American Character - Then and Now A notion that still holds strong today, Fredrick Jackson Turner's idea of American character was one based on trials and experiences. Unlike Creve cour, Turner believed that American character was not simply a product of English character transported to America, but rather another idea altogether (Faragher 63). He expressed this opinion the best when he said, "In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics" (Faragher 64). How exactly did American character form and what defines it?
Turner answered this question with the Turner thesis, using the concept of the pioneer and the immigrants who followed him to explain the western frontier and its expansion (Faragher 70). The following paragraphs will help describe how American character has manifested itself in today's society by integrating ideas from Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Wilson Peale, and heroes depicted in different forms of entertainment during the rise and fall of the western frontier. In Rereading America "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", ideas from an author of A New Guide for Immigrants (Mid-American Frontier) by the name of Peck were used to further stress the significance of the Turner thesis in our world today (Peck 42). In his book, Peck identified three different stages or waves of western civilization.
The first stage is sort of the epitome of what is now recognized to be American character: the pioneer or farmer (Peck 43). This was a man who provided for his family by depending on vegetation and hunting. He did not care whether the land he temporarily occupied was in his ownership or not. When the area became too civilized, the pioneer moved on to make new discoveries and left his soil and house for the new wave of immigrants. Thus, introducing the second stage of western civilization.
These immigrants purchased the pioneer's land and created a way of life best described as frugal and simple, consisting of school houses and mills (Peck 44). The third and final stage, labeled as "the men of capital and enterprise", is when the small villages created by the immigrants became large cities or towns (Peck 45). In the midst of all these changes, Peck points out that the pioneer was still ahead of all those who preceded him and was the original creator of American character. The combination of the Turner thesis and Peck's translation of it, provided a foundation that would help form American identity: individualism and collectivity. A perfect example of this today is the sport of baseball, America's pastime. By the time Turner presented his thesis in 1893 at the Colombian Exhibition in Chicago, the myth of the cowboy and the myth of the frontier had already made their way into novels for the enjoyment of east coasters who were curious of the west (Cullen 127).
Characters like Buffalo Bill, Nathaniel (Natty) Bump, and Daniel Boone helped illustrated American character. The introduction of "she-males", women with feminine and masculine qualities, were also an important feature of these novels west (Cullen 127). Characters like Jane, from Calamity Jane by Edward L. Wheeler, were like predecessors of women rights; they were heroines who demanded and received, but remained kindhearted at the same time (Faber all). Although all of these characters had a very profound role in molding people's impression of the west, the novel which combined many individual roles of each western into one was probably The Virginian by Own Wister. This novel was so influential in helping to engrave American character in that it incorporated Turner's idea of the disappearing frontier, trial and experience, and self-reliance (Cullen 132). Owen Wister had previously worked on another novel with Theodore Roosevelt and Frederic Remington called, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail.
This novel brought the western frontier to public attention and provided a more "real" depiction of the frontier life. It served as a memoir for all that Roosevelt, Wister, and Remington had witnessed in the western frontier. Like The Virginian, Ranch Life and The Hunting Trail involved a series of challenges that tested each of these men's manhood (Cullen 132). Coincidentally, this added on to the sense of American character by further stressing the idea of the rugged individual. Novels and western movies or plays were not the only sources which depicted the essence of American character; Paintings and museums were very influential. Charles Willson Peale, founder of the Academy of Fine Arts, introduced another element to American character which had not been recognized as much as that of the rough, outdoors man.
By showcasing plants, animals, and the infamous mastodon, Peale associated American character with intelligence, imagination, practicality, and independence Philadelphia Museum of Art). While providing all of this visual stimulation, Peale believed his museum provided an opportunity for rational entertainment so that those who visited the museum would not only be entertained, but would also walk away with a greater knowledge than they had when they walked in. Aside from the intellectual and practical aspect of his museum, Peale's paintings greatly illustrated another aspect of American character already mentioned: manliness, dominance, and power. Examples of paintings that showed this side of American character included The Artist in His Museum and Washington after the Battle of Princeton (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In The Artist in His Museum, gender hegemony and women's tendency to be hyper emotional was illustrated by the teachable little boy in the portrait and the awe stricken women in the background as she stares at the vast mastodon (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Of course, Peale showed himself to have the most power of all by lifting up the red curtain to reveal his museum in all its glory.
