Wednesday’s Book Review: “Historians of the American Frontier”

downloadHistorians of the American Frontier: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Edited by John R. Wunder. (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1988. Pp. viii, 827. Bibliography, index. ISBN 0-313-24899-0, $75.00.)

I have been asked recently by several people what they should know about the history of the American frontier, especially in relation to the history of space exploration. Although this is a a book more than 25 years old, it is still a good place to start. Frontier historians have been especially influential interpreters of the American past, and I believe that is one of the reasons that the frontier experience has long been linked to the space arena.

A generation embraced Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis in the first half of the twentieth century, regardless of its sweeping and not always appropriate generalizations, as the explanation for American uniqueness. Historians of the American Frontier, therefore, is an important attempt to come to grips with the people who made the frontier the most significant field of historical study in the first decades of the twentieth century and of those who have carried on the torch.

John R. Wunder, director of the Great Plains Center at the University of Nebraska when this book was published, presents an impressive set of essays on the lives and works of fifty-seven frontier historians. Each chapter, written by a different specialist, includes a brief biography and a complete summary and analysis of publications. Wunder used four criteria to select the people included in this collection: they had to be dead, had to be recognized as leaders in frontier studies, had to produce broadly defined frontier history, and did not have to be either academically oriented or even historians in any strict sense.

Any collected work’s quality is uneven and this book is no exception. Some of the essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding Robert P. Swierenga’s entry on James C. Malin. There are, however, two built-in difficulties with collections of this type. First, although Historians of the American Frontier is an important attempt to assess frontier historians and their literature, it views the subject from the perspective of individuals only. There remains, unfortunately, no synthesis of the overall field of study. Each historians’ work stands essentially alone.

Second, historians are unevenly represented. Angie Debo, Le Roy Hafen, Reuben Gold Thwaites, Dale L. Morgan, and even Francis Parkman are not found here while less worthy entries abound. The editor anticipated this criticism by suggesting that no historians were “left out by design or accident” and that a second bio-bibliographical volume would re-solve the omissions. In spite of these criticisms, Wunder has produced a fine book that will be permanently useful to scholars, making readily available in a single volume the personalities and core themes of American frontier historiography. It is a useful addition to the tools of the historians in exploring the American frontier.

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