Regenerative Violence

American Narratives

Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land provides us with a model, or narrative, of "Americaness." In the simplest terms, Smith looks to the pastoral, embodied by "the West"- whatever land lay to the west of the American civilization- as the overarching symbol by which Americans defined their motives and actions. Smith's narrative comes from a distinct time and place (the early years of the Cold War); it is not a universally accepted narrative. My intention here is to offer a synoptic version of a counter-narrative, the myth of "regenerative violence" as understood by the historian Richard Slotkin. Like Smith's Virgin Land, Slotkin's Regeneration Through Violence comes from a distinct time and place (the late 1960s and early 1970s) and is no more authoritative than Smith's narrative. That said, why embark on this at all? The easiest answer may also be the most accurate- to offer an introduction to the conflicting paradigms that American Studies has produced, as well as chronological progression of the West within the debate over paradigms. Smith's pastoral West ignores a very important and visible component of westward expansion- the violence that played an integral part in pastoralizing the land. The edenic garden that Smith envisions, or imagines that other envisioned, was not a placid virgin land but a savage inhabited continent. From Puritan captivity narrative to Custer's last stand during the Indian Wars, violence was inexorably linked to western expansion.


Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land examines the pastoral myth in America, specifically its importance to our sense of self definition. Smith's vision of pastoral America implicitly, if not explicitly, relies on Frederick Jackson Turner's earlier work "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). Smith's entire closing meditation is devoted to a reading of Turner's analysis, and, although I feel that Smith would not concede many of Turner's arguments, Turner clearly acts as a prime example of the American myth in which Smith is interested. Although Turner's work is of little concern to this paper, one aspect of it, one that returns, or more precisely does not return, in Smith's work is of some import. Both scholars rely on a relative absence of violence in America' westward expansion; even though both authors would obviously be aware of the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, etc. neither work dwells for more than an instant on the pervasive culture of savagery that marked westward expansion.

The Violent Landscape

The pastoral imagery that Smith examines is inherently free of violence; it is a tamed nature ripe to be explored by Daniel Boones and settled by adventurous immigrants. This assumption raises an important question about this myth; how was the land tamed and at what cost. Smith, I believe, suggests that this is irrelevant and that the defining characteristics of the West come from the time after it has been pastoralized. This myth is one of progress, cultivating the expanses of virgin soil and pushing civilization westward. But the effort required to tame the frontier and make it inhabitable for farmers and other pioneers required the exertion of quite "uncivilized" acts that somehow had to be reconciled with the notions of civilization of which they were supposedly harbingers. "Savage wars" were necessary to subdue both native populations and the land itself, and so the frontier warriors had to reduce themselves to savagery in order to bring about progress- regeneration through violence. One of the earliest manifestations of this myth can be found in The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. A native tribe seized Rowlandson in a raid, and during her captivity she regresses to something like savagery, closer to her captors than the New England Puritans. Her saga ends with her return to civilization and a renewed and strengthened piety and faith. Because savagery and civilization were incompatible, one side had to be decimated- savagery would be replaced by civilization at any cost. The rational for this was couched in different beliefs at different times; the Puritans were engaged in a holy war to establish their Christian nation while later the fate and morale of the nation depended upon victory. The cause of these conflicts was invariably placed upon the natives so that America's own dark side would be obscured; they instigated conflict and perpetuated savagery.


Linked with the regression to savagery is a notion that Smith and Slotkin both take up- the moral regeneration possible on the frontier. Figures like Daniel Boone or Natty Bumpo were exemplars of "Americaness." They embodied the Western ideology of escape from corruption and degeneration found in Europe and the refined Eastern cities. Ironically, one of the roles they played was to pave the trail for civilization, that is preparing the West for Eastern influence. The "primitive" traits that Boone or Bumpo acquired obscured their basic civility, yet they were decidedly Euro-Americans, not "savages" like the Native Americans. The flip side of this archetype, which Slotkin names "the man who knows Indians," is the "Indian hater," the man who is as "natural" as the savages and has learned from them but who is driven to destroy them. This type of character first emerged in Herman Melville's The Confidence Man and Robert Bird's Nick of the Woods. Aspects of this character were manifested in Buffalo Bill's ritual scalping of Yellow Hand in his Wild West show or John Wayne's hunt for Scar in The Searchers. The "Indian hater" became an essential archetype because he absorbed the violent impulses but also served to justify it. He was quite often born out of Indian savagery; his rage sprang from the destruction of his family by native Americans. He then is not an aggressor but an avenger; he restores the natural (racial) order. This then is the tradition from which the scalp hunter emerged; in saying this though, it remains important to reiterate that this is a narrative constructed to explain events, a myth adopted to justify a course of action. This ideology can be found in the scalp hunter lore; John Glanton's career began as a retaliation for the murder of his wife. The scalp hunter's do not necessarily fit neatly into this narrative, but they do play a role in it. Their exploits did reach the East through diem novel interpretations and through newspaper reports. Their actions did not explicitly end in with regeneration, rather they began to transform the Southwest and marked early efforts to subdue the Native American population in that region.