American Indians, American Literature, American Renaissance, Books, Bugaboo, Cyrus Bourne, David Haven Blake, David Hume, Democracy, Dorcas Bourne, Edgar Allan Poe, Frontier, Frontier Warfare, History, Kickapoo, Literary criticism, Literature, Lovewell's Fight, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Reuben Bourne, Roger Malvin's Burial, Scalping, The Man That Was Used Up, War Veterans
“Poe has no truck with Indians or Nature,” D. H. Lawrence began his 1923 essay on Edgar Allan Poe, “He makes no bones about Red Brothers and Wigwams.” Nathaniel Hawthorne had admitted to an “inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character, at least, till such traits were pointed out by others.” “I do abhor an Indian story,” he concluded. The American Renaissance was happy to overlook the continued survival of the Indians – the days when they had any purpose or place in the young republic were long gone – and in 1837 Hawthorne would anticipate that, “when they have disappeared from the earth their history will appear a fable, and they misty phantoms.” And when it came to such fables, one of the listeners in Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair (1840) would bluntly demand, “Who wants to hear about tomahawks and scalping-knives?”
Both Hawthorne and Poe felt obliged to devote a single short story to Indian warfare, but their respective narratives, “Roger Malvin’s Burial” (1832) and “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), each portray a warrior’s homecoming from the frontier, whilst remaining pointedly uninterested in the Indians themselves. This may signify the elegant avoidance of a boorish or disreputable subject – Hawthorne had himself grumbled that “no writer can be more secure of a permanent place in our literature, than the biographer of the Indian chiefs” – but his and Poe’s tales initially promise a bit more bang for our buck on the question of information about the Indians. Whilst Poe’s tale is misleadingly subtitled “A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign,” Hawthorne’s prefatory remarks cite “one of the few incidents of Indian warfare, naturally susceptible of the moonlight of romance” and the “open bravery displayed by both parties,” without clarifying that he will only be writing about one of these “parties.”
“Roger Malvin’s Burial” describes the aftermath of the 1725 frontier shoot ‘em up, “Lovewell’s Fight” and the tale was probably written shortly after the fight’s widely celebrated centenary. Many of Hawthorne’s readers would have seen beyond the “substitution of fictitious names” to loosely identify his characters Roger Malvin and Reuben Bourne with the four wounded members of Lovewell’s party who had consented to be left behind in the retreat. Of those four, two were finally abandoned, like Malvin, to die in the wilderness. Despite the disparity between their respective ages, Malvin and Bourne most resemble the twenty-six year old Josiah Farwell, Lovewell’s son-in-law and deputy, and the twenty-two year old Eleazer Davis. In 1954 the scholar David S. Lovejoy identified the most likely source for the tale as an account of Davis’ leave-taking from Farwell, which was penned in 1823 by an anonymous historian. This extract effectively provides a synopsis of Hawthorne’s version of events:
Farwell was afterwards engaged as lieutenant in Lovewell’s fight, and in the commencement of the action was shot through the belly. He survived the contest two or three days, and with one Eleazer Davis, from Concord, attempted to reach home. They were destitute of provisions, and finding some cranberries, greedily devoured them. Those eaten by Farwell came out at his wound… [Prior to leaving him, Davis] had taken Farwell’s handkerchief and tied it to the top of a bush that it might afford a mark by which his remains could the more easily be found. After going from him a short distance, Farwell called him back and requested to be turned upon the other side. This was done, and was the last that was known of him.
Given the gory highlight of this passage, one is struck by the odd possibility that “the blood that stained” Reuben’s handkerchief might be cranberry juice (although Hawthorne adjusts the source to make the handkerchief Reuben’s own, rather than one taken from the wounded man.) Hawthorne confines himself to describing his two characters as “weary and wounded,” whereas other sources recount that Davis had been shot in the abdomen and lost his right hand (or alternatively just his thumb) in the battle, and that he took eleven days to cover the seventy miles from the battlefield to Berwick, walking with a musket ball still in his body.
If Roger Malvin is lost in the wilderness – leaving no evidence that he is living or dead – this absence of verification is directly at odds with the scalping which was bread and butter to Lovewell’s party. The General Court in Boston had agreed to pay a hundred pounds for each scalp that Lovewell’s men brought home, and when the party returned to Boston in March with ten scalps, they were paid the day’s equivalent of over £100,000. Whilst some Indian tribes had mutilated the dead to disrupt their passage into the afterlife, the scalping known to Lovewell’s men was an entirely materialistic affair. Battle stories did not suffice when money was on the table, and therefore after an Indian was killed, the scalp was taken as a sort of cashable receipt. If the chaplain to Lovewell’s party had broken off his Sunday service to kill and scalp an Indian, the first historians of the fight probably changed its date to a Saturday out of an anxiety that such unseemly greed may have profaned the Sabbath, rather than the altogether lesser matter of murdering an Indian.
