Southweste n IIsto zcal Quarte ly
formed American character and democracy came to a sudden halt in 189o.
What would become of the nation that had run out of its principal source of
energy and identity, the frontier?
In terms of American literature, the outcome of a closed frontier was the
vindication of Herman Melville, who had never fallen for the deceptive prom-
ises of the open frontier and who had always recognized tragedy in human af-
fairs. Mark Twain and Ole E. Rolvaag furthered the post-frontier awareness of
tragedy, while Nathanael West, in The Day of the Lo (ust, brought the whole fron-
tier spirit to a savage collapse in the wasteland of Hollywood. The frontier,
mainstay of American optimism, had aged badly. A fantasy of new beginnings
had matured into a variation of eschatology, an exploration of endings and last
Despair is not, however, the required( destination of this national journey
through time. In the work of three Montana regionalists, Simonson finds a
"frontier synthesis" at work. The writings of Ivan I)oig, James Welch, and Nor-
man Maclean cast the West as home. Under the terms of this frontier synthesis,
"[t]he true regionalist who loves his home knows it as a metaphor for whole-
ness, centeredness and connection" (p. 143).
According to the traditions of literary criticism, Harold Simonson does not
use the language of everyday life, and more prosaic-mindled readers may feel
puzzled by cryptic terms. The key phrase, "frontier synthesis," for instance,
seems to have little to do with the frontier. Indeed, the permanent acceptance
of limits and the self-conscious resident's embrace of a particular place are so
much the opposite of the imagined frontier that the more accurate term would
seem to be "frontier antithesis."
In the tradition of "myth and symbol" studies, Simonson's "frontier" remains
an abstraction, an imagined process with little relation to the political, eco-
nomic, and social history of people in western America. His eyes on novelists,
Simonson's frontier-centered thinking does not incline him to respond to-or
even notice-the declining centrality of the Turnerian frontier in western
American historical studies. Nearly all the historical works that Simonson re-
fers to carry publication dates of the Ig6os and earlier; the only exception is
Ray Allen Billington's loyalist biography of uirner, published in 1973.
Simonson may not be interested in contemporary western historians, but
they might, nonetheless, be interested in him. Limited by a voluntary segrega-
tion of intellectual life from social, political, and economic life, this is nonethe-
less a thought-provoking book. One hopes that the segregation breaks down,
and that the ideas of the novelists will move into and enrich our common life as
Unvetsity o/ Coloiado, Boulder PAI RICIA NELSON LIMERICK
A Stoiy that Stands Like a Dam. Glei Canyou and the SI, uggle lo the Soul o/ the West.
By Russell Martin. (New York: Henry Holt and Co., Inc., 1989. Pp. 354.
Prologue, malps, epilogue, acknowledgments, index. $24.95.)
The strength of this book lies in its emphasis on the changing attitudes
among Americans concei ning dain construction and environmental issues re-
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 95, July 1991 - April, 1992. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117153/. Accessed December 20, 2013.