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The "frontier thesis" may long ago have lost its allure in other areas of American history, but it retains a perverse hold on students of the West.Turner, who was born in the frontier town of Portage, Wis., in 1861, and who taught history at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University, was in effect the founder of Western historical studies.
He tells the story of harsh battles over land, water, language and political power -- battles that were not confined to (and did not end with) the defeat of the Western tribes.
He devotes nearly half his book to the 20th century (Billington's narrative essentially stopped in the 1890's).
But almost all agree -- some jubilantly, some ambivalently -- that the history of the American West will never look the same.
Central to almost all descriptions of the new history is an obligatory, almost ritualistic repudiation of Frederick Jackson Turner.
He is, the revisionist historians believe, the idol who must be toppled if the field is to revive and grow.
The new historians fault Turner (and his latter-day disciples) for many things, but most of all for what they consider his ethnocentrism, his triumphalism, his emphasis on individualism and his insistence that Western history as a distinct field of study ends in 1890.Were Webb alive today, however, he would discover a scholarly landscape radically different from the one he described in 1957.Western American history, transformed by a new generation of energetic revisionist scholars, is staging a vigorous and important revival.M., "none of us will ever be as influential as Turner." And so far, certainly, the revisionists have not produced a broad, forceful interpretation of the Western past in any way comparable to the "frontier thesis." Even so, the new Western history has succeeded in attracting a level of public attention (and criticism) unusual for academic scholarship.The novelist Larry Mc Murtry, for example, published a long essay in The New Republic two years ago maintaining that by their emphasis on the many failures and tragedies that undoubtedly characterized the Western past, the new Western historians overlooked the bold dreams and romantic hopes that drove so many people to "go west" to start anew.The essence of the new Western history lies in its effort to challenge the Turnerians on each of those points.Where Turner saw the 19th-century West as free land awaiting the expansion of Anglo-American settlement and American democracy, the new scholars reject the concept of a frontier altogether (and go to considerable lengths to avoid using the word).The West the new historians describe is a much less happy place -- a land in which bravery and success coexist with oppression, greed and failure; in which decaying ghost towns, bleak Indian reservations, impoverished barrios and ecologically devastated landscapes are as characteristic of Western development as great ranches, rich farms and prosperous cities.TO Turner and his disciples, the 19th-century West was a place where rugged individualism flourished and replenished American democracy.The creators of what he called "Failure Studies" had themselves failed, he said, "because they so rarely do justice to the quality of imagination that constitutes part of the truth." AND in 1991, the National Museum of American Art in Washington mounted "The West as America," a large, ambitious exhibition of 19th-century Western American art accompanied by an extensive commentary that reflected some of the assumptions of the new Western history. It was, critics such as Robert Hughes and Benjamin Forgey charged, an exercise in simple-minded "political correctness." It demonized white males and romanticized their victims.It refused to acknowledge that the Anglo-American presence in the West had contributed anything positive to the region.