Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation

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“A vigorously written meditation on . . . America’s encounter with the wilderness.” —The Wall Street Journal

In the summer of 1823, a grizzly bear mauled mountain man Hugh Glass in present-day South Dakota. The animal ripped the trapper up, carving huge hunks from his body. Glass’s companions slew the bear, but his injuries mocked their first aid. Two men would stay behind to bury the corpse when it finally stopped gurgling; the rest would move on. Alone in Indian country, ...

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Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation

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“A vigorously written meditation on . . . America’s encounter with the wilderness.” —The Wall Street Journal

In the summer of 1823, a grizzly bear mauled mountain man Hugh Glass in present-day South Dakota. The animal ripped the trapper up, carving huge hunks from his body. Glass’s companions slew the bear, but his injuries mocked their first aid. Two men would stay behind to bury the corpse when it finally stopped gurgling; the rest would move on. Alone in Indian country, the caretakers quickly lost their nerve. They fled, taking Glass’s gun, knife, and ammunition with them. But Glass wouldn’t die. He began crawling toward Fort Kiowa, hundreds of miles to the east, and as his speed picked up, so did his ire. The bastards who took his gear and left him to rot were going to pay.

     Here Lies Hugh Glass springs from this legend. The acclaimed historian Jon T. Coleman delves into the accounts left by Glass’s contemporaries and the mythologizers who used his story to advance their literary and filmmaking careers. A spectacle of grit in the face of overwhelming odds, Glass sold copy and tickets. But he did much more. Through him, the grievances and frustrations of hired hunters in the early American West bled into the narrative of the nation. A marginal player who nonetheless sheds light on the terrifying drama of life on the frontier, Glass endures as a consummate survivor and a complex example of American manhood. Here Lies Hugh Glass, a vivid, often humorous portrait of a young nation and its growing pains, is a Western history like no other.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] vigorously written meditation on 19th-century America’s encounter with the wilderness.” —Michael J. Ybarra, The Wall Street Journal

“Richly told . . . [Coleman] masterfully mines what scant life poor Glass left behind (one letter to the parents of a companion killed by the Arikara Indians) to argue convincingly that the bear attack story is one of the contributing factors in how Americans have come to think of themselves.” —Stephen J. Lyons, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[Coleman’s] writing is certainly audacious, not just in his colorful language . . . but also in his willingness to discard traditional disciplinary boundaries and in his exuberant mixing of history, folklore, literature, popular culture, and the natural sciences.” —Nathan E. Bender, Library Journal

“[Coleman] shines a pure light on the actual conditions of the working man in the American West, on the fundamental relation between men, animals, and Native Americans, and on the many rascals and scamps, not to mention confidence men and counterfeiters, who are the real source of our greatest national myths.” —Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle

“In this harrowing and beautifully written book, Jon T. Coleman shows us how backwoods workers experienced a West that left them scarred and mutilated. These are the raw (and bloody) materials for America’s tall tales, epic boasts, dime novels, and Wild West medicine shows.” Scott Nelson, Legum Professor of History, College of William & Mary

“Almost killed by a grizzly, almost erased by the passage of time, Hugh Glass is resurrected by Jon T. Coleman in this wise and witty book. The American encounter with the dangers of the natural world will never look quite the same again.” Karl Jacoby, Professor of History, Brown University

“Jon T. Coleman steers the horrendous story of Hugh Glass through the frontier writer James Hall, Herman Melville’s ubiquitous Confidence Man, modern-day survivalism, advertisements for runaways, Richard Henry Dana, Henry David Thoreau, the social lives of grizzly bears, Timothy Flint, Davy Crockett, transnationality, a workingman’s history of the fur trade, and much more as he uncovers and adds to Americans’ long and unfinished conversation about the West. Some readers will disagree with him, but all of them will have a good time.” Paul E. Johnson, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, University of South Carolina

“Chomp on Jon T. Coleman’s Here Lies Hugh Glass, but beware: it may bite back. The book is a dazzling meditation on men as meat and how we cook up history. Even if you cannot swallow the bear whole, Coleman serves up fricasseed fabulists, the remains of a gnarly mountain man to gnaw on, and a literary feast to digest. Enjoy.” Thomas P. Slaughter, Arthur R. Miller Professor of History, University of Rochester

“This fascinating, wonderfully written book makes you think and makes you laugh. Jon T. Coleman tracks the many tales and few facts that surround the legend of Hugh Glass, whose improbable survival and quest for revenge crawls off the page and stays in your head.” Clyde A. Milner II, coauthor of As Big as the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart and coeditor of The Oxford History of the American West

Library Journal
Coleman (history, Univ. of Notre Dame; Vicious: Men and Wolves in America) was attracted to legendary mountain man Hugh Glass (c.1780–1833) because of the sensational story of his 1823 mauling by a grizzly bear—he allegedly crawled to safety and swore revenge on those who had left him for dead—coupled with the dearth of hard documentary resources on the man. In this nontraditional biography, Coleman presents the social, cultural, and natural environments of the Western frontier as an integral part of the narrative, thus offering a study of the American West as seen through the prism of, yes, Glass. Coleman terms his approach "environmental Americanism" and considers Glass an example of an American environmentalist whose body was sculpted and scarred in the same way as the Western landscape. VERDICT Coleman writes for academics yet prides himself on being "fun, sly, challenging, and artful." His writing is certainly audacious, not just in his colorful language (e.g., he views cultured frontier gunfighter Doc Holliday as a "mongrel mutant") but also in his willingness to discard traditional disciplinary boundaries and in his exuberant mixing of history, folklore, literature, popular culture, and the natural sciences. Highly recommended for academic libraries and readers of modern Western history.—Nathan E. Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews
An inadvertent American archetype comes in for thoughtful consideration in the hands of Coleman (History/Notre Dame Univ.; Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, 2004). Hugh Glass had no idea he'd be a figure in the history books. A sort of entry-level mountain man in the early days of American exploration in the West, he "approached grizzly bears and bosses with the same disreputable grin." One of those grizzly bears mutilated him so badly that it was highly unlikely he would survive. Andrew Henry, his boss on a trapping expedition along the Missouri River, left two men to bury Glass. The two men fled when a party of Indians approached, but Glass didn't die. Instead, he crawled and hobbled for 38 days eastward to the nearest American outpost, swearing to avenge himself on the men who had abandoned him. Richard Harris did a fine job as a wronged man based on Glass in the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness, which figures at turns in Coleman's vigorous narrative. But Glass, writes the author, turns up in countless other places in the larger story of the American West, an illustration of his staying power as a symbol of an ordinary guy who "merely endured." It's not exactly news that the history of the West is peppered with myth and legend spun out precisely to convince other ordinary guys to enter into the dangerous business of taming the frontier. Coleman doesn't pretend otherwise, instead picking apart the tale of Glass to determine what can be called factual with any confidence. The answer is--well, perhaps not much, though, as Coleman wisely notes, "[t]he truth of these stories matters less than their coincidences." Good storytelling matched with appropriate historical skepticism--a useful model for examining other 10-gallon yarns of westward expansion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809054381
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/14/2013
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 716,989
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jon T. Coleman is a professor of American history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, which won the W. Turrentine Jackson Prize and the John H. Dunning Prize.

