Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Frost, Kennedy, and the Frontier Myth
February 11, 2011
by Alex Young
When I read my friend Aaron Belz’s essay on Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inaugural, I dashed off an email to him objecting to his conclusion that Frost’s reading of “The Gift Outright” represented an example of how, in Kennedy’s words, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.”
For me, this moment represented a rather more troubling alignment of Cold War-era political ambition and literary imagination. Frost’s poem, for all its formal beauty, presents a whitewashed history of the United States, a story of how Anglo-Americans, through a history of possession (“the land was ours before we were the land’s”) and warfare (“the deed of gift was many deeds of war”) came to see themselves as native to the land they settled.
While the idea that American history can be explained by a story about Anglos pressing nobly westward into a virgin wilderness has largely been debunked by historians—we now understand that America was not exactly “unstoried, artless, unenhanced”—the frontier myth maintained a powerful hold on Cold War culture.
Kennedy had evoked the same myth a year earlier in Los Angeles, in his acceptance of the Democratic nomination:
I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their own lives to build a new world here in the West….They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.
In this speech, tellingly titled “New Frontiers,” the future president was not simply teaching a history lesson but issuing a call to arms: he was asking Americans to see the duty of conquering “enemies that threatened from without and within” in the Cold War as a national imperative analogous to that of “Manifest Destiny.” He called Americans to “new frontiers” where Americans must face down the threat of “the single-minded advance of the Communist system.” It is this political rhetoric that later resonated through Frost’s recitation of “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inaugural.
While America’s frontier myth served as a narrative context for America’s military mobilization during the Cold War—a mobilization that left behind a legacy of oppression in the developing world, the effects of which are demonstrated in Egypt today—there is also a sense in which the frontier rhetoric present in both Kennedy’s speech and Frost’s poem also, as Belz implies, served to limit power.
The “New Frontiers” speech linked the frontier myth to the struggle against the Soviets, but also with struggles against oppression at home: “the new frontier is here…Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” For Kennedy, as well as for many political and literary writers of his time, the frontier symbolized the barriers of race and class that so many Americans were fighting to transcend. It was this frontier that Barack Obama invoked when he mentioned “pioneers who pushed westward into an unforgiving wilderness” in his famous “Yes We Can” speech three years ago.
Robert Frost’s reading at Kennedy’s inaugural singularly dramatized the encounter between the poetic and the political in American life, and I think an honest interpretation of this moment requires an acknowledgment that Belz and I (in my initial reaction) were both, in some sense, right. “The Gift Outright” participates in a tradition of American rhetoric that has lent us the hubris to commit some of our most misguided acts of imperial violence, but that has also given us the will to succeed in some of our most inspiring acts of emancipatory struggle.
Alex Young is a writer who is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California where he holds a Provost’s Fellowship in English, and is currently working as a research assistant for the Huntington Library-USC Institute for the Study of California and The West. He is working on a dissertation on the use of frontier rhetoric in American literature during the Cold War.
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