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By Harold Simonson

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Wait Whitman's ritual transformed him into a new personality, fresh in the knowledge not only that he was participating in a cosmic design but also that he was the agent shaping it, fulfilling it. No such metaphysical ramifications grow out of Turner's frontier ritual. Instead of mystically realizing selfhood by losing it in the spirit of nature (“I am Page 24 nothing; I become all,” said Emerson), Turner's reborn Westerner is essentially rechallenged—to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The American became a conqueror of nature, a great rebel whose independence was as sacrosanct as his individualism. He also thought of himself as an Adam, one who merged with nature or, knowing its mysterious power, achieved his full measure through nature. Only as spirit freed itself from the bondage of social institutions and became part and parcel of nature would the individual realize this fulfillment. The West, therefore, held the paradox essential to the American experience. To conquer nature or, in a mystical sense, to fuse with it; to appropriate it for the progress of civilization or, instead, to conform to its ineffable laws for the sake of realizing selfhood; to emulate an Andrew Carnegie or to follow a Henry David Thoreau—this was the American's choice in facing west.

For a person to try to remove the wall, to pretend it does not exist or to strike through it is as tempting as it is fatal. Professor Edwin Fussell points out that to Melville the image of the frontier rarely suggested peace and mediation, let alone transcendence, but rather chaos and horror. After the closing of the frontier, which Fussell marks as concurrent with the Civil War, Melville found himself more desperate than ever. ” The frontier Page 8 becomes a chartless metaphysical emptiness. To Melville the frontier also suggests a boundary, an imprisoning wall, and the task of trying to penetrate it is no less than the way to insanity.

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