Max Weber’s Odyssey: The Wild West, the Frontier, and the Capitalist Spirit

David Norman Smith

Abstract


This article examines one aspect of Weber’s thinking with respect to the United States:  his view of frontier regions as new horizons for capitalism.  This was not an incidental or side issue for Weber, whose famed analysis of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was only half-finished when he traveled through the United States in 1904.  Nor is Weber’s outlook on this topic immaterial for contemporary historians, many of whom now affirm quasi-Weberian views under such rubrics as “the New Western” history.A full account of Weber’s notion of the frontier would exceed the limits of a journal article, but we can highlight key points by recalling Max and Marianne Weber’s trek across the territorial United States in 1904.  This journey is fairly well known, thanks to several sources – Marianne’s memoirsMax’s essay on “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1906), and recent studies by Bärbel Meurer, Lawrence Scaff, Hans Rollman, and Guenther Roth. But the substance of what they learned on this journey has not yet been very fully integrated into the broader literature on either of them.Max Weber was, briefly, a wayfaring stranger in Mark Twain’s America.  And his account of what he saw there sheds light on themes familiar from other writers of the period – notably, that America in the “gilded age” was a “jungle” of industry and greed, of railroads and robber barons, in which, even in the realm of faith, capitalism left an indelible imprint.


Keywords


Capitalism, Weber, Sociological Theory; United States; Frontier

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References


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.32855/fcapital.201902.009

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