From Wilderness to Environment: The Role of ‘Nature’ in Western American History from Frederick Jackson Turner to Donald Worster and the New Western History
This dissertation examines the role of ‘nature’ as an analytic concept in Western American History from the emergence of the field at the end of the nineteenth century to the formation of the New Western History in the late 1980s. Starting with an analysis of Frederick Jackson Turner’s concept of t...
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|This dissertation examines the role of ‘nature’ as an analytic concept in Western American History from the emergence of the field at the end of the nineteenth century to the formation of the New Western History in the late 1980s. Starting with an analysis of Frederick Jackson Turner’s concept of the ‘wilderness’ in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in 1893, the dissertation traces the evolution of Western American History throughout the twentieth century and outlines how especially the emergence of environmental history as a new academic discipline in the 1970s decisively influenced the development of the field after World War II. Whereas traditional frontier historiography had relied fundamentally on the mythic concept of the ‘wilderness,’ environmental historians introduced the ‘environment’ as a new analytic category to Western American History in order to critically re-examine Americans’ relationship with nature, highlighting especially the negative impact of American capitalism on the continent’s environment. As the dissertation shows, American environmental historians of the 1970s and 1980s thus prepared the way for a more general revision of Western American History as promoted by the New Western Historians during the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Analyzing the work of environmental historian Donald Worster as an emblematic case study in the second half of the dissertation, the prominent role environmental historians play in contemporary Western American History is illustrated. Offering a close examination of Worster’s environmental theory of American capitalism, more specifically Worster’s ‘mode of production’ analysis of Western American society, the dissertation finally examines Worster’s concept of ‘nature’ as a linear, orderly entity that is fundamentally at odds with the leading paradigms of both contemporary ecological paradigms as well as postmodern theory.