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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
7min read

Half-Horse, Half-Alligator

Central to the American experience is the fact that in this land men have had to create their own traditions. Out of a past still too close to be fully understood have come legends which turn into articles of faith before they are even complete. And no article of faith has had greater force with us than the one which centers about the era of the great frontier and its part in forming the American character.

The precise formulation of this article of faith was probably best undertaken by Frederick Jackson Turner, who saw the distinctive quality of American character and institutions as deriving from the frontier experience. What we believe in, do, and are, Turner suggested, can be understood only with reference to the western experience, which has been much more important than any heritage we have from European culture. Indeed, Turner saw American democracy itself as coming “stark and strong and full of life, from the American forest.”

Recent historians have found many faults with Turner’s thesis, but that he expressed what a great many of his fellow citizens devoutly believe is undeniable. No American legend has been stronger than the one which finds great virtues and a powerful faith centering about the heroic pioneer. Somehow, we feel, natural man himself came into his own on the frontier—untaught and unvarnished, and with many rough edges, but grandly free from the accumulated errors and constricting shibboleths of the Old World. Under everything else, natural man was good , and his goodness abides with us to this day.

Upon this belief Arthur K. Moore casts a skeptical eye in a stimulating new book, The Frontier Mind , which is less a discussion of the Turner thesis than it is an examination of exactly what went on in one particular part of the legendary frontier, the state of Kentucky. Here, he suggests, the whole frontier tradition has its base; from Kentucky, according to the books, the pioneer bravely and with much vision stepped off toward the Pacific; in Kentucky he built a culture which was both peculiarly American and extremely successful. During the formative period, Kentucky was the frontier. Put it under the microscope and what do you see?

What Mr. Moore sees is not exactly in line with the grand tradition, and he suggests that the reality and the myth began to part company at a fairly early stage. Yet the myth, somehow, was fated, almost as if the belief in the virtues of frontier life antedated the frontier experience itself. For among men of European heritage, as Mr. Moore points out, there existed, generations ago, a millennial belief in an attainable earthly paradise, and this obviously was going to be found, if anywhere, in the American West; specifically, late in the eighteenth century, in Kentucky.

The Frontier Mind: a Cultural Analysis of the Kentucky Frontiersman, by Arthur K. Moore. University of Kentucky Press; 264 pp. $5.00.

Moving to the frontier, thus, the settler anticipated something like a paradisaical existence—which, among other things, meant a life without any particular restraints; and among people touched by this illusion, Mr. Moore remarks, “a keen sense of social responsibility is not to be expected.” Personal freedom and physical satisfaction are expected, and frequently attained, but the primitive masculine virtues are exalted and there is created a society “mature enough to plan and execute but not to reflect.” The epic Indianfighter and forest-tamer of legend can look a good deal more attractive at a distance than at close range.

Thus Kentucky had not advanced far along the road toward full settlement before it had created that legendary character, the “half-horse, half-alligator” roughand-tumble fighter embodied in scores of myths. Grotesque caricature though he was, this horse-alligator did embody the cult of primitivism at its worst. The antithesis of civilized man, he nevertheless represented something civilized man had in him; the literary tradition might transform him into a Daniel Boone or a Deerslayer, who has scant use for civilization but nevertheless stands as an agent of progress, but he continues to speak for an anarchic tendency in the mind of the well-tamed inhabitant of the city.

What Mr. Moore is getting at here, clearly enough, is a deep-seated cleavage in the American mind. For much more than a century we have been developing an urbanized society in America, yet somehow we have always had our doubts. And we have from the beginning turned to the frontiersman as a type figure to prove to our dissatisfied subconscious that natural goodness, natural law, and natural humanity, untouched by the restraints and teachings of a tightly-knit society, are good and proper guidelines for our faith and conduct. The noble savage of frontier society, transplanted into a culture whose frontier has long since evaporated, may be a defective guide for a people undertaking to make moral judgments; in such case, says Mr. Moore, the noble savage “understandably loses much of his protective coloration and reveals lineaments of the alligator-horse, another name for unshirted barbarism.”

We retain, in other words, even in a highly complex society, a large trace of the frontier mind; that is, a determination to preserve both unprecedented liberty and a curious social and intellectual innocence. On the actual frontier this was all very well, but what comes down from it is an attitude of doubtful usefulness since it implies a rejection of the responsibilities that go with civilization. The frontier legend, Mr. Moore believes, brings with it a general opposition to “programs implying discipline and discrimination.” Implicit in all of this is a severing of old cultural ties. Men whose whole concern is with the future have little use for the lessons and experience of the past, and a magnificent broadening of the physical horizon was not necessarily accompanied by a corresponding broadening of intellectual horizons.

