The Newest, Latest, Last Frontier

Chet Huntley has got me thinking about frontiers. 

Chet Huntley. NBC Television. Public domain.

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

Frederick Jackson Turner. Public Domain.

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. 

New Frontiers

Starship Enterprise. “1701-D” by kreg.steppe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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. 

Gene Roddenberry. NASA. Public domain.

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. 

JFK. Cecil Stoughton, White House. Public domain.

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

Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue, 1806-1872. Public Domain.

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Time and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again . . .

Until now, I have read nothing by Stephen King, one of the major authors of our time—because I have no interest in horror. But King also published a time-travel book in 2012; and that has finally drawn me into his web.

11/22/63. The title will wake up anyone who remembers that date. It’s the day John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. King’s book is based on the premise, “What if you could go back in time and prevent the killing of JFK?”  

The Story

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.

Maine school teacher Jake Epping discovers, in a local diner, a “rabbit-hole” through which he can walk from the present day into the morning of September 9, 1958. Jake has several reasons to travel back in time, but mainly there looms the tantalizing possibility that by regressing to 1958 and living out the next five years of that era, he will find a way to prevent the assassination of the president.

Time-travel stories usually consider the opportunity, however theoretical, of curing the present by doctoring the past. Jake Epping, in his role as first-person narrator, repeatedly asserts: “Life turns on a dime.” 

That’s not always true. For example, it would be hard to dismantle the complex chain of events that caused Europe to stagger into the First World War. Similar factors hold sway over the U.S. Civil War, the French and Russian revolutions, and the growth of “big box” superstores. 

But there are individual events, with major rippling consequences, that might be erased from time’s log by a small, practical effort applied at the right moment. Events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

The character Jake Epping seems convinced that if only Kennedy had lived, all sorts of bad things would have been avoided, and better things would have taken their place. To those of us who lived through those years, the theory does have its appeal. The murder of Kennedy, falling like a bolt of lightning into our postwar “happy time,” seemed to trigger a downward spiral for America, a sad cycle from which we have never recovered.

History, Re-organized?

History, however, is not that simple. Perhaps a full-term Kennedy would have managed not to stumble into the Vietnam War as his successor did. That’s possible, but far from certain. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Kennedy, despite all good intentions, would have failed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Bill enacted—a project at which Lyndon Johnson succeeded. We cannot know how things would have worked out, because the actual events of 22 November 1963 did sweep Kennedy away, leaving LBJ in his place.

But it’s entertaining to read about Jake Epping’s compulsive quest to derail Lee Harvey Oswald. Entertaining because the hero is thwarted by obstacles and complications at every turn. The rabbit-hole’s outlet in 1958 compels him to live in Texas for five years as he waits for the actors to arrive on stage. The secrecy of his mission requires him to adopt an alias and do a lot of perilous sneaking around as he spies on Oswald and his family and tries to keep tabs on a shady character named George de Mohrenschildt. In the midst of all that, Jake encounters the woman of his dreams and falls in love. 

King of Time

Everything falls apart more than once in this complex story. Jake Epping, growing ever wiser in the ways of the Space-Time Continuum, states clearly that the main problem is the past’s own spooky determination to keep itself intact and resist doctoring. Here King is at his best, casting a pall of enigmatic and menacing tension over the entire story.

Author Stephen King. Pinguino Kolb photo, Creative Commons.

Another charm of this book is verisimilitude. When Jake Epping walks into the 1950s, one feels transported into that time, because of the host of small details the author dresses the set with—Musterole, “Fresh Up with 7Up,” Cities Service, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. My first thought was how remarkable it is that one too young to have been there was able to capture all these details and many more; then I Googled King and learned that he was born in 1947. So he didn’t have to do much research—like me, he’s an old-timer who remembers all those things. 

I won’t divulge further details of plot and action, because you might want to read the book. My one wish would be that King had embedded all that material in a sparer narration. At 849 pages, this book is a bit of a slog. Had it been published earlier in King’s stellar career, a good, truculent editor might have made it twenty percent shorter, thereby improving its pace and increasing its dramatic power. 

Still, the time-travel is presented imaginatively, even brilliantly. It reminds me of the works of Jack Finney (whom I’ve mentioned here and here). Indeed, King himself pays homage to Finney at the very end of his “Afterword,” referring to Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.” However, this one clearly is King’s book and not Finney’s. 

In sum, 11/22/63 is an interesting and provocative romp through past and present by a master storyteller.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author