Walter Webb’s great quality was a sort of massive and inexorable common sense. In this respect he was something like Charles Darwin. And it was this quality that finally led him, when he was almost an old man, to write what I think is likely to prove the most important book written anywhere in the world during this century. This was The Great Frontier. I knew Mr. Walter for almost forty years. But he had other friends who knew him better and longer. If nobody minds, I should prefer to use this space to write about that one book and the effect it had on my own thinking rather than about Mr. Walter himself: It is worth remarking that the three friends so often called the triumvirate Webb, Bedichek, and Dobiewere all clearer thinkers and sounder artists as they grew older. That is unusual in our country and in our century. Most American artists, and the novelists in particular, commit themselves to certain views and attitudes before they reach thirty. Then they never outgrow those views. They are much like the Mexican axolotl, who matures enough to reproduce his kind but never enough to grow out of the tadpole stage. In The Great Frontier Webb addressed himself to the grand and terrible theme of our times, to the theme that under varied aspects so fascinated Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee and even, for that matter, H. G. Wells. What really made the western world what it is? How was it that the petty and insignificant kingdoms of Western Europe almost beneath the contempt of the Ottoman Turkpeopled by men so poor, dirty, and ignorant that they took Marco Polo for a liar when he came home to tell about the magnificent court of Kublai Khan how did these fellows ever manage to set forth and plunder the world? And all the more especially, how did it happen, after technology had been nearly at a standstill for something like three thousand years, that the Western Europeans began that astonishing career in the physical sciences that brought us steamships, electric lights, airplanes, spacecraft, and nuclear bombs, so that now we wallow in our own riches and tremble at the deadliness of our own weapons? So that now we are astonished and out-raged when those peoples of a different complexion, whom our plundering forefathers somehow forgot to annihilate, suddenly come forth demanding a share both in the riches and in the knowledge of the techniques. The Tasmanians and the Karankawas Hubert Mewhinney is a Houston newspaperman and columnist. He wrote A Manual for Neanderthals \(University of Texas are gone. But the Chinamen are very much with us. WE ARE TAUGHT in high school, although none too clearly or explicitly, that Western Europe did not amount to much until Henry the Navigator came along in the middle fourteen hundreds and started sending out expeditions to reconnoiter the coast of Africa and look for a way to the East. Webb set out to clarify the matter. He had been influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous paper about the influence of the frontier on American history. He had been prepared by years of studying the frontier, especially of studying the effects of inventions so simple as that of barbed wire. That is to say, like Darwin, he was not offering a theory that nobody had ever thought of before; he was systematically arranging the arguments for the theory or perhaps even the proofs. He contended that it was the white man’s looting and plundering of the frontiersof the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the ancient kingdoms of the Eastthat really created the modern world; that brought on the sudden acceleration in technology, in the study of the physical sciences, and even in literature; that but for Columbus and Vasco da Gama there might never have been a Shakespeare or even an Einstein. That is, it was simply the lootgold, silver, fish, furs, ship timber, sugar, chocolate, tobaccothat furnished the capital for the fantastic development of Western Europe in learning, science, and inventions; that for a few centuries made those petty peoples the lords of the earth; that led Kipling to write such nonsensical and pharisaical admonitions as Take up the white man’s burden. One may reflect sardonically that if there had been no plundering of the -frontiers there would have been no Industrial Revolution, no Marx, and no Stalin. All this from Webb, basically simple as it is, is far more convincing than Spengler’s hypothesis that the major cultures grow, flourish, and decay as inevitably as the individual organism, like so many rosebushes or cockleburrs; more convincing than Toynbee’s ideas of challenge and response. DON BROWN Sun Life of Canada Houston, Texas CA 4-0686 For the sudden technological flowering of Western Europe was quite unlike anything that ever happened in Egypt, or Mesopotamia, or Greece. When Henry the Navigator came along, the techniques and the sciences had been at a standstill, or worse, for many centuries. Remember that Phoenician seamen in the service of Pharaoh Necho had actually circumnavigated Africa two thousand years earlier, about 600 B.C. Eratosthenes had measured the circumference of the earth quite accurately about 200 B.C. There had been palaces in Egypt, in Babylon, in Crete, and in Nero’s Rome larger and more magnificent than anything standing in Europe in the times of Prince Henry. The very Aztecs had botanical and zoological gardens long before any such thing was thought of in Madrid. Prince Henry’s men had only one item of technology that really worked. That was the sailing ship. And it worked none too well. Remember that Pharaoh Necho’s men circumnavigated Africa on their first and only attempt. It took Prince Henry’s captains years of trying. Prince Henry’s men knew the use of gunpowder but the arquebus was a less efficient weapon than the crossbow. Not even the flintlock had been invented yet. There was not a telescope anywhere in Europe. There was not a watch that would keep time. The peasants tilled their fields with much the same sort of wooden plow that had been used in Neolithic Egypt. There was not an electric light, a kerosene lantern, or even a whale oil lamp. The rich had torches. The poor had the light of the hearth. The roads were far worse than in Roman times. The rich went on horseback. The poor walked through the mud. THERE ACTUALLY MUST be some kind of determinism or inevitability in mankind’s affairs, whether it is the kind suggested by Webb, or by Spengler, or by Toynbee, or even by those Nineteenth Century socialists whose doctrines are now most familiar in the version offered by Karl Marx. For it is at last becoming plainand more so from what the prehistorians rather than the historians have learned in the past centurythat certain advances or at least certain changes occur in techniques, sciences, arts, modes of thought, July 26, 1963 13 GLENDALE FUNERAL HOME 1015 Federal Road Houston 15 Phone: GL 3-6373 We Honor All Burial Insurance Ed R. WatsonPresident The Great Frontier Hubert Mewhinney
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