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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
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- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Looking back over the course of American history, Turner concluded that the presence of unexplored land--"free land," as he termed it--gave a unique dynamism to American culture. For Turner, the frontier was "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." Ever since Turner made this famous pronouncement, Americans have been debating the definition and significance of the "frontier." As many scholars have pointed out, "frontier" is a term used by conquerors. It masks a reality of imperial invasion and colonialism under a veil of innocence and exceptionalism. That is, the idea of "free land" does not take into account the many other peoples who were displaced--sometimes violently--to make way for European-American expansion. As historian Patricia Nelson Limerick puts it, "the term 'frontier' blurs the fact of conquest."

To combat this problem, scholars have suggested other ways of thinking about the lands and historical events we have traditionally associated with the "frontier." Along these lines, we might think of the frontier as a permeable zone where distinct cultures struggle and mix, or as a space of contact and contest among diverse groups. The Spanish word "la frontera," which describes the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, is perhaps a more useful term than "frontier." Because the concept of a border does not contain a fantasy of "free land" or uninhabited space, it is a more realistic way to describe a place where cultures meet and where trade, violence, and cultural exchange shape a variety of individual experiences.

Whatever term we adopt, there are no simple ways to define or conceptualize nineteenth-century American expansion, a problem faced by all of the writers featured in Unit 5, "Masculine Heroes: American Expansion, 1820-1900." As they recorded and commented on the difficult issues that arose as European-Americans moved west and north, the writers in Unit 5 also struggled with related issues of gender and race and their role in the formation of American identity. This unit explores representations of gender and American expansion in a wide variety of nineteenth-century works, including the musical corridos that developed in the southwestern borderlands and texts composed by James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the Cherokee Memorialists, Caroline Stansbury Kirkland, John Rollin Ridge, Louise Amelia Smith Clappe, Walt Whitman, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, and Nat Love. By focusing on these diverse authors, Unit 5 also traces the geographic movement of Anglo-American expansion, from the push into upstate New York and the "northwest territories" of Illinois and Ohio, to the colonization of California. Unit 5 provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers both celebrated and challenged American ideals of masculinity and expansion. The video for Unit 5 focuses on three influential creators of masculine heroes: James Fenimore Cooper, John Rollin Ridge, and Walt Whitman. Cooper wrote the Leather-Stocking Tales about Natty Bumppo, a man who lives on the border between Native American and white culture and articulates tensions between "civilization" and "nature." John Rollin Ridge voiced his outrage at the atrocities committed by white Americans in California with his tale of the Mexican outlaw hero Joaquin Murieta. More sanguine about expansion, Walt Whitman used his innovative free-verse poetry to glorify the vastness of America's territories while adopting a tolerant, inclusive attitude toward all of its diverse inhabitants and to celebrate the poet as American hero. All of these writers created innovative literary styles and enduring themes that continue to influence American ideas about land, gender, and race.

In its coverage of these writers and texts, the video for Unit 5 introduces students to the complexities of the concept of the "frontier" and foregrounds the relationship between expansion and constructions of masculinity. How do these texts represent the violence and exploitation that were part of American expansion? How do they figure the expulsion of indigenous people from their traditional lands? How do they reconcile American ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom with the reality of conquest? How does race intersect with gender in the formation of American identity? What new literary forms emerge from the tensions of representing American expansion? Unit 5 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video's introduction to territorial expansion and gender by exploring writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as the Cherokee Memorialists (who protested the federal government's decision to move them off their traditional homelands), Louise Clappe (a woman who lived in the predominantly male community of a Gold Rush camp), and Nat Love (an African American cowboy).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) the transcontinental railroad and "Manifest Destiny"; (2) the California Gold Rush as a site of cultural exchange and conflict; (3) the social identity of the bachelor; (4) the use of American flag imagery in Native American Art; and (5) the aesthetic developed by the Hudson River School landscape painters.

The archive and the curriculum materials in Unit 5 suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have American concepts of masculinity and heroism evolved over time? How have nineteenth-century ideas about landscape shaped contemporary aesthetics? How did Walt Whitman's development of free verse influence modern American poetry? How did the historical novel shape subsequent literary traditions? How have American ideas about the relationship between humans and their natural environment changed over time? How have notions of the "frontier" shaped American culture and politics?

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