Those retreating from the battle feared that they were being pursued by the Indians and Dorcas’ question, “You dug a grave for my poor father, in the wilderness…?” perhaps expresses an anxiety to protect his remains from scalping or mutilation. Yet Dorcas could hardly have expected for her father to have received any sort of “funeral rites”: none of those retreating had the time nor strength to bury any of the dead, necessitating an eighty-strong expedition by Colonel Ebenezer Tyng to honour this duty. Tyng buried those whom he found on the battlefield, but not those such as Farwell who were lost in the wilderness (his bones may lie mouldering to this day in some Maine pasture).
There is nothing to say that Malvin was not discovered and scalped by vengeful Indians, but one may cheerfully reason that a scalp is of no benefit to a dead man, and so why begrudge the Indians their bounty? The scalp becomes a discarded symbol of material evidence in a narrative which increasingly digresses from Humean scepticism and rationalism. Malvin may argue for his own death with considerably more care than these people ever ventured out to murder Indians, but his rhetoric is marshalled to ease Reuben’s escape and save the younger man’s life – Reuben may have remained pining in the wilderness had not Malvin won the argument. Yet although Malvin appreciates that he enjoys an almost idyllic resting place – “beneath the open sky, covered only by the oak-leaves” – he succumbs to a debilitating Indian superstition that funeral rites should accomplish the exorcism rather than merely the burial of the deceased.
Malvin’s rhetorical triumph is betrayed by an irrational fear of some imagined discomfiture in the afterlife. The hitherto rational Malvin now expects Reuben to risk his life searching a hostile wilderness in order to “say a prayer” over his bones. Knowing Reuben better a lot than we do, Malvin can surely foresee the devastating impact of this (ostensibly) unachievable demand over the youth, who will be unable to reconcile the not obviously heroic circumstances of Malvin’s abandonment with his own more straightforward notions of courage and honour. Burial should unite the community – not least on a warring frontier where men have to work together to recover the bodies – but Reuben will come to believe that Malvin’s lost bones are owed his mad feat of individual exertion rather than any greater social ceremony. Malvin may imagine a “long and pleasant path” for Reuben and his daughter, but with his irresponsible “vow,” the “unburied corpse” of this self-styled founding father actually ends up “calling” his descendants back down the path.
Although they are comrades on the battlefield, one may suspect that these two warriors have met on some subliminal or cosmic plain as adversaries. Reuben provides a variation upon “Robin,” the hero of Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,”(1832) who witnesses his symbolic father being crushed by his community, and something similar occurs when a “wild and painful curiosity” leads the departing Reuben to tiptoe back and peep at his own fallen benefactor, compelled by “the doom of the kind and generous being whom he had [like Robin] deserted in his extremity.” Although it is an odd detail taken from Hawthorne’s original source, Reuben leaves a handkerchief fluttering over his fallen comrade “to direct any who might come in search of Malvin,” when this would have more likely attracted the Indians from whom at least the original warriors had believed that they were fleeing. This may merely testify to Reuben’s personal haplessness – the same impracticality which will sink his farm – but there is a suspicious expediency to Reuben’s misfortunes. Perhaps a subconscious memory of his own youthful betrayal will subconsciously send his bullet in the direction of his son; whilst his frantic desire to bury Malvin’s bones conveys – in contrast to the proud display of dead men’s scalps – an anxiety to conceal evidence: “having laid the earth over them, peace would throw its sunlight into the sepulchre of his heart.”
In death, however, Malvin becomes the victor whilst Reuben is subjugated. Only after Malvin demands his own exorcism does his ghost come to life. Through the act of evoking it, Malvin makes his spirit an almost real thing with a calling voice, whilst Reuben ends up as a man with no spirit, a mere body like the bones which he has consigned to the wilderness. The community receives Reuben’s pitiful remains, which are scarcely more communicative or useful than if only his scalp had arrived home. Unlike a scalp, however, Reuben will not earn much money – this “sad and downcast, yet irritable man” proves a “neglectful husbandman.”
Reuben’s homecoming is a disaster, this mercenary killer is plainly unsuited for domestic life, and his farm actually declines during the peace and general prosperity which Lovewell’s Fight had helped to broker. If Reuben seems to be inexplicably led back to Malvin’s bones, this is to overlook the reality that his place in the community is far more predetermined, inescapable, and authored by the patriarch. Reuben is not a self-made man, but he has married Malvin’s daughter and inherited his farm, which was “under old cultivation, larger, and better stocked than most of the frontier establishments.” Reuben finds that Malvin’s dream is chorused by the community: “all acknowledged” that he was allowed to marry Dorcas, whilst “all… spoke of [his son] Cyrus Bourne as a future leader in the land.” Reuben’s declaration of independence will demand abandoning this community and burying the calling bones which have so far authored his own life story.