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Read an Excerpt

Hugh Glass strode into history upright and proud, a skilled gunman answering a want ad that promised adventure. Or he staggered into view, drunk, smelling like befouled dog. Either entrance works.
In the winter of 1823, Glass answered William Ashley’s call for one hundred men to travel to the Rocky Mountains. Ashley placed an ad in the St. Louis newspapers and sent recruiters into the city’s “grog shops and other sinks of degredation.” Like most turning points in Glass’s life, this one frustrates clear description. There’s no person here—no brain to weigh options; no spirit to desire money, fame, or a change of scenery; not even a stomach to fill with pork and whiskey. The news of the expedition reached Glass; he joined.1
His absence from the written record confirmed his status as a regular guy. Ordinariness hid him in the crowd of working-class males who farmed, mined, boated, hunted, and soldiered along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the early nineteenth century. These men washed onto the docks in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans looking for wages and entertainment. Sometimes they drank too much and gouged out each other’s eyes, but in general they led lives of unremarkable toil.
Except that’s not exactly true. The workers of the Mississippi drainage inspired plenty of words. People noted their behavior and especially their bodies. Some heard and retold their stories. Yet all this print, while bountiful, said little about the interior life of individual persons. Two sorts of writers described the West’s laboring population; they both snatched workers’ bodies for their own purposes, neither caring overmuch about the psychology of their subjects. The first, the semiprofessionals, seized upon western working males to sell copy back East. These literati had a taste for boatmen and backwoodsmen, and they often turned them into dumb, violent, and gleeful stereotypes. The second group of authors encouraged readers to actually nab working bodies. The composers of runaway advertisements, court documents, arrest warrants, and public warnings detailed the physical appearance, the behavioral quirks, even the speech patterns of some laborers. With divergent audiences and goals, these authors crafted a literature that split workers in two: they jettisoned personality in favor of metaphysics and physiques.
The semiprofessionals transported workers into the realm of abstraction where they became hollowed-out regional types, masculine icons, and racial metaphors addressing such heady concerns as nationalism, truth, faith, charity, and reason. The subscribers for runaway ads undercut the personhood of laborers in the opposite direction. They stuck to the physical, describing scars, skin color, haircuts, and crippling injuries. Neither type of author gives me what I want: the opinions and motivations of one worker, a hunter named Hugh Glass. But their words are all that’s left of the men and women of his class, the grog-shop compatriots with whom he shared his life. And the words we are left with underscore the problems, the confusion, and the unrest the laboring classes created for their masters, employers, and would-be chroniclers. The snatchers did not descend on these people because they were easy marks. On the contrary, it was the workers’ unruliness—their tendency to run away, assume false identities, fib, and make fun of their superiors—that made them the targets of literature.
*   *   *
The authors William Ashley and James Clyman stood closest to Glass in the months before he embarked for the West. Ashley composed the words that attracted his labor, while Clyman described the social timber of the men who responded to the ad, headlined “For the Rocky Mountains.”2
The year before, in 1822, Ashley crafted a differently worded advertisement for the St. Louis newspapers. Instead of a geographic location—the Rockies—this one opened with a reference to character:
TO Enterprising Young Men The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.—For particulars enquire of Major Andrew Henry, near the Lead Mines, in the County Washington, (who will ascend with, and command the party) or to the subscriber at St. Louis.
Wm. H. Ashley3
“Enterprising Young Men.” The phrase exuded optimism, action, and reward. It captured the democratic zest of territorial expansion in Jacksonian America. In the West, vigorous youths could seize the wealth and stature denied them in the East, where rich and powerful men clogged cities like Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Farther west, in unplanted space, little men could still grow big with enough enterprise.
The 1822 advertisement attracted several historic employees, Jedediah Smith, Mike Fink, and Jim Bridger among them, and, years later, it drew the attention of several historians. The ad surfaced in biographies of mountain men as well as studies of St. Louis and the fur trade. Historians zeroed in on the idea of “enterprise.” To many, the phrase unlocked the trappers, revealing their place in early-nineteenth-century America. As young men of enterprise, they typified rather than defied their times. However oddly dressed in animal skins, they sought money, titles, property, political appointments, loving wives, and manly reputations. They were small businessmen, bourgeois capitalists, more like store clerks and stockbrokers than white savages.4
A convincing argument. But then why did Ashley drop such an appropriate and telling phrase when he wrote the 1823 ad that attracted Glass? The “For the Rocky Mountains” notice made no mention of youthful go-getters. Instead of “Enterprising Young Men,” Ashley simply wanted “hunters.” The shift in terminology may have reflected the lessons he had learned during his inaugural year in the fur trade. The previous spring, he and Henry lost ten thousand dollars’ worth of trade goods and supplies when a tree branch sank their keelboat. The craft was named the Enterprize, and its loss hurt. Ashley needed to round up another hundred men in 1823 so that he could reverse their fortunes. Given his straits, the word “enterprise” may have depressed rather than buoyed the general. It no longer suited the business of killing animals for their pelts in the Rocky Mountains.
His word choice may have reflected other lessons as well. In 1823, Ashley knew his labor pool better than he had the year before, and experience may have taught him that “hunter” would attract more employees than “Enterprising Young Men.” The chance to shoot animals ranked high in Jedediah Smith’s reasons for joining Ashley in 1822. He wrote in his journal that he engaged “to go … as a hunter,” and as the party worked its way up the Missouri, Smith was pleased that Ashley “kept [him] constantly hunting to which I was no means averse.” Tracking game freed Smith from the “dull monotony” of moving the boats upriver and “enabled [him] to enjoy the full novelty of the scene.”5
The idea of hiring St. Louis men to hunt was largely untested, mainly because the United States government barred Americans from hunting in Indian territories. Prior to Ashley, Manuel Lisa tested (and violated) the law; he contracted and transported workers up the Missouri to trap, but most fur trade outfits continued to acquire their hides from Indian hunters. Thomas Hempstead, the managing partner of the rival Missouri Fur Company, didn’t think highly of Ashley’s plan. He watched Ashley’s party leave St. Louis in 1822. The men appeared “untried and of evry description and nation.” They looked disorderly, and Hempstead predicted that they would “leave in a mass” once they reached the mountains. Workers, especially fur trade employees, needed discipline. They couldn’t exercise their independence and scatter under duress. Insubordination during an Indian attack or a starving winter killed people and dampened profits. “This kind of business of making hunters,” Hempstead warned, “will take time and much trouble.”6
