Book Review: The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Cléa Fortuné. Cléa is a PhD candidate in American Studies and a member of the Center for Research on the English-speaking World (CREW) at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, where she teaches American history. In 2020 she is a Fulbright fellow and visiting scholar at the University of Arizona. Her research centers on the notions of security and community in the border towns of Douglas, Arizona, United States and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

Review of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books, 2019).

The border has become the research focus of many scholars nowadays, who bring their attention to the militarization, multiplication, and externalization of borders worldwide, as well as to the various undocumented migration issues that result. However, Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth is singular in that it shines light on how the U.S. transformed from a frontier into a border, and how this shaped the U.S. national identity. He asks the wide-reaching questions ‘How has the definition of the frontier evolved throughout history?’ ‘How can we account for racism in current U.S. society?’ ‘How can we account for Donald Trump’s election?’ and ‘Does Trump represent a rupture or a continuity in the history of racism in the U.S.?’ In his book, Greg Grandin convincingly answers these questions by explaining what the word frontier came to mean over time and how it shaped society in the U.S.’s past and present.

The author starts his examination with Turner’s Frontier Thesis in the early 20th century, which states that expansionism created “a uniquely American form of political equality, a vibrant, forward-looking individualism” (p. 1). Expansionism was a sign of progress and optimism in a century that witnessed Jim Crow laws, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the lynching of Mexicans. For Turner, expanding the geographical delimitation of the frontier meant making the world a better place and reducing racism, poverty, and other social problems. However, Greg Grandin retraces the historical evolution of how the frontier has been used as a national metaphor over time, mentioning the contradictions it entailed and the racism it involved.

This history begins with the early western border of the 18th century, wherein the country’s Founding Fathers (p. 23-30) played a crucial role in solidifying American expansionism as a definitive part of America’s essence. They made expansion constitutive of the formation of the United States and a synonym of freedom. American expansion became the answer to every major question whether it be economic, political, or social. It justified the extermination of obstacles, including of people such as Native Americans, or of their removal beyond the constantly westward moving frontier.

As he moves on to discuss the 19th century, Greg Grandin employs various maps that allow the reader to picture the moving frontier after different land purchases and annexations of territories, as well as anecdotes to describe pervading racism and frontier violence at the time. He paints the portrait of Andrew Jackson who “presided over a policy of ethnic cleansing” to free up lands for white settlers and subsequently create a “Caucasian democracy”. Grandin repeatedly returns to the example of Andrew Jackson throughout the book as Jackson’s conception of the frontier is still remarkably alive today. Indeed, Jackson considered expansion as a form of freedom, and as such, freedom largely meant freedom from restraint. By extension of this line of thinking, western expansion was generally considered “a safety valve” for solving race and class problems. For instance, it justified moving poor white families, freed slaves and Native Americans further to the West with the idea that this would dissipate class tensions and free up the dominion of elite, land-owning white Americans. It also justified wars and attempts to annex more land. To this day, the ideal of freedom from restraint still translates to the exploitation and “domination of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans”. By the end of the 19th century, the word ‘frontier’ changed meanings from ‘a line’ to ‘a way of life’ and a ‘cultural zone’.

After the U.S. frontier closed in the late 19th century, the frontier took on a different dimension in the 20th century and moved beyond its previous domain with the invention of U.S. President Roosevelt’s atomic bomb and the waging of new wars - World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and wars waged in Latin America in the 1980s by President Reagan. In many ways, this was a resuscitation of frontier violence of the past. However, the 20th century also saw the evolution of the frontier culminate in its solidification as the border wall with Mexico. Here, Grandin retraces the U.S./Mexico border wall’s history – a history that runs in tandem with the history of racism against Mexicans, as well as their domination and exploitation. This period also is permeated with police violence and the resurgence of white supremacy.

In the 20th century, the frontier also came to be associated with the new global economy, especially after the Clinton administration signed and implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement or “NAFTA” in the 1990s. For Clinton, NAFTA was “the moral equivalent of the frontier in the nineteenth century” (p. 233). However, Grandin explains that this treaty “didn’t help the country rise above the border but rather hardened the border, transforming the line – and the hatreds and obsessions that go with it – into a permanent fixture in domestic politics and a perennial source of nationalist grievance” (p. 233). Indeed, if the successive presidents such as G.W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to implement immigration reforms to help undocumented immigrants obtain citizenship, these reforms were always the result of a compromise and never passed. What did pass however, were new economic policies that further impoverished the Mexican countryside and that sparked new waves of Mexican migration to the U.S., as well as funding allocations for more border fences. During Trump’s presidency, the U.S. southern border has captured the nation’s attention as he has framed it as a national security concern requiring a more robust border wall. As Grandin states, the wall is an illusion, a “mystification that simultaneously recognizes and refuses limits” (p.273). Further, he notes that on the one hand, Trumpism fuels resentment that the U.S. has been too generous, and on the other, Trumpism “encourages a petulant hedonism that forbids nothing and restrains nothing” (p. 273). The wall therefore under Trump has become the material crystallization not only of the frontier but also of the ethos of Trumpism - one that appears to hail from the likes of Andrew Jackson, who defined freedom as freedom from restraint.

Grandin thus successfully explains how U.S. expansionism contributed to shaping contemporary U.S. society and helps us understand how America’s age-old myth of the frontier has been replaced by a new myth about the border wall itself. This well-written historical account is destined to be well received by and impact a wide academic and public audience: from students, teachers, and specialists interested in the history of the U.S. to any nonprofessional reader who would like to better understand what has given rise to U.S. society today.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Fortuné, C. (2020). Book Review: The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

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