If Reuben is trapped in a story ghost-written by Malvin, with Malvin’s daughter for an audience and her song erecting a flimsy stage scenery of domestic cottages and firesides which dissents somewhat depressingly from his own narrative of frontier adventure, the spirit of his youth is itself dramatised by his son Cyrus, who walks the boards as that artificial, hackneyed, and even implausible figure of the heroic frontiersman, familiar to every small town stage. Reuben may be alienated from the tale of “courage and fidelity” which Dorcas spreads amongst the community because it evokes an incomplete and theatrical simulation of himself; and whilst he loves Cyrus as “some reflection or likeness of his own mind,” he must surely sense that even if this figure delivered a convincing rendition of himself, Cyrus only promises a repetition of his own history, the same frontier individualism which renders Reuben a useless outcast in civilised society. Just as Cooper’s Leatherstocking would seem forlorn and redundant once the frontier had receded, young men like Cyrus were expended in frontier warfare in order to establish a sophisticated society in which they would have as certain a place as live Indians. Whether one finds Cyrus splendid or corny, Manifest Destiny exacts his own death.
Whilst Roger Malvin is, at least in a material sense, lost in the wilderness, the Brevet Brigadier General A. B. C. Smith’s own remains – “a large and exceedingly odd looking bundle of something” – are carried home and his body is rebuilt. Like Cyrus Bourne, Poe’s hero suggests an artificial, synthetic replica of a frontier warrior, but Cyrus is apparently destined to repeat history with “the return of Indian war” whilst Smith’s own future lies at the centre of a thriving metropolitan society.
The General is by all accounts a satirical figure – as the scholar David Haven Blake notes in one of the best critical studies of this tale, Smith arrives with a “generic name and lack of interiority… a wholly public figure, a “man” made a celebrity through gossip and the tête-à-tête; the “ABCs” of his name suggest that, in the end, he is a transparent, indeed elementary text.” More object than subject, Smith is a man that rather than who – his name Smith affirms that he is an ordinary or “General” man, whilst, as Blake notes, his string of military titles leads up to the crushing anticlimax of the surname Smith. Poe’s game is clearly to mock the use of military reputation for political capital which had frequently characterised Jacksonian democracy, and particularly the electioneering of General Winfield Scott, the Whig presidential candidate, and Richard Mentor Johnson the vice president to the famously “Used Up Man” Martin Van Buren.
But for all of this, Poe’s carping about presidential democracy is rather inconsequential and Smith emerges one of the few genuinely sympathetic characters in his fiction. Although largely assembled from designer prosthetic limbs, this jaunty character personifies Yankee pluck, resourcefulness, and indefatigability. Poe was a dab hand at portraying horrific returns from the dead, but he avoids casting Smith in any sort of sinister light. The tale’s narrator is fascinated by Smith’s glamour and mystery, but he is literally unable to grab a word about the warrior’s swamp fight with the Indians: the man himself will only jabber on about “topics of philosophical interest,” the narrator’s sotto voce inquiries in the church and the theatre are always cut short; whilst the gossips and bluestockings whom he turns to for sources will be forever poised on the brink of recounting the story. As with Strephon from the Dean Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” the ultimate destination for Poe’s snooping narrator is his heartthrob’s most intimate chamber, but he is rewarded with something altogether more spectacular than a bucket of shit.
Smith’s name may typify democratic ordinariness, but there is no sense of anticlimax to his glorious resurrection, which amounts to the triumph of human technology over bodily failings and the general defiance of an age which consigned most physically disabled men to begging. Smith is of course, extremely rude to Pompey, the Negro “valet” who presumably builds him every morning, but in keeping with his refusal to comment meaningfully on slavery or racism, Poe leaves it to the reader to determine whether he is delivering an indictment of Negro exploitation or an affectionately comic portrayal of the natural social order. Pompey does what he is told – if with a little “grumbling” – whilst Reuben’s ambitions seem to be obstructed by the decidedly unoppressed figure of Dorcas, who imposes her own fireside domesticity on to the warriors’ “howling wilderness.” In this respect, Millicent Bell perceptively compares Reuben’s decline with Rip Van Winkle’s “subtle campaign… against domestic happiness,” and one may be further struck by the mortifying detail that Cyrus’ mother tags along on his parentally-supervised frontier adventures (“My beautiful young hunter! My boy has slain a deer!”). This never happened to Leatherstocking.
I admire Blake’s account of Smith as a “cyborg,” but I do not entirely buy his argument that, “in Poe’s story the cyborg emerges not as an “ultimate fighting machine” but rather as a captive who has been reconditioned in order to charm