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No polished person could have done it better. What was the matter? I looked at him and suddenly it came to me. If he had tried familiarity with me the first two minutes of our acquaintance, I should have resented it; by what right, then, had I tried it with him? It smacked of patronizing; on this occasion he had come off the better gentleman of the two. Here in flesh and blood was a truth which I had long believed in words, but never met before. The creature we call a gentleman lies deep in the hearts of thousands that are born without chance to muster the outward graces of the type. (37)
In this frontier, the true character of rough individuals such as the Virginian shine through and show their nobility:
Even where baseness was visible, baseness was not uppermost. Daring, laughter, endurance, these were what I saw upon the countenance of the cowboys. And this very first day of my knowledge marks a date with me. For something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart, and I have never forgotten it, nor ever shall, as long as I live. In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature. (39)
As an honest person, the Virginian also follows a code that is not the law of the East, yet a means of establishing some type of order in the ruggedness of the West.
And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it -- the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based. (40)
Lastly, for Wister, the most significant aspect of the West was not how the Western experience altered the characters, but in the rebirth of aristocracy. For this author, the rise of the Virginian symbolized the resurfacing of a new form of elite with the ability of offering the political leadership that America so badly needed. America, believed Wister, was as much a class society as any other nation. The only difference was that the elite in America was not determined by family status or tradition, but by inner worth and how it conquered over others.
All America is divided into two classes, the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings. It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred the violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying 'Let the best man win, whoever he is.' Let the best man win, whoever he is.' That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight. (47).
These three individuals, Turner, Billington and Wister, provide an understanding of how Americans viewed the West and the unique men and women who made it their home. Many of their ideas are as applicable today as they were a hundred years ago.
Babcock, C. Merton. The American frontier: a social and literary record. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1955.
Billington, Ray Allen. Western Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
Billington, Ray Allen. Limericks: Historical and Hysterical. New York: Bantum, 1981.
Ridge, Martin. "
Frederick Jackson Turner, Ray Allen Billington, and American Frontier History"
The Western Historical Quarterly. 19, 1988: 4-20.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The significance of the frontier in…[continue]
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