Chet Huntley has got me thinking about frontiers.
Huntley (1911-1974) was an influential broadcaster, a television journalist who co-anchored NBC’s evening news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, for fourteen years beginning in 1956. When his run at NBC ended in 1970, Huntley, then 58, became front man for the founding of the Big Sky ski resort in his native Montana. Earlier, he had written a memoir titled The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood, published by Random House in 1968. This book was recommended and lent to me by my friend Jerry Peterson.
The Generous Years is a warm and interesting read. We learn much about the childhood of Chet Huntley but more importantly we learn about life in Montana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seen through the eyes of a boy who, as his adult self tells us more than once, was privileged “to know and remember a few years and a few scenes of the nation’s last frontier.”
The Last Frontier
The Montana of Huntley’s youth was indeed, in many ways, a raw frontier. People made their livings by farming, by herding, by mining and railroading. It was a society that still went about on horseback; motor vehicles, other than steam locomotives, were rare. Old Doc Minnick, the blunt, persevering medico of Huntley’s remembrance, made his housecalls in a one-horse buckboard. The memoir includes those staples of frontier life: prairie fires, locusts, and even an enterprising bank robber foiled by the derring-do of local boys. It’s a tale worth reading, and I commend it to you.
But what of Huntley’s claim to have recorded America’s last frontier? Even while typing the phrase, I thought of Alaskan friends. “What about us?” they would cry. “What are we, chopped liver?” Alaska has been raw frontier much more recently than Montana. Many parts of Alaska still qualify for that distinction. That’s also true of vast swaths of Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia. These places are truly “the last frontier.”
Or are they?
The Frontier Thesis
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forth in 1893—eighteen years before Huntley’s birth in Montana—an idea that came to be called “the Frontier Thesis” of American history. Turner figured the frontier experience was the main thing that called forth the development of American democracy and other unique aspects of our civilization. Jackson’s Frontier Thesis became a mainstay in the scholarly interpretation of U.S. history. It has also been fiercely disputed; yet it still holds considerable sway.
Turner’s thesis took the frontier as a fact of physical geography. He proposed that when the frontier line reached the West Coast about 1880, the first phase of American history had ended. The frontier was no more.
This has not stopped others from declaring new areas of frontier-like emphasis. One example is likewise rooted in physical geography, although it is extraterrestrial. The moon, by this thinking, is a new frontier—and so is Mars. In 1966, forty-four years after Turner retired from Harvard, actor William Shatner declared all of space to be “the final frontier” in the opening title sequence to the Star Trek television series.
Whoever wrote Shatner’s speech (Gene Roddenberry, et al.) ought to have been more circumspect; because many more “new” and “final” frontiers have been proposed.
Senator John F. Kennedy, accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, said: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” The phrase “New Frontier” then became a label for Kennedy’s presidential administration—like Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” or Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal.” As political branding it stood for a vaguely-defined stance of confronting unknown but large national challenges of the future. In that sense, we will always have a “new frontier” to deal with.
The Perpetual Lure of the Frontier
All this frontiersmanship makes me think that Americans have been so shaped by our frontier experience that we simply cannot do without it. We always need a frontier. Unless we are out on a frontier of some kind, we are not satisfied.
I wonder if Italians, Poles, Vietnamese, or Pakistanis talk and think as much about frontiers as we do. Frederick Jackson Turner and I doubt it.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)