HHIA04106U HIS, America’s Wild Ride: the Frontier Heritage in History, Culture and Politics

Volume 2014/2015
Module I-VI [MA Programme, 2008-Curriculum]
Module I-VI [MA-elective Programme, 2008-Curriculum]
BA-level [Internal BA-elective for BA students of History]
Module T4 (Subject element HHIB10501E) [BA-elective studies, 2007- and 2013-Curriculum]
Module T5 (Subject element HHIB10511E) [BA-elective studies, 2007- and 2013-Curriculum]

America’s Wild Ride: the Frontier Heritage in History, Culture and Politics
We shall be dealing with images and ideals of ‘the American frontier’ and its fundamental, quasi-mythic theme of challenge and response. The challenge and response theme has manifested itself in many different ways throughout American history. In order to fully understand the American character, one must go beyond the enlightened ideals of the Founding Fathers to delve deeply into the dualism of the frontier. This dualism is represented by the challenge of the wilderness and its denizens on the one hand, and the narrative response as described in literature, folklore, art, visual media and historiography, and further utilized in presidential rhetoric. The course takes the year 1890 – the year of the closing of the frontier – as its starting point. This is when perception of the frontier was transformed from that of a place in geography to becoming a metaphor with both a moral and an ideological aspect. The transformation was manifested in the new role of the United States as a global power following the Spanish-American war in 1898. It unfolded as the American response to the ‘reds’ in Korea and Vietnam, as the ‘New Frontier,’ counterinsurgency and nation-building of JFK, and as the carry-over of a frontier mentality to ranch-house suburbia, urban renewal and gentrification of the inner city. A corresponding carry-over of the myth of the frontier is from dime novels, pulp fictions and red-blooded literature and Wild West shows to the new media of the 20th and 21st centuries, comics, cinema, television and video games. Traditional American frontier heroes are also morally and ideologically revitalized in the shape of superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain America. Attempts are also made at deconstructing the superhero, thus calling the frontier myth and its concomitant vigilante ethos into question (exemplified in Moore’s and Gibbons’ Watchmen). In short: there is no lack of applicable approaches and usable sources to a historical investigation of the frontier. The methodology of the course is informed by a combination of historical mythography (‘how history shapes myth’) and mythographical history (‘how myth shapes history’), together with investigation of the historical role of popular culture in political and social life, and how the political and social have been reflected by and expressed in popular culture.

Among the main questions addressed by the course are:
• How myth shapes history and how history shapes myth
• Heuristics, sources and approaches to understanding American frontier mentality
• How depictions of the frontier – its challenges and responses – have influenced the American domestic and foreign policy agendas
• Historiography of the frontier
• The extent to which images and ideals of the frontier can be considered to have had decisive influence on the formation of American policy in the 20th and early 21st centuries
• The character of the interrelationship between American popular and political culture
• Practical analysis of presidential rhetoric as evidence of a working interrelationship between metaphor and ideology

Course objectives (clarification of some of the objectives stipulated in the curriculum):

- Richard Slotkin: Gunfighter Nation, The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. 1992 (1998).
- John Shelton Lawrence & Robert Jewett: The Myth of the American Superhero. 2002.
- Robert Jewett & John Shelton Lawrence: Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil. The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism. 2003.
The Prospect of Presidential Rhetoric. Eds.: Martin J. Medhurst and James Arnt Aune. 2008.

Group instruction / Seminar
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Total
  • 56
Type of assessment
Other under invigilation
Criteria for exam assesment