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Frontier Tradition

  The frontier tradition was a 19th-century phenomenon in the literature particularly of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. White settlers in the frontier regions of these countries—or certainly those who wrote about them—regarded the untamed wildness almost with mystic reverence. They were seen as places where life was reduced to its essence, where ‘men were men’ and people were in a state of harmony, rarely found elsewhere, with other animals and with Nature.

At one level, the frontier tradition deals with harsh beauty, rugged emotion and a severely simplistic moral and ethical code. It spans novels (for example from authors ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to Jack London and Ernest Hemingway), ballads, pulp literature of all kinds, and the films and television series inspired by such works. At another level, it involves a kind of transcendental identification of, for example, ‘the American spirit’ with the urge to push actual, physical frontiers further and further back. Writers as diverse as St-Jean de Crèvecoeur, Bret Harte, Louisa M. Alcott, Chuck Norris and Willa Cather made use of this.

Outside the USA, the tradition is descanted on, often with savage irony, by such writers as Peter Carey and Patrick White in Australia, Margaret Atwood in Canada, and Keri Hulme in New Zealand. Women writers have found it particularly useful ‘decomposing the outback myth’, as Miles Franklin put it: taking the macho stereotypes of the outback style and adding psychological and physical verisimilitude.

In all of this, attitudes of native peoples are ignored or patronizingly misrepresented. It would be fascinating, if such a thing existed, to read their literature about this frontier world. KMcL



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