David McCullough turns back the clock on frontier history

When the PR campaign for David McCullough’s The Pioneers kicked off, yours truly said this:

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether….Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

Now the book’s out, and it looks like the marketing didn’t lie.  Here’s Rebecca Onion’s take from Slate:

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

A “throwback” indeed.  Some of these excerpts could’ve come right out of the work of Lyman Draper and his fellow nineteenth-century antiquarians, fixated as they were on their subjects’ public virtue, sterling private character, and domestic contentment:

McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.”

Andrew Isenberg agrees that The Pioneers is a historiographical leap backward:

The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.

Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.

For more, check out William Hogeland, who’s been sharing his reactions to the book on Twitter.

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