Hempstead spoke as a boss. From the workers’ perspective, hiring on as a hunter carried enormous benefits. Foremost, as Smith hinted, the title offered some protection from the crushing labor of the boatmen. The Missouri roughed sailors up. The river pushed millions of tons of Rocky Mountain sediment toward the Gulf of Mexico. The particles altered the water’s appearance. In contrast to the Mississippi’s gun-barrel blacks, oily greens, and contusion blues, the Missouri wore a palette of browns, and these hues signaled trouble. The suspended dirt made the river “a monotonous and crooked stream.” Grit collected in bars and bent the current into horseshoes and S-curves. The river deposited the sediment and then cut into it, producing the stream’s distinctive high banks, which tended to break off and crash into the water in mammoth hunks.7
To move up the Missouri, boatmen unfurled sails and unpacked oars. They jammed poles into the sandy bottom and pushed against the current. When all else failed, they “cordelled.” Fastening a “long cord” to the ships, they jumped out, waded to the banks, and walked the vessels toward the Rocky Mountains. Cordelling stunk, and the hunters avoided it whenever they could. James Clyman watched the towing of Ashley’s boats in the spring of 1823. “A slow and tedious method of assending swift waters,” he reported. It’s unclear whether, like Jedediah Smith, Clyman escaped this chore completely. Ashley had hired crews of “St. Louis gumboes” to man the keelboats, but Clyman’s description of cordelling suggests that more than French-speaking bodies were needed to move the craft. “It is done,” he wrote, “by the men walking on shore and hauling the boat.” The men—the workers—hauled the craft. The hunters belonged to this category. They were hired hands; people called them “Ashley’s men.” Clyman insisted on the separation of “hunters” and “boatmen,” but the labor requirements of hauling goods upriver eroded such distinctions.8
The cordellers battled the Missouri’s energy, and to move against the current, they required the constant replenishment of their own energy stores. The boats carried food, and Ashley supplemented these calories with wild game. Rather than keep track of seventy armed men scattered throughout the wilderness, Ashley offered the daily task of hunting along the banks to a small number of gunners. Not all the men who had signed on as “hunters” in St. Louis escaped into the brush and cottonwoods each morning. Ashley never intended for all his “hunters” to hunt all the time. Once they arrived at the Yellowstone River, every man could wreak havoc on the local fauna; before then, only a few won the privilege. Jedediah Smith drew the job consistently because of his skill and trustworthiness. An honest man, he wouldn’t use the opportunity to abandon the expedition and seek his own fortune as many of Ashley’s hires did. Smith’s character made him a smart choice for the job.
Yet while integrity freed Smith from the towlines, hunting did not necessarily produce righteousness. In 1823, James Clyman witnessed a hunt in which the “Missourie Boats men” participated. One evening, only weeks out of St. Louis, strong winds forced the expedition off the river. The men camped on the bank and fanned out into the countryside with their guns in search of meat. They brought back “Eggs Fowls Turkeys and what not” and roasted the morsels late into the night, taking care “to burn all the fragments.” The next morning the reason for the cremation of the guts, heads, necks, and other refuse showed up. The neighboring farmers “came in hunting for [their] poultry.” Ashley let them search the boats, but they found no incriminating carcasses. The expedition traveled on, and as the boats turned one of the river’s sweeping curves, a favorable wind kicked up. Ashley ordered the sails opened. A shower of cooked pigs and chickens fell on the decks.9
Clyman told this story to reveal the “character” of the boatmen in contrast to the hunters. In his mind, the tale constructed an ethical rampart between the honest and the conniving workers engaged in the fur trade. The boatmen pilfered other people’s animals instead of hunting wild, un-owned ones. Unlike the Americans, the “Gumboes’” race and national allegiances were hard to pin down. The boatmen signed less generous labor contracts than the hunters. Were they freemen or slaves? Most damning in Clyman’s eyes, they frequently disobeyed their American bosses, and their insubordination endangered and embarrassed Ashley’s more upstanding employees. Yet even as he tried to distinguish himself and other workers from the rascal “Boats men,” Clyman’s anecdotes and asides often undermined his typology of laborers. As in his description of cordelling, Clyman’s language slipped easily from the specific to the general—from “Boats men” to “the men.” Both sailors and hunters took part in the sporting chase that devolved into a raid on chicken coops and hogpens. The sails filled with pork butts and drumsticks incriminated the boatmen, but all the men contributed meat and watched the previous night’s suspicious cookery. If rectitude defined the hunters, why didn’t they put a stop to this shameful business?
Clyman knew why not. Ashley had sent him into the St. Louis bars to collect these people. He was the one who labeled the establishments where he found them “Grog shops and sinks of degredation.” The day the expedition left St. Louis, he recorded the excitement as keelboats shoved off and the men fired a “swivel” for the crowd gathered on the shore. Scanning the faces on the decks, he shook his head: “a description of our crew I cannt give but Fallstafs Battallion was genteel in comparison.” Hugh Glass stood on the deck, and his appearance did nothing to change Clyman’s opinion of the men.10
*   *   *
“Falstaffs Battalion.” Was this Clyman’s reference, or did it originate with the gaggle of children, grandchildren, collectors, archivists, editors, and typists who rearranged, amended, and clipped his papers? Any one of them could have inserted the Shakespearean tidbit into Clyman’s mouth in order to quench the audience’s desire for a Western. It was a cutting remark. The portly knight and his criminal gang mocked serious men. Falstaff’s pretensions made him laughable and sad. But who was reaching above his station in the Clyman narrative—Clyman for turning his life into literature, or the men he observed on the keelboat for posing as hunters?
Falstaff’s and Prince Hal’s cavorting on an Elizabethan stage may seem distant in time and tenor from a group of Jacksonian trappers floating on a boat deck in the middle of the Missouri River. Yet the Falstaff quip, whoever made it, raises the question of the proximity of life and literature in the early American West. If a later addition, the reference fits a pattern of artists inserting the bard into cowpoke operas and shoot-’em-ups. In Western novels and films, Shakespearean actors often stood for effeminate civilization. The scene is cliché: a stagecoach disgorges a troupe of players in a boomtown filled with false-fronted buildings, painted ladies, and taciturn males. The actors jabber endlessly, and their hammy dialogue reminds the audience of classic Western oppositions: nature versus culture, savagery versus civilization, masculine versus feminine, action versus language, history versus literature.11
John Ford inserted a Shakespearean actor into My Darling Clementine, his 1946 retelling of the OK Corral legend starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. The thespian Granville Thorndyke arrives in Tombstone with his troupe and is promptly kidnapped by the dastardly Clantons. Earp and Holliday go in search of the actor and find him in a saloon, half drunk, surrounded by guffawing men. The Clantons force Thorndyke to recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech while teetering on top of a poker table. He has made it halfway through when Ike Clanton, the patriarch, orders him to shut up: “That’s enough, that’s enough. You don’t know nothing but poems.” Holliday intercedes, ends the humiliation, and asks Thorndyke to continue. He does until alcohol and fear cloud his memory. He looks to Holliday for the lines, and the consumptive gambler finishes the speech, punctuating the final “thus conscience does make cowards of us all” with a rattling cough.12
