Thursday, December 30, 2004

Richard Slotkin’s
Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier

How in the hell someone locates the intense detail Slotkin found for this book, I’ll never know. It is as though he revisited the spores of moss on the north side of a tree in 1742 to give us a picture of the sentiment of a certain obscure writer who was trying to capture the feeling of America at the time. It’s a better book than the title makes it seem, though. The general premise—or maybe it’s more accurate to say one of the general premises in this complex tome—is that the Indian captivity narratives helped to create the literature of America and influenced the form of later works.

Slotkin’s ideas rely heavily on myth and symbol, and he begins with the warrant that the “mythology of a nation is the intelligible mask of that enigma called the ‘national character’” (3). Even so, he admits that in America “attitudes toward the idea of a national mythology have been peculiarly ambivalent,” perhaps as a result of the “utopian ideals” of some of the colonists who settled in New England originally (3). I think what he’s getting at is that there hasn’t been a real unified national myth here ever, since so many different voices have been here, so many different utopias represented all at once. Nonetheless, many different groups came here with the idea of starting a new and perfect society. (So much for the criticism that the myth and symbol critics don’t allow for a pluralistic society.)

The specific problem with studying the mythology of America is that certain impossibilities arise with their being any true mythology at all. Slotkin says that it would be reasonable to question whether the myths were truly American at all. Since, obviously, the first real Americans were Indians, their mythologies were their own. So, Slotkin wonders, did they just “Indianize” the European myths? Or did the American mythology just arise from an anglicizing of the new culture? Another problem is that this new culture came about after the invention of the printing press. However, myths come from oral traditions. So when we look at the folklore of America, many times we see invented myths that come from hack writers for quick publication. Finally, says Slotkin, a problem common to the study of myth in any culture is to define it and distinguish “between archetypal myth, folk legends, and artistic mythopoesis” (6). These, he says, are necessary distinctions, before any real study happens.

This discussion of mythology leads specifically to Slotkin’s broad thesis that “the myth of the heroic quest” is “perhaps the most important archetype underlying American cultural mythology” (10). This myth, you may wish to be reminded, is the one in which the hero leaves his everyday activities “to seek the power of the gods in the underworld, the eternal kingdom of death and dreams from which all men emerge” (10). Oftentimes this hero’s quest has to do with a coming-of-age rite of masculinity and these myths are common to most cultures—Slotkin cites as examples the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc. (11). Eventually, though, we begin to see how the universality of this myth connects with the wilderness and Indian narratives of the colonists.

In the second chapter, “Cannibals and Christians,” Slotkin discusses whether or not people are shaped by the land where they live. This might be especially useful for my argument about place and twentieth and twenty-first century comedians. Slotkin says:
Human cultures on the North American continent, whether they were of European or Indian origin, have been shaped by the interaction of the migrant peoples with the American landscape, the wilderness. The one constant in the American environment has been the wilderness in its varying forms of forest, plain, mountain, and desert. [...] As the American environment was the same for each of the these cultures, one might reasonably expect that in the process of adjusting their lives to the wilderness, each these cultures would acquire certain elements or qualities distinctly derived from and suited to that environment. Differences between them might be accounted for by considering their differing points of cultural and historical origin. (26).
So that’s a pretty important statement. To illustrate, he says that the colonists would see “chaos” in the wilderness, whereas the Indians would see “order” and “a kindred intelligence in all things” (27). On the one hand, he says that people and cultures are shaped by the land where they lived, but on the other hand, the cultures of the people themselves determine their responses and reactions to the land where they live. The equation is two-way, rather than a causal one that determines the other. It’s nonetheless important point of consideration for anyone who is interested in place.

Slotkin goes on, then, to deal with examples of the heroic quest in American literature through history. So “the Puritan model of the heroic quest,” he says, is best typified in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He notes that the hero in stories like these are “fleeing in solitude from sin-begotten humanity” and that “[a]ctual landscapes are less important than the landscapes of the mind” in such stories (39).

Another era in the history of American literature deals with Indian War Narratives (at least their beginning. Indians, says Slotkin, became associated with the “Spirit of Place” of America—along with fears that they were cannibals or devils (66). Generally, the literature of the time was meant to educate or discourage readers from sinning. The Puritans believed themselves to be the new Israelites, God’s chosen people in the wilderness of the promised land.

The Calvinists also saw the wilderness as a “metaphor for the human mind. Both were dark, with hidden possibilities for good and evil. Through the darkness the Indians flitted like the secret enemy of Christ or like the evil thoughts that plague the mind on the edge of consciousness. Like the devil, Indians struck where the defenses of good were weakest and, having done their deed, retreated to hiding” (77).

And in true Calvinist form, Increase Mather wrote of the Indian Wars that they were the result of “New England’s ‘back-sliding’” (83). So there was definitely a corrective purpose to the literature. The clergy also saw the corrective potential of the captivity narratives when the first ones were published. Extremely popular, they were “the first coherent myth-literature developed in America for American audiences” (95). They were best sellers of the time. Other literature began to imitate the sensationalistic style—for example Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” used similar rhetoric to Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (103).

The Rowlandson narrative itself becomes a kind of archetype (108). “Once in the wilderness condition, the captive is figuratively in hell” (109). The soul’s “regeneration” begins with this “separation, a perception of the distance one has fallen from grace” (thus, evidently the title of the book). So then, the struggle is to make “progress” in captivity “’twenty removes’ from civilization and Christianity” (109). Then, “the return and restoration of the God-wounded sinner marks the conclusion of the captivity,” but “he is restored to his old life with newly opened eyes” (110-111).

Slotkin next discusses in “A Palisade of Language” how the mythology arose around the Indians that they had special powers. Since they seemed able to survive in such difficult circumstances, the settlers had ideas that they had special powers. So for example, some sailor threw an Indian chief’s infant son in a river to see if he knew how to swim instinctually (118-119). But now that they had decided to fight the Indians, they had not only the nature to fear but also the Indians as well. In their horrific fear of the Indians as devils, they began to behave in the way they feared the Indians would (142).

Really, from there we move from the captivity narrative to developing more of a hero of the Indian, world-wide. It helps that the English start writing about the Indian as a hero. Slotkin later goes on to discuss the yeoman farmer; he becomes the heroized frontier American. Later, it is the cowboy of the dime novel. I would go on at length here with support, but I need to spend more time reading than writing, since the semester is dwindling away. This is a good

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