For a summing up, Mr. Moore offers the following:

“What seriously occupied the mind of the West during the nineteenth century was not then intellectual or even spiritual values but the tariff, public lands, internal improvements, Indian affairs, and markets. Rugged and self-reliant individualists by reputation, westerners from Kentucky to the Pacific yet assumed that the national government had a special obligation to help them with the garden, and at the polls they regularly underscored their assumption. Since the garden yielded magnificently, life was abundant in material things; and the conclusion could hardly be resisted that prosperity was the truest measure of well-being. With riches came a sense of power and importance and a desire to win the world’s approval. Radically affected by the garden psychology, the West could not fully realize that wealth was only one of several criteria by which the rest of the world judged cultures.”

Obsessed by the frontier, did we indeed become so interested in what lay ahead of us that we let our old culture languish without evolving a proper substitute? Several kinds of romantic desiring were brought together on the frontier, but the more heroic and noble elements tended to fade as the frontier itself remained; what is left, Mr. Moore suggests, is all too often the lawless and unrestrained image of the horse-alligator, “confronting the metropolis with the image of its own dark unconscious mind.”

Frontier in the City

All of this is very perceptive, as far as it goes; yet it should be remarked that there has been an urban frontier in this country, as well as a frontier pitched on the thin edge of the trackless forests and the untamed rivers, and the same forces do seem to have been at work on it. Kentucky may have sent the horse-alligator down to give us unquiet nights, but a reasonable facsimile of this creature was born and nourished in the American city as well, and for proof of it you might pay a little attention to a rather shocking book called July, 1863 , by Irving Werstein.

What Mr. Werstein has to offer could be either a final chapter or an article in rebuttal to Mr. Moore’s book: a study of the five dreadful days of murder, arson, and general lawlessness which descended on New York City a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg as a result of the Federal government’s attempt to enforce a military conscription law. The word “incredible” in the book’s subtitle is well chosen, for this ugly little chapter in American history goes almost beyond belief.

On the surface, what happened in New York then was the direct result of the fantastic stupidity and timorousness with which the Lincoln Administration in the Civil War approached the matter of conscription. By 1863 the government was ready to admit that it must compel certain citizens to enter the Army, which until then had been composed entirely of volunteers. It was afraid to grapple with the problem in a forthright way, however, and—in an unconscionably inept effort to sugar-coat the pill—it devised a draft which could be avoided by any draftee who was able to pay a $300 commutation fee, which automatically meant that the wage earner had to carry the load. The government then undertook to enforce this law in the city of New York, which was full of a rootless proletariat which, because of corrupt municipal misgovernment and a vicious national display of antiforeignism, had become fully predisposed to violent action. Unhappily enough, this action came precisely when irresponsible politicians were -teaching that the Civil War itself was being fought solely for the purpose of ending Negro slavery; the freed slaves, it was argued, would infallibly flock to the city and there would undermine a labor market which was already in a very disturbed condition.

July, 1863: the Incredible Story of the Bloody New York City Draft Riots, by Irving Werstein. Julian Messner, Inc.; 252 pp. $3.95.

With a bad law bearing down on a city crowd which had never been told that anyone in America was prepared to do anything but exploit it, the result—quite naturally—was an explosion. Stimulated, apparently, to some extent by Confederate agents, but owing its real explosive force to the country’s abject failure to assimilate the floods of workers who were coming in from Europe, the mob struck back with primitive fury. It broke up the conscription centers, battled the police, engaged in a vicious race war, looted shops and homes, and loosed on the city five days of actual warfare which ended only when veterans from the Army of the Potomac moved in with shotted guns to restore order. To this day no one knows, within several hundred, the total number of people who were killed.

Mr. Werstein’s book is vivid, though somewhat confusing; his fondness for inventing conversations and for “dramatizing” incidents which, Heaven knows, might be supposed to carry their own dramatic values built in, leaves one hard put now and then to know where actual history stops and touched-up history begins. But it would be hard to overstate the horror of the draft riots very much, and for the most part this book gives a faithful picture of the occasion. It is a picture whose grim significance speaks for itself.

For it becomes clear, reading this one on the heels of Mr. Moore’s book, that the urban frontier in America had its own horse-alligator thesis, arising for much the same reason as Kentucky’s. America was being built from scratch, and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who survived the miseries of the steerage in order to set foot on the New World at the mouth of the Hudson believed, as much as the western pioneers ever believed it, that they were somehow approaching a Garden of Eden where all things would work out for their good. They got into a jungle, fully as dark and menacing as anything the Kentucky frontier ever had to offer, and they needed to have the same care for their scalps; the environment taught them that only the primitive virtues counted for much, and when the pressure of an enormous civil war came down on them, loaded with intangibles that are hard enough to see even at a century’s distance, they acted about as one might expect. The draft riots were the hideous result.

The horse-alligator, in short, is there, deep in the subconscious, in the city as well as in the country. It may be that this nation was built up too fast, and that certain values were ignored in the building. Whatever the answer, a critical re-examination of the way in which it all happened is very much in order. Two more different books than these by Mr. Moore and Mr. Werstein could not easily be imagined, yet in the end they teach very much the same lesson.

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