Book: Gunfighter Nation

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Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America

Author: Richard Slotkin
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Gunfighter Nation completes Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, begun in Regeneration Through Violence and continued in Fatal Environment, on the myth of the American frontier. Slotkin examines an impressive array of sources—fiction, Hollywood westerns, and the writings of Hollywood figures and Washington leaders—to show how the racialist theory of Anglo-Saxon ascendance and superiority (embodied in Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West), rather than Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the closing of the frontier, exerted the most influence in popular culture and government policy making in the twentieth century. He argues that Roosevelt’s view of the frontier myth provided the justification for most of America’s expansionist policies, from Roosevelt’s own Rough Riders to Kennedy’s counterinsurgency and Johnson’s war in Vietnam


Gunfighter Nation concludes Richard Slotkin’s three-volume study, which began in 1973 with the publication of Regeneration Through Violence, of the significance of the frontier in the American imagination. Looking primarily at pulp novels and films, Slotkin takes a painstakingly thorough look at the relationship between imagery of the West in industrial mass culture and U.S. foreign policy during the 20th century. Specifically, he looks at how the previous century’s “frontier aristocrat” served as the model diplomat for America’s agenda of economic imperialism from the Spanish American War to the “police action” in Vietnam.

As the U.S. gained international stature, the archetype of the frontier aristocrat articulated the goals and ideals of the American populace. But Slotkin shows how, as time progressed, the increasing irrelevance of the frontier myth on foreign soil foiled the prowess of the U.S. war machine. At the book’s conclusion, in which images of the My Lai Massacre are juxtaposed against the final shootout of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the contradiction between faith and experience becomes painfully evident. Gunfighter Nation delivers the satisfaction of a historian with the acquired wisdom to address directly the issues that inspired his lifelong work. —John M. Anderson

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