Doc Holliday is a genre buster. He’s a cultured gunslinger, a cardsharp with a sheepskin. Educated in Boston as a dentist, he has studied the mysteries of the human body; thus he knows the tuberculosis in his lungs is about to eat him alive. This awareness demolishes the Victorian reserve that kept most middle-class physicians out of the ranks of violent Western heroes. Undamaged gentlemen didn’t reside in towns like Tombstone. They didn’t blow holes in their enemies with sidearms or self-medicate with gallons of whiskey. They certainly didn’t cohabit with “Apache” women named Chihuahua. In My Darling Clementine, Holliday indulges in all kinds of transgressive high jinks: he’s a wheezing Hamlet perched over the abyss with a six-gun, a shot glass, and a multicultural lover. A doomed figure, he can mix regions, races, and classes. He’s a mongrel, a mutant who will saunter into the OK Corral but not out of it. Like the Clantons, he does not belong in a West with settled boundaries.
Holliday won’t challenge Earp for supremacy or threaten the civilization symbolized by the porcelain schoolmarm, Clementine. His diseased lungs imprison him on the savage and dying side of the frontier even as the bloody spittle he coughs into his handkerchief gives him permission to break the rules of the genre. He can quote Shakespeare and shoot people. An oxymoron, Holliday confirms the rightness of placing Shakespeare and the West in opposing camps.
But what if we read literature and history differently? Perhaps the Falstaff quip belonged to a West more like Holliday’s than Earp’s, a West where life, labor, and literature merged.
In Clyman’s West, wordsmiths stalked laboring men. James Hall belonged to this clique of bookish predators. He fed on the working underclass along the Mississippi River to satiate his writing ambitions. In 1855, Evert A. Duyckinck, the editor of the Cyclopaedia of American Literature and alpha male of New York City letters, asked Hall, then a Cincinnati bank president who had quit his law career, his judgeship, and his regional journalism for the comfort of small finance, to submit a short synopsis of his Western publications. Duyckinck expected paragraphs; Hall sent him nine folio pages. In a sense, Hall rendered himself transparent when he replied with such cringeworthy eagerness to the request. The document tracked his movements through his cultural environment, relaying his coordinates along the food chain that clicked into place when predators like Hall targeted hunters like Glass to impress bull publishers like Duyckinck.13
Born in Philadelphia on August 19, 1793, James Hall seemed headed for urban anonymity, hidden in the crowd of big-city lawyers, until the War of 1812 singled him out and pulled him west. He joined the army and fought along the Great Lakes in the battles of Chippawa, Lundy’s Lane, and the siege of Fort Erie. Following the war, he entered the U.S. Navy and traveled to the Mediterranean as part of Commodore Stephen Decatur’s expedition during the Second Barbary War. He returned to the United States, took a post in Newport, Rhode Island, and found trouble. In 1817, the navy court-martialed him for negligence and insubordination. Hall pivoted west to shake this unpleasantness. He left the navy, he wrote to Duyckinck, not with his tail tucked between his legs but rather “with great ardor and hopefulness of spirit, and energy of purpose.” He headed to Pittsburgh and then Shawneetown, Illinois, for a fresh start. He would rise up with the flood of Americans breaking over the Appalachians.14
The West seduced Hall, rousing his “romantic disposition,” his “thirst for adventure,” and his “desire to see the rough scenes of the frontier.” The way he responded to his bewitchment said much about him, his profession, and social caste. Spurred to the heights of romantic titillation, thirsty for a wild, new existence, Hall opened a legal office and started a newspaper. He slurped the marrow of life by doing paperwork. Words distanced him from the western environment. He observed and reported the alterations the country induced in his frontier brethren, but he stood above them, unchanged.15
Appointed a circuit attorney, the public prosecutor for ten Illinois counties, in 1821, Hall began passing judgment on the farmers, boatmen, and mechanics whose labor enmeshed them in the backwoods. The denizens of the rivers and forests, he wrote, came in two varieties: rogues and regulars. The rogues inhabited the counties bordering the Ohio River and used the flow of boats and people to camouflage their nefarious activities. They ran in packs, counterfeited money, stole horses, and shifted jurisdictions. They established border enclaves where “they could change names, or pass from house to house, so skillfully to elude detection—and where if detected, the whole population were ready to rise to the rescue.” Upstanding backwoodsmen formed “regulating companies” to thwart the rogues and their wandering identities. Hall adjudicated. He hovered above the fray, listened to both sides, and delivered justice to the classes of humans hip deep in the muck.16
That’s not to say he didn’t find these people entertaining. Hall began writing Westerns and shipping them to Philadelphia for his brother John Elihu Hall’s Port Folio. He submitted dozens, and in 1828 he collected the bunch in his first book, Letters from the West. About the time Letters came out, Hall—after seven years roaming as a prosecutor and a circuit court judge—settled in Vandalia, Illinois. He practiced law and edited two publications: the Illinois Monthly, a fiction magazine, and the Illinois Intelligencer, a weekly newspaper. He also entered politics and secured the post of Illinois state treasurer. His literary résumé bloomed. The Western Souvenir followed closely on Letters from the West in 1828. Legends of the West appeared in 1832, The Soldier’s Bride and The Harpe’s Head in 1833, and Tales of the Border in 1835. “In all of them,” Hall told Duyckinck, “the design was to exhibit American life, in the most of them Western life and adventure; and so intent was I upon the faithful portraiture of western life, that I curbed my fancy, and hardly did justice to myself in the management of the materials, which are rich.”17
Critics initially praised Hall’s creations, especially their western roots. At last, declared the reviewer for the Literary Cabinet and Western Olive Branch, the region had brought forth a western author writing western stories for western readers. Hall did indeed achieve literary fame, but he also acquired a reputation for fast and sloppy work. His brother objected to his careless plots and warned: “you do not prune enough—you have too many adjectives ushering in the substantives.” In his zeal to rise with the country and create a unique western and American art form, he beat the themes of national exceptionalism and natural nationalism to death; to keep his name in front of the public, he often resorted to self-plagiarism. People began to poke fun at “the judge” and his Westerns. In 1828, an anonymous poet for the Hesperian magazine imagined a conversation between Hall and a cow:
A Dialogue Between the Judge and His Cow
Judge. My cow__why stand idle there?
Not walking, eating, drinking,
Where I, within my easy chair,
Laboriously are thinking?
Cow. Dear Judge, I do the same as you;
I also ruminate
And so, to-day the cud I chew Which yesterday I ate.
Judge. I grant the likeness; I, my dear,
Make new books out of old,
And sell again, the present year,
The work I last year sold.
But tell me, does the cud improve?
Is its strength a winner?
Cow. On no, dear sir! But like your works,
It’s always getting thinner.
