Richard Slotkin

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Richard Slotkin (born 1942) is a cultural critic and historian. He is the Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and in 2010 was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[1] In 1995 he received the Mary C. Turpie Award of the American Studies Association for his contributions to teaching and program-building.[2] Slotkin writes novels alongside his historical research, and uses the process of writing the novels to clarify and refine his historical work.[3]


Slotkin received his BA from Brooklyn College, his MAAE from Wesleyan University and his PhD from Brown University.


Regeneration Through Violence[edit]

In Regeneration Through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Wesleyan University Press, 1973), the first of his trilogy on the mythology of the American West, Slotkin shows how the attitudes and traditions that shape American culture evolved from the social and psychological anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world to claim the land and displace the Native Americans. Using the popular literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries - including captivity narratives, the Daniel Boone tales, and the writings of Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville - Slotkin traces the full development of this myth into a national myth.

The Fatal Environment[edit]

In The Fatal Environment: the myth of the frontier in the age of industrialization, 1800-1890, (Atheneum, 1985) Slotkin demonstrates how the myth of frontier expansion and subjugation of the Indians helped to justify the course of America's rise to wealth and power. Using Custer's Last Stand as a metaphor for what Americans feared might happen if the frontier should be closed and the "savage" element be permitted to dominate the "civilized," Slotkin shows the emergence by 1890 of a myth redefined to help Americans respond to the confusion and strife of industrialization and imperial expansion.

Gunfighter Nation[edit]

In Gunfighter nation: the myth of the frontier in twentieth-century America (Atheneum, 1992), the concluding volume of his highly acclaimed trilogy, Slotkin draws on a wide range of sources to examine the pervasive influence of Wild West myths on American culture and politics. In the third of a three-volume study in the development of the myth of the frontier in US literary, popular, and political culture from the colonial period to the present, Slotkin covers the expression of the frontier myth in such popular culture phenomena as dime novels, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the formula fiction of 1900-40, and the Hollywood film. Covering historiography, Slotkin also discusses the exploration of the significance of the American frontier experience in Theodore Roosevelt's The Winning of the West and Frederick Jackson Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History.

Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality[edit]

“ A work of stunning density and penetrating analysis . . . Lost Battalions deploys a narrative symmetry of gratifying complexity.” — David Levering Lewis, "The Nation" During the bloodiest days of World War I, no soldiers served more valiantly than the African American troops of the 369th Infantry— the fabled Harlem Hellfighters— and the legendary 77th “ lost battalion” composed of New York City immigrants. Though these men had lived up to their side of the bargain as loyal American soldiers, the country to which they returned solidified laws and patterns of social behavior that had stigmatized them as second-class citizens. Richard Slotkin takes the pulse of a nation struggling with social inequality during a decisive historical moment, juxtaposing social commentary with battle scenes that display the bravery and solidarity of these men. Enduring grueling maneuvers, and the loss of so many of their brethren, the soldiers in the lost battalions were forever bound by their wartime experience. Both a riveting combat narrative and a brilliant social history, Lost Battalions delivers a richly detailed account of the fierce fight for equality in the shadow of a foreign war.[4][5]

The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War[edit]

The Crater tells of an incident which took place on July 30, 1864, during the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Union troops dug a 500-foot tunnel under Confederate lines, then used gunpowder to blow a huge crater in their defenses. Even so, the subsequent Union assault against the Confederates failed and the war continued for nearly another nine months. Slotkin creates a literary reenactment of the people and cultures involved in the so-called Battle of the Crater, emphasizing that distinctions of race and class did not end with the Civil War, but continued to be the defining social issue of the subsequent century.

The Return of Henry Starr[edit]

A fictionalized account of Old West outlaw Henry Starr, who was killed in 1921 while attempting to rob a bank. Starr, who was part Cherokee, committed crimes at least in part as a form of vengeance against the white man's taking of Cherokee land. He portrayed himself in an early silent movie.

Our mythologizing of the Old West is the theme of this epic novel about an Oklahoma outlaw who eventually immortalizes his own career in the silent movies. The eponymous hero Henry Starr, half-Cherokee nephew of Belle Starr and grandson of one of the last great Indian leaders, nourishes his imagination on dime novels celebrating the exploits of historic desperados like Jesse James and on tales of the golden age of the Cherokee nation and its defiance of the white man. But, coming of age at the turn-of-the-century, he sees the Cherokees broken in spirit and prey to vindictive government agents and greedy white landowners and bankers. Inspired by his criminal ancestors, his reading and his anger at abuses of the Indian, Starr embarks on a bankrobbing spree that earns him status as a legend. As the story opens, Starr is in prison waiting to be hanged. He is released, though, and many years later, wins fame as the star of a silent-film series based on his criminal career. While imaginatively reliving his past, Starr becomes victim of his own mystique to the point where he ``couldn't see clearly where the made-up parts left off and the life began. Pursued by the ghosts of his past, he resumes his earlier criminal vocation. Historian Slotkin (The Crater) renders sharply observed period detail and speech in a rich, often lyrical prose especially engaging for history buffs. Although slow-moving, this lengthy saga is certainly provocative in the way it explores the siren song of our frontier myths.

Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln[edit]

A work of historical imagination, Abe immerses the reader in the isolating poverty and difficult circumstances that shaped Abraham Lincoln's character.

The novel won the 2000 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.[6]

No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864[edit]

“Having written an earlier novel and now a deeply researched historical narrative of the Battle of the Crater, Richard Slotkin knows more about this vicious and tragic fight than anyone. Particularly impressive is his ability to place tactical details in the larger military, political and racial context of the Civil War. The analysis of the role of black soldiers in the battle is the best such account anywhere.”—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning author and George Henry Davis1886 Professor Emeritus of American History at Princeton University

“In this harrowing, clear-eyed account of the battle U.S. Grant himself called ‘the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war,’ Richard Slotkin vividly evokes the brutal reality of Civil War combat–and recaptures the crucial role played by race in creating the Battle of the Crater’s special fury.”—Geoffrey C. Ward, author of The Civil War and The War: An Intimate History, 1941—1945