YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 7, 2014

Herman Melville on the [materialist, solitary] “backwoodsman”

possumMelville’s chapters on “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” in The Confidence-Man (1857) are often cited to defend multiculturalism and to instill liberal guilt for the fate of “les pauvres Peaux-Rouges.” This is a typical error of ideologues who rip pages out of context to appropriate an eminent writer to their cause du jour.

Not long ago, I wrote about Sydney Ahlstrom’s influential history of religion in America, pointing out that the frontiersman was his bête noir, “the anti-intellectual” bad boy of US history. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/.) But see how Melville (speaking through the skeptical Man from Missouri/”Coonskins”) describes this same archetype: the frontiersman’s sin is primarily a deficiency of deference to his betters, a mood Melville might embrace or reject:

“The backwoodsman is a lonely man. He is a thoughtful man. He is a man strong and unsophisticated. Impulsive, he is what some might call unprincipled. At any rate, he is self-willed; being one who less hearkens to what others may say about things, than looks for himself, to see what are things themselves. If in straits, there are few to help; he must depend on himself; he must continually look to himself. Hence self-reliance, to the degree of standing by his own judgment, though it stands alone. Not that he deems himself infallible; too many mistakes in following trails prove the contrary; but he thinks that nature destines such sagacity as she has given him, as she destines it to the ‘possum. To these fellow-beings of the wilds their untutored sagacity is their best dependence. If with either it prove faulty, if the ‘possums betray it to the trap, or the backwoodsman’s mislead him into ambuscade, there are consequences to be undergone, but no self-blame. As with the ‘possum, instincts prevail with the backwoodsman over precepts. Like the ‘possum, the backwoodsman presents the spectacle of a creature dwelling exclusively among the works of God, yet these, truth must confess, breed little in him of a godly mind. Small bowing and scraping is his, further than when with bent knee he points his rifle, or picks its flint. With few companions, solitude by necessity his lengthened lot, he stands the trial—no slight one, since, next to dying, solitude, rightly borne, is perhaps of fortitude the most rigorous test.

…Whatever the nation’s growing opulence or power, does it not lackey his heels? Pathfinder, provider of security to those who come after him, for himself he asks nothing but hardship. Worthy to be compared with Moses in the Exodus….he rides upon advance, as the Polynesian upon the comb of the surf.” (Chapter XXVI)

Herman Melville went back and forth on the American mission, sometimes lauding his countrymen as the Chosen People, sometimes criticizing them as reckless killers–hence the wild divergences of interpretation as to his politics. But in the case of the backwoodsman, quoted above, I have no doubt that deference to illegitimate authority was ever Melville’s overwhelming concern. He may have had discovery anxiety, but in the end, he pushed through it, “Ishmael” may have survived, but “Ahab” kept returning to unmask the confidence-men. No wonder Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson, in their private notes, accused him of being a Jew or Hebraic.

CMcover

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2 Comments »

  1. […] I have already compiled a list of turning points for the ascent/decline of “the West” here: https://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/. But the purpose of this blog is to suggest a counter-narrative for American history, warts and all. The goal is to find an approach to US history that will not leave students or your home-schooled child adrift with lifeboats offering only tendentious accounts of US history, and offering either idealized or demonized versions of the American past. (For a patriotic account by “America’s greatest writer” see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/, or try this more recent one: https://clarespark.com/2014/02/07/herman-melville-on-the-materialist-solitary-backwoodsman/.) […]

    Pingback by “American exceptionalism” retold | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 7, 2014 @ 10:06 pm | Reply


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