To become the spokesman for his region, Hall published with more vigor than good sense. However, both his neighbors and his eastern audience lost confidence in him as the novelty wore off through repetition.18
The merit of the criticisms leveled at Hall concern me less than the simple fact that so many were critical. James Hall took himself and his western project very seriously. So have subsequent readers of his texts. Hall championed American aggression. He belonged to the chorus of regionalists who deployed literature to knit new territories into the nation. To him, the assimilation of the West defined the greatness of the United States. Writing about the West thus rose above other literary endeavors. Publishing was a selfless, patriotic act. He concluded his letter to Duyckinck with a tombstone inscription fit for a soldier as much as a wordsmith: “I have written to and for my country. My subjects are all American, and they are treated in an independent American Spirit. If there is an American Literature, I hope to have a place, however humble, in it. If there is no American literature, I am nobody.” A cantor of conquest, Hall thought his words fulfilled the righteous destiny of the United States.19
But nations are arguments rather than settled facts, and Hall’s patriotic overproduction encouraged attacks rather than acquiescence. Instead of bowing in silence before the altar of his mythic frontier, Americans laughed, and their derision hinted at the place of semiprofessional regionalist authors in the literary food chain that coalesced in the Mississippi River Valley at the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The judge was a bottom feeder; fiercer beasts swam above him, and they took chunks out of his reputation. One of Evert A. Duyckinck’s best friends was such a predator, and following his movements through the cultural environment that nurtured Hugh Glass and popularized his injuries reveals the diversity of opinions in the Mississippi habitat. The discourse of conquest, of western exceptionalism and natural nationalism, emerged from tooth-and-claw competition, not in a triumphant echo chamber. The authors of Westerns labored to separate East and West, civilization and savagery, literature and history, but other writers unsettled their work, pointing out the hilarity of their constructions.
*   *   *
Herman Melville drew a bead on St. Louis and the rivers that converged near it in the 1850s. He based The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) on material borrowed from western newspapers and regional authors. He targeted western icons and sensibilities. His protagonist was a predator, as were most of his victims. Hunters hunted hunters throughout The Confidence-Man. Melville’s literary habitat differed markedly from Hall’s when he first published “The Missouri Trapper” in 1824. By the 1850s, newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, and telegraph lines knit the United States together. A “communications revolution” transpired between 1824 and 1857 as the infrastructure and consumer demand for information ballooned. The unspooling lines of communication made territorial acquisition possible. People living in Missouri could see themselves as part of a nation because print stretched the boundaries of their imagined communities. Melville’s novel reflected the growth of communications; he pillaged books, newspapers, and magazines for satirical fodder. Yet while the production and consumption of words increased, most American writers continued to struggle to earn a living. Melville lampooned the West and Western authors, but he resembled Hall in at least one way: both men were hungry for artistic recognition and respect.20
Geographically, The Confidence-Man floats away from Hugh Glass. Rather than a keelboat inching up the Missouri, Melville’s steamer, the Fidèle, churns south toward New Orleans. The story opens waterside in St. Louis on April Fools’ Day as a stranger, dressed all in “cream-colors,” boards. A shape-shifting devil—perhaps the Devil himself—he will wear eight disguises before midnight and talk a series of victims out of their credulity and their cash. He pleads with them to give him their “confidence,” to trust in appearances, charity, capitalism, nature, medicine, money, friendship, the Bible, and the essential goodness of humankind.21
Hunting appears early in the novel. In the third paragraph, Melville describes a crowd gathered around a placard near the captain’s office. The sign announces a bounty for the capture of “a mysterious imposter.” As the crowd gawks, petty crooks ogle their watches and wallets. One criminal tries to sell another a money belt for protection, while still another hawks pamphlets containing the “lives” of famous Mississippi outlaws. These legendary bandits, Melville reports, were a generation of wolves, and their extermination opened space for small-time foxes to multiply.
The list of stalkers did not stop with the pickpockets. In chapter 2, Melville launches into a group ship portrait. He’s mimicking Thomas Bangs Thorpe here. The author of many popular western stories and books, Thorpe included a roll call of regional types in his 1841 riverboat/backcountry tale “The Big Bear of Arkansas.” He loaded a paddle wheeler with planters and merchants, gamblers and bishops. “Men of all creeds and characters, Wolvereens, Suckers, Hoosiers, Buckeyes, and Corncrackers, beside a ‘plentiful sprinkling’ of the half-horse and half-alligator species of men, who are peculiar to ‘old Mississippi.’” Melville follows Thorpe’s lead, populating his steamer with “natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen.” But then he tosses his template overboard. Instead of distinct types, the passengers merge into one. They become “farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold hunters, buffalo hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters.” The Fidèle, a ship of fools, is also a nest of raptors.22
And the archest of them all was Melville. He combed through newspapers, literary journals, travel logs, almanacs, and regional compendiums for source material. He snatched the confidence man in 1849. That July, the New York City police arrested William Thompson for stealing a “gold lever watch.” It was hardly news that a petty criminal had lifted a watch in New York City, but Thompson’s method grabbed headlines as well as artistic imaginations. Dressed as a “gentleman,” he approached his victims like an old friend. He joked with them, patted their backs. After establishing a rapport, he sprung his trap. He queried, “Do you have confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?” To demonstrate his trust in a fellow gentleman who seemed sincere, the dupe turned over the watch. Thompson walked away with several timepieces until one victim, Thomas McDonald, spotted him on the street and called the cops. They tossed the grifter into jail and requested that others so defrauded report to the prison and “take a view” of the “Confidence Man.”23
Thompson reminded Melville of other contemporary hucksters. He disliked the empty-headed optimism peddled by mid-nineteenth-century natural philosophers, philanthropic reformers, free-will preachers, utopian schemers, potion salesmen, western boosters, and sideshow barkers. All of these posers begged for an audience’s confidence, and Melville satirized them mercilessly for offering sunbeam-and-butterfly versions of Christianity, market capitalism, democracy, and national expansion. Original sin had stained the human soul and guaranteed as unattainable perfection in this world. By pretending otherwise, all “truth-hunters” became suckers.
