Earlier today I was re-reading some of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992), which was the third part of Slotkin’s mammoth trilogy, following Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and The Fatal Environment (1985), books which covered the development of the frontier myth up to the Civil War and during the “Age of Industrialization,” respectively. As I noted a few years back in a review here of Daniel Horowitz’s excellent Consuming Pleasures, these kind of multi-volume projects are rare feats in academia today, even if historians—such as Frederick Jackson Turner—were once considered subpar if they did not have a four- or five- or eight-volume opus to their name, à la Parkman or Henry Adams. Alongside Horowitz’s more informal trilogy (The Morality of Spending; The Anxiety of Affluence; Consuming Pleasures), I can think of Alan Wald’s troika chronicling the American Left across midcentury (Exiles from a Future Time; Trinity of Passion; American Night), David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery books and… well, I’ve already run dry for examples in US history since the 1970s. No doubt something important has slipped my mind!
But aside from a desire to pay tribute to Slotkin’s genuinely epic scope and formidable focus, what I wanted to discuss here was instead his theory of myth, which seeps into a theory of ideology and of symbols. In this re-read, what struck me was the sheer confidence and brio of Slotkin’s method, a tone which borrowed something from the energy of poststructuralism even if it eschewed the poststructuralist’s lack of discipline and love of deferring the point indefinitely. Slotkin’s tone is not playful like Geertz’s can be, but is similarly borne toward the reader on a sense of total assurance that everything will add up once it has been fully examined and the right approach has been selected. And it occurred to me, since I don’t really find that kind of confidence in today’s cultural or intellectual historians when they are interpreting a text, to wonder where that sense of assurance came from. What follows is a very sketchy attempt to answer that question.
Slotkin lays out his methodology most extensively in his middle volume, The Fatal Environment, but because it was what I was reading today and is more compact, I’m going to work from Gunfighter Nation. He writes, “The object of Gunfighter Nation is to trace the development of the system of mythic and ideological formulations that constitute the Myth of the Frontier, to offer a critical interpretation of its meanings, and to assess its power in shaping the life, thought, and politics of the nation” (4). When I read that today, some inner alarm resounded alerting me to the necessity of adding a few plurals in there: surely we ought to think in terms of systems and Myths, perhaps lives and thoughts, and must we really capitalize these nouns? But let us continue to what I consider the really key passage:
Over time, through frequent retellings and deployments as a source of interpretive metaphors, the original mythic story is increasingly conventionalized and abstracted until it is reduced to a deeply encoded and resonant set of symbols, “icons,” “keywords,” or historical clichés. In this form, myth becomes a basic constituent of linguistic meaning and of the processes of both personal and social “remembering.” Each of these mythic icons is in effect a poetic construction of tremendous economy and compression and a mnemonic device capable of evoking a complex system of historical associations by a single image or phase [sic?—phrase?]. For an American, allusions to “the Frontier,” or to events like “Pearl Harbor,” “The Alamo,” or “Custer’s Last Stand” evoke an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario that belongs to the event and of the complex interpretive tradition that has developed around it. (5-6, emphases added)
How many of us today would feel confident in asserting that “an American,” upon hearing “The Alamo,” could muster “an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario,” much less the “complex interpretive tradition” attached to it? Is that not an extraordinary faith in that person’s fluency in the language of “Americanness?” Certainly, Slotkin does not mean that the average person one finds in the United States can give you an accurate and detailed account of the events of The Alamo—but what, then, does he mean?
The best way I think I can explain it is by using a clumsy metaphor, but one with which I think we all have some experience: the .ZIP file. A national myth—the frontier preeminently—resides somewhere in our half-conscious awareness like a .ZIP file, a highly compressed but lossless format that allows for a full and perfect recreation of the original file after it has been stored in a much smaller version. Key phrases or images—“Custer” or “Davy Crockett”—act as commands to “unzip” the file, giving the user access to all of its contents, permitting its programs to run fully and completely. (We might, if we were being coy, think of the Proustian madeleine as the first .ZIP file.)
But what is the force or effect of this procedure? Let me switch back to the metaphor of fluency: what this “unzipping” means is that none of us have any option but to be native speakers of this language of the frontier myth. For we might inadvertently corrupt or possibly even more deliberately modify these .ZIP files of national mythology, but they are largely mass produced and standardized. We all have very similar linguistic competencies, and we all enter the conversation at the same point; we all unzip the same way.
These metaphors are hopelessly mixed now, but I hope the strangeness of Slotkin’s approach—this confidence in the uniform fluency of Americans in the frontier language—comes through: strangeness in the sense of difference from our present, not in the sense of oddity. Today, I think, our working concept of cultural consciousness is not the Myth but the meme—some of which we “get,” some of which we do not, some of which we misrecognize, some of which we understand partially. This state of affairs is not just the product of fracture—of each of us speaking an idiolect or perhaps a dialect within our little subcultures—but also of constant mutation, some of which is directed, but some of which is not. But there is very little confidence when we encounter a meme that we know that we know the whole meaning, that we have “an implicit understanding of the entire historical scenario” that led up to the .GIF or Facebook post or Vine or whatever that we’re looking at. We are constantly speaking a second language; no one is a native speaker of our lingua franca. I leave it up to you whether that is exhilarating or estranging! But the confidence that we carry “our” myths around, compressed and spring-loaded for the right icon or phrase—that, I think, is an experience we have very seldom.