With his stance akimbo and a blue sash adorning his uniform, the portrait of George Washington in Washington After the Battle of Princeton elicited power and patriotism, a feature of American character most visible today (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Besides Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Moran and John Gast were also very influential in presenting American character in their paintings (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Moran's painting, The Cr and Canyon of Yellow stone in 1872, like the novels, plays, and movies in its period, gave those from the east a glimpse of what the unknown west looked like (Philadelphia Museum of Art). John Gast's painting, America's Progress from 1872 captured the philosophy for the Manifest Destiny. To the right of the painting, Gast showed the modernized and advanced America. Towards the left of the painting, Gast showed a primitive America with dead buffalo and bear breasted Native Americans (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
In a way, this painting showed the beginning of a new kind of civilization for America, but it also showed America's carelessness for the Native American culture. As one can see, Charles Willson Peale, John Gast, and Thomas Moran, along with novels, plays, and movies which presented the western frontier, really were useful in shaping the notion of American character. Today, we no longer need paintings, books, or movies to show us what the world beyond ours is like because the world is accessible to us at any time. However, sources like National Geography and the Discovery Channel are very helpful on giving us a perspective on the way of life for other cultures and educated us on things we might not know, just like Peale's museum educated his visitors. Ads are another source used to lure consumers by using pictures of foreign and exotic places as vacation spots. However, for the purpose of this paper, ads will be looked at in a different light: how they are representative of American character as we know it today.
To understand the concept mentioned above, it must first be established how today's American identifies American character. To do this, an interview was conducted with a 22 year old of Italian, Irish, and Native American decent with a one year college education level named Dennis Volpe. When asked how he perceived American character, Dennis's answer was perfectly descriptive of a 1932 photograph by Charles C. Ebbe ts called Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (web). This is a photograph of construction workers taking a lunch break as they sit on a beam of a skyscraper. Like Mr. Volpe's opinion of American character, this photograph describes it as involving collectivity, individuality, and courage. Mr. Volpe believes that American character is best described as a man who provides for his family, struggles, and makes opportunities available to him so that his children and grandchildren can have a better future.
When asked if his idea of the hardworking American existed today, Mr. Volpe's answer was mixed. He stated that for the most part, Americans have become lazy and unappreciative of what they have. The drive, motivation, and creativity which was once a key part of American character, has practically disappeared. He felt that the few people who still represent American character are older generations, such as grandparents or great grandparents, who started their new life in America and went through the struggles which made them strong. This little piece of American character which is still present today, according to Mr. Volpe, is not dependant on race, gender, or class. He feels that regardless of these factors, American character can be shaped and held in the same way for any culture in America.
This idea that Americans' way of life today is shaped by our life situations rather than identified by the color of our skin was best described by Arthur Krystal when he said, "Economic hardship isn't about race or class it's about character" (Krystal 698). Also seen in Krystal's work is a painting that shows men and women in uniform carrying items of recreation, such as a woman carrying a guitar. This hints at the notion that people do not know how to work hard for their money because they don't have to (Krystal 698). This, in turn, has changed American character as we view it today. While Krystal shows us how American character is perceived today, Bell Hooks discusses how the rugged individual of the western frontier worked for what he had, promoting a feeling to self-satisfaction (Hooks 717).
This is how American character originally formed. Robert A. Lutz summarized Hooks' and Krystal's ideas on American character today and during the western frontier by discussing how it changed between those periods. He explained that American character is different today simply because of the opportunities we have. People during the western frontier had to work for the soul purpose of providing for their family whether they liked their job or not.
Whereas today, people are able to choose a field of interest to them and can afford to make less money (Lutz 712). A picture that is more updated than Ebbet's photograph and more thoroughly depicts American character in Mr. Volpe's view is today's ad for the Jeep Wrangler. Using the slogan "WE TURNED 50 MILES OF THE EARTH'S TOUGHEST TERRAIN INTO A YARDSTICK", this ad really grasps Mr. Volpe's idea of American character when it is combined with the American character of the western frontier. This ad shows a man driving a Jeep up a rocky hill, leaving flat land behind him. This shows that given the challenge, Americans do not retreat, but they face the obstacle (in this case the rocky hill), and do not stop at anything to conquer this challenge. This ad also shows the toughness and rugged individuality of American character seen during the western frontier.
By turning. ".. 50 miles of the earth's toughest into a yard stick", the ad portrays the American man as being capable of doing anything. The Jeep itself is an important product all in its own, providing a sense of power and outdoors sporting, this can also be seen in SUVs like the Hummer H 2: big and bad. (Cosmopolitan, 297) Whether it is an ad, an educational program, or a job interview, the air of American character still echoes throughout America today. It may not be seen in the struggling to provide for one's family in today's society, but rather the struggling of immigrants from the past helps give America an identity.
In the end, American character is not just one aspect of life, particularly the first western frontier, but it consists of many waves of this western frontier, which ironically resulted in its disappearance. Thus, the close of the western frontier opened a new chapter in American life, American character, and the American dream.