The confidence man executed his creator’s revenge, stalking a series of characters deluded by excessive hopefulness. Yet while he loosed Satan upon fictionalized versions of Americans whose ideas bugged him, Melville himself felt preyed upon. He considered dedicating the book to the victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Melville could sympathize with tortured heretics; he had suffered book reviewers. Presbyterian ministers applied the screws to his South Sea adventure novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) for their explicit depiction of Native sexuality as well as their portrayal of Christian missionaries as cultural wrecking balls. By the time he published Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852), some of his critics wondered if he had gone insane. He certainly had gone broke. The Confidence-Man represented Melville’s last shot at writing a money-making and popular yet still artistically ambitious novel. But it didn’t sell. He never published another. The confusion over victims and predators extended to Melville’s self-perception as an author.24
At numerous spots in the novel, Melville adopts the hunting style of the confidence man. In chapter 14, he exits the narrative and addresses his readers directly. He’s trying to soothe doubts about the “consistency” of his characters. Why do the personalities on this boat vacillate between extreme confidence and deep “discontent”? Surely this is a writing flaw. Not necessarily, responds the author. Look to “divine nature”—plenty of self-contradictory creations reside there. Take the example of the Australian “duck-billed beaver.” If nature can produce such a divided animal, why can’t you embrace my similarly inconsistent inventions?
In this passage Melville satirized novelists who broke the fourth wall of their texts to sweet-talk their audience, readers who shackled artists with their rigid expectations, and philosophers who looked to animals for insights into human nature. The duck-billed beaver finished the joke. The beast raised the issue of credibility and nature. Nineteenth-century Americans struggled to believe in platypuses. Even stuffed specimens tested their confidence. Beaked, egg-laying aquatic mammals that stabbed foes with poisonous spurs jutting from their hind legs, platypuses made P. T. Barnum’s fake “Feejee” mermaid seem tame and reasonable.
With the weird beaver, Melville joked at the expense of the Transcendentalists. For him, those who found cosmic reassurance in ponds and woodchucks were as bad as those who located abundant hope in the Bible. The nature-loving philosophers would not escape the confidence man. Yet before he loosed his sinister alter ego on barely disguised stand-ins for Emerson and Thoreau, Melville steered him into a discussion with a human bear. The “Missouri Bachelor,” Pitch, was natural man, a hunter who had taken on the appearance of his prey. He represented the special American amalgamation: the unique being created when European males exposed themselves to western wilderness. He embodied the vigor and newness of the young nation, and given Melville’s satirical impulses, he wasn’t quite right.
Pitch butts into the novel while the confidence man, disguised as a herb doctor, swindles a sick old man. “Yarbs, yarbs; natur, natur,” Pitch growls; “yarbs and nature will cure your incurable cough, you thinks.” Covered in animal skins, he appeared both earthy and extraterrestrial. He wore a raccoon cap, “raw-hide leggings,” a “bear’s skin” coat, and a scraggly beard. He was “ursine” and therefore a target of sport. Yet the double-barreled shotgun he carried signaled murderous inclinations. Half submerged in nature, he knew how the “Dame” worked, and he didn’t place much faith in her.25
The novel’s fiercest doubter, Pitch was one of Melville’s platypuses. He looked backwoodsman and talked backwoodsman, but he had grown suspicious of nature while his colleagues remained wild and simple. As a regional type, he didn’t make much sense. He dressed like Hawkeye, but he owned a plantation. Insubordinate servants were his nemeses, not bears or panthers. He wanted to distance himself from people, but he sought refuge in technology instead of the wilderness. His life’s goal: the replacement of duplicitous workers with machines. All these contradictions served Melville’s farce, but Pitch does more than amuse. His downfall reveals how literature might participate in territorial conquest, how novels might aid a predatory nation.
Americans told Westerns to distort their past, to justify their aggression and their thefts, to erase or incriminate their foes. It’s hard to overstate the genre’s selfishness. Westerns fixed the world in the invaders’ gaze; only the perspective of the people facing “west” mattered. The tales mulled the price of violence, but they contemplated the horror of pulling the trigger rather than the destruction caused by the bullet. Natives, both human and animal, lost their homes, their lives, and their skins, yet the Westerns pondered their tormentors’ suffering. The invaders’ pain incited revenge. Western heroes lashed out with the righteous anger of the victimized. Still, anxiety tugged at these victors’ tales. The West’s violence scarred American bodies and psyches. After incorporating the region into the body politic, would this place nourish the republic or make it sick?
Melville boded ill. Near the end of their battle of wits, Pitch barks at the confidence man: “All boys are rascals, and so are all men; my name is Pitch; I stick to what I say.” The Devil replies with a sartorial observation. Why are you dressed in the “skins of wild beasts” on such a warm evening? I contend that your “eccentric” rawhide leggings, bear coat, and ring-tailed cap reflect “the equally grim and unsuitable habit of your mind.” Pitch’s outfit didn’t reveal his innermost being. Rather, his attire represents an “eccentric assumption, having no basis in your genuine soul, no more than in nature herself.” Your clothes disguise you, the Devil declared, and you can change them, just as you can change your mind.26
This reasoning “softened” the backwoodsman like an earthquake reduced some soils to jelly. Knocked off his foundation, Pitch collapsed in a hurry, and the speed of his fall evoked Melville’s notes on “inconsistency.” A planter cloaked in “skins,” Pitch was an unstable concoction. His clothing marked him as a hunter, but he hadn’t gunned down varmints for his togs. He earned the signifiers in battles with underlings, the thirty-five snotty servants he had imported from around the globe. His abuse of them made him a skeptic, and his clothing symbolized this mistrust. His duds advertised his naturalness, his rejection of humanity. But Pitch wore lies. He had discovered the truth—“all boys are rascals; and so are all men”—from bodies he had purchased and placed between him and nature.
Through Pitch, Melville argued that the West was just another costume Americans could wear. Because Pitch believed in the lie that his appearance reflected his innermost being, he could be fooled by an analogy. He put too much faith in metaphors suggesting a correspondence between two unrelated things—like green corn and servant boys, or bear coats and cynicism, or truth and “thrashing-machines.” Pitch wanted his animal-hunter clothes to correspond with his truth-hunter heart. He trusted in this analogy, and when the confidence man sniffed his devotion, he jumped him. This was all very funny, for Pitch was an analogy for the stickiness of correspondence, the idea that two divergent things could be glommed together with the linguistic glue of metaphor. But analogies required belief, and leaps of faith on the Fidèle landed you in the Devil’s clutches.27
*   *   *
The expanse of continent passing starboard to Melville’s New Orleans–bound steamboat was a hunting ground for correspondence. Literati scoured the West for analogues, capturing bears and beavers, high plains and lofty mountains, Natives and frontiersmen. They grabbed them and turned them into whatever they wished—God, Satan, nature, nation, whiteness, capitalism, manhood, benevolence, depravity. The entire region could be taken in this manner. Writers imagined the West reborn as East. Americans would civilize the place, force it to correspond to the landscapes and the ways of living they knew and liked best. Literature manifested the nation’s destiny through analogies.
