, intellectual growth, and spiritual development. The pathway there is to be made through the individual’s experience of nature because “[..] even in civilized communities, the embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.” This last quote closes the circle of reinforcement around the inner and outer frontier. While being forced to hunt and survive in a harsh frontier environment the mind of mankind finds the clarity and overall precondition to evolve into a higher, civilized and spiritualized being.
 Lauter, Paul. From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
 By the results of the 1890 census.
 Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. 1893, p.2.
 Turner, p.1.
 Turner, p.2.
 Grossman, James R. [ed.] The Frontier in American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p.25.
 Turner, p.12.
 Turner, p.2.
 Turner, p.5.
 Cf. Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.245.
 Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Penguin Books: New York, 1983, p.55.
 Thoreau, p.77.
 Cf. Thoreau, p.80.
 Thoreau, p.135.
 Thoreau, p.182.
 Cf. Thoreau, p.376 et seq.
 Thoreau, p.369.
 Thoreau, p.257.
 Thoreau, p.267.
 Cf. “Introduction to Walden and Civil Disobedience” by Michael Mayer, In: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Penguin Books: New York, 1983, p.13.
 Thoreau, p.260.
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