Melville didn’t invent this idea. In 1845, The American Whig Review, a New York literary journal, published Charles Wilkins Webber’s “Metaphysics of Bear Hunting.” The satire tells the story of a fallen eastern dude, a cynic and an atheist, who journeys to Texas to commune with “the vicious, the desperate, the social and civil Outlaws … gathered there.” In the company of a squad of Texas Rangers, he sets out for the San Saba hills to kill bears. There things go wild. The dude loses his mates, a bear nearly kills him and a friend, and some Comanches steal his horse. Near death, starving and delirious, he crawls to a “mott,” an oasis of trees in the ocean of scrub, and finds religion. It turns out, God is a squirrel, a large meaty one. The dude shoots and devours God raw while basking in the “sublimity of mercy.”28
Stripped of its metaphysics, Webber’s bear hunt imitated the writings of the army of American regionalist authors stationed along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Their Western stories migrated east into newspapers, literary journals, almanacs, and travelogues. This was the crowd who discovered (invented) Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, Sut Lovingood, Simon Suggs, and Hugh Glass. They popularized the misadventures of laborers and scofflaws—hunters, flatboatmen, Indians, slaves, and robbers. Their fun could be remarkably grim. While under the employ of William Ashley, Mike Fink shot a comrade in the head when playing a game with a tin cup. Fink and the man took turns placing the vessel on their heads for the other to knock off with a bullet, until bruised feelings ruined the entertainment. Angry at his friend for a slight, a stolen lover, a pilfered whiskey bottle (reasons vary according to the storyteller), Fink “missed.”
This level of comedy was unsuitable for a highbrow publication like The American Whig Review. Webber acknowledged this. He equated the West with vulgarity, and he used the region’s uncouth savagery to ridicule eastern intellectuals. The West’s nastiness made the region ripe for metaphysical transfiguration. What better place to view God’s—or the Transcendentalist Oversoul’s—mysterious power than a landscape filled with loathsome beasts and savage men? If Thoreau and Emerson spotted “sermons in stones” and “homilies” in trees, then religious epiphanies acquired while murdering a bear or a squirrel truly deserved to be labeled “miracles.”29
Analogy converted Western vice into evidence of the divine, and while Webber poked fun at natural philosophers with a bear/God hunt, Melville sharpened the idea of metaphysics into a shiv. Following Pitch’s losing battle with the confidence man dressed as the “Philosophical” labor agent, the hunter and the Devil fought one last time. This time Satan wore the garb of the philanthropic “Cosmopolitan,” and Pitch beat him. He stuck to his misanthropy despite the Cosmopolitan’s best efforts to lure him to trust, love, and confidence. In the aftermath, as the grumbling Pitch wanders out of the novel into his “solitude,” a passenger walks up to the Cosmopolitan. “Queer ’coon, your friend,” he says. “Had a little scrimmage with him myself.” Pages later, we learn the man’s name. He’s Charlie Noble, another, lesser confidence man, a fox about to tangle with the wolf. Before the two criminals trade lies in the ship’s saloon, however, they try to comprehend the backwoodsman. What made him despise humanity? In an attempt to explain Pitch, Noble brings up the story of John Moredock and the metaphysics of Indian hating.30
The petty con man’s tale requires some stage setting. Noble didn’t just tell a story; he told a story about another storyteller, a familiar one—the lawyer, judge, and Hugh Glass biographer James Hall. As a child, Noble heard Hall tell the history of American Indian hating. He remembered that Hall spoke with diligent care, as if he wanted to etch his words on his listeners’ brains like an ink quill etched letters on a page. Hall explained how backwoodsmen came to loathe Native Americans with such purity and how one frontier soldier, Colonel Moredock, almost reached the pinnacle of “Indian hatred.” Charlie Noble recalled every detail, and as he spoke, the confidence man could almost hear “the Judge.”
As can we. Melville nearly plagiarized an essay on Indian hating that Hall published in several venues in the 1830s and ’40s. Melville added some flourishes to signal his comic intentions. (His backwoodsmen, for example, surf the incoming tide of civilization, while Hall’s merely drown in it.) But Hall’s “history” and Melville’s chapter shared a hero, a structure, and a quandary: Why did the West and nature, those wellsprings of truth, God, democracy, manliness, and American uniqueness, also spew forth generations of rabid, heavily armed bigots? 31
According to Hall, the pursuit of animal flesh defined the western community. A “passion” for hunting lured some men (and their families) out of the East and brought them into conflict with Native Americans. This settler population grew “peculiar.”32 They moved constantly to find game and keep ahead of agricultural settlements, and they fought continually to preserve their access to unowned “hunting grounds,” areas Indians considered their “ancient heritage.”33 Life on the frontier warped backwoodsmen, but Hall extended the torque of nature beyond firsthand contact with wild places, animals, and men. The American hunters loathed Indians even after the Indians had left. Generations learned to despise Natives from stories. “From the cradle,” children heard “horrid tales of savage violence.” They sat rapt on grandparents’ knees and imagined “horses stolen, and cattle driven off, and cabins burned.” They ingested so many stories that hate became “part of their nature.” Anecdotes did to them what the Indians and the wilderness had done to their fathers and mothers.34
Hall granted stories tremendous power. The West toasted, broke, and perforated some famous white male bodies, but the Western—the narrative reconstruction of their violent deconstruction—could transform anybody. The portability of Westerns, their tendency to migrate back east in gossip, newspapers, and literary journals, presented Hall with a problem. How could he tell stories about Indian hating without creating a nation of Indian haters? If Westerns altered listeners’ very “nature,” how could easterners resist the West’s ugliness?
Hall distanced his readers from the place. He pushed backwoodsmen to the nation’s margins and quarantined them out of earshot of philanthropic ideas. Alone in the forest, the hunters talked only to themselves. They lacked news and books. They never spoke to learned outsiders. Thus, they heard only “one side” of Native Americans, the “war-whoop” side. Civilized readers, Hall’s audience, had encountered other imaginary Indians. They met noble savages in plays, novels, philosophical tracts, and most spectacularly in the literature and the speeches of charitable reformers. These counter-Natives inoculated Hall’s customers. Their exposure to noble savagery made them suspicious of one-sided haters. The backwoodsmen piqued the curiosity of civilized persons. Odd specimens, they raised questions. How did the West and nature create such people? Hall offered Moredock.
Born on the Illinois frontier, Hall’s John Moredock learned race hatred as a child. Indians tomahawked his father, his stepfathers, and, in a final ambush, his mother and siblings. The last of his family died on the banks of the Mississippi River on their way to the French settlements at Vincennes. They would have been among the first “whites” in the area, according to Hall. “The sole survivor of his race,” Moredock took up Indian hunting. For a year he stalked the group that murdered his family and destroyed all thirty members of “the lawless predatory band.” Following these deaths, he “resolved never to spare an Indian,” and he roamed the Illinois woods, watching, pursuing, and slaughtering human beings.35
A bloodthirsty fiend, Moredock in Melville’s hands revealed his spectral creepiness. Traveling through the wilderness with his father, a young Charlie Noble happened upon a cabin. A man greeted them and pointed out a gun and powder horn on the porch. They belonged to the famous Colonel Moredock, the man said, and their owner was asleep in the cabin’s corn loft. The man requested that Noble and his father keep their voices down. Moredock had been out tracking Indians the previous night. Desperate to see the famous backwoodsman, Noble snuck into the cabin and climbed the ladder to the loft. Poking his head through the trapdoor, he spied Moredock’s bedding, a clump of wolf hides, but the scene looked wrong, more sylvan than human: “I saw what I took to be the wolf-skins, and on them a bundle of something, like a drift of leaves; and at one end, what seemed a moss-ball; and over it, deer antlers branched; and close by, a small squirrel sprang out from a maple-bowl of nuts, brushed the moss-ball with his tail, through a hole, and vanished squeaking.” Moredock, if he existed, had melted into forest.36
According to Hall, the knack for disappearing into nature belonged to the “Indian-hater par excellence.” Like all frontiersmen, the “Indian-hater par excellence” swallowed bloody stories with his mother’s milk, but then an event—an attack upon himself or his kin—turned ordinary ire into a monkish devotion to wrath. He renounced his family and friends, plunged into the wilderness, and never came back. The hunter vanished from culture. Hall couldn’t speak about him; the “Indian-hater par excellence” had no “biography.” The predator worked beyond the reach of “news.” The specter of the perfect bigot perturbed Melville’s “Judge Hall.” The judge, reported Noble, with typical Melvillean comic understatement, was “not unaffected” by the prospect of anger and wilderness turning American pioneers into killer racist ghosts.37
It was impossible to tell a story about a man who had disappeared into nature, but Hall could talk about Moredock, a “diluted Indian-hater.” Moredock escaped into the woods, yet he returned to civilization on occasion. Indeed, by Hall’s account, he stayed long enough to run for office. Voted a member of the Illinois Territorial Council, he declined to stand for governor, though many friends urged him to do so. The historical James Hall explained his demurral as a matter of fact. Moredock simply “refused to permit his name to be used.” Melville elaborates: Moredock rejected higher office because he could never sign an Indian treaty, as governors were wont to do, and he knew his hunting habit would take him from the capital during legislative recesses. It wouldn’t be right for the state’s leading citizen to be seen “stealing out now and then … for a few days’ shooting at human beings.” Indian hating sometimes required men to temper their ambitions, to give up “the pomps and glories of the world.” Like religion, Indian hating demanded piety.38
In the metaphysical looking glass, Moredock’s devotion to rage and murder looked like perfect Christianity. Racism endowed him with a deep suspicion of humanity. He looked at Indians and witnessed sin and devilry. He hunted Satan without mercy and bigotry washed him clean. In his “diluted” form, he could return home, to whiteness, and be a nice person, a loving friend and father, a trustworthy democratic representative. Moredock’s disappearance back into civil society signaled his disappearance from the novel. Melville drops Indian hating and the backwoodsmen, and proceeds to hunt down other American icons. Readers and critics have puzzled over Melville’s metaphysics-of-Indian-hating interlude in the middle of The Confidence-Man. Melville celebrated noble savagery in his South Sea novels, and he criticized American writers like Francis Parkman for disparaging the “Indian character.” He revered Indians and defended them as children of the same God. Yet, through analogy, he turned Moredock into a hero. The killer was the only true believer in The Confidence-Man. He’s kidding, of course, but it’s hard to know when to laugh.
*   *   *
I’ve come a long way from Hugh Glass. As far as I know, he resembled none of the hunters in Melville’s satire. From the perspective of social history, Glass confirmed the distance between history and literature. After telling his bear story, he stepped back into the anonymity of the fur trade’s labor pool. Imaginary backwoodsmen tramped elsewhere with the aid of regional authors trying to sell stories to an eastern audience. The captive of James Hall, Glass the American Odysseus surfaced in Philadelphia. While the laboring Glass struggled to earn a living as a trapper, his analogue crawled through literary journals and newspapers. Hall’s Glass foreshadowed another of his creations—Moredock. A violent event transformed both into obsessed hunters of people. They both exemplified western rage, how wild nature drove some Americans mad.
Traversing the distance between fact and fiction, however, isn’t as easy as the embrace of one and the rejection of the other. Regional authors labored to create the illusion of a far West. They distanced the place and its residents from the East, the nation, and civilization. They valorized men remade by nature, but they also isolated them.
Melville harpooned the far West. Human depravity spanned every divide, collapsed the largest space. Sin united East and West, black and white, the savage and the civilized. Americans had no right to treat Colonel Moredock as a metaphysical curiosity from an exotic frontier when they elected an Indian hater president. Andrew Jackson didn’t disappear into leaves and moss balls. Neither did Hugh Glass. The literati cast Glass away, but he always staggered back. Crossing distances was his specialty. Real people inhabited the physiques that writers nabbed for metaphysical purposes, and they battled employers, owners, commanders, party leaders, and literati for the right to use their bodies as they pleased. James Clyman wrote only a few lines about Hugh Glass. Glass, he reported, “could not be re[strained] and kept under Subordination.” He “went off the line of march one afternoon and met with a large grissly bear.”39 The encounter that rearranged Glass’s body and dragged him into literature began with an act of defiance: a hunter, sick of military discipline, veered off course to find sport and adventure in the wilderness. Or a disgruntled worker stamped into the bushes grumbling about lines and bosses and places where bosses could shove their lines.
Either works.

Copyright © 2012 by Jon T. Coleman

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction 3

Part I Origins

1 The Metaphysics of Hugh Hunting 19

2 Bom to Run 44

Part II Initiations

3 The Naked and the Dead 67

4 Bears in Black and White 96

5 Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Chew 125

Part III Afterlives

6 Cold Lips Say Waugh! 153

7 I Will Survive 180

Conclusion 209

Notes 221

Acknowledgments 239

Index 241

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2012

    gave it as a gift. It wasn't what he thought it was going to be.

    Recipient was disappointed. He didn't like the approach to the subject. Found it hard to read.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2014

    Sad, pathetic!

    I was expecting to read about Hugh Glass' experiences as a mountain man and his ordeal in the aftermath of the bear attack. All I got was bored. I couldn't get past 25 pages before skimming ahead, looking for the book I'd paid for. There was so little mention of Hugh Glass, it should not be using his name as a drawing card. A waste of money. I'm not wasting more than one star on this book, one half a star is too many.

    A sad, pathetic excuse for a book...

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2013


    A unique look into the psychology and motivations of the "Old West" writers. An excellent primer for folks seeking to specialize in the field. This is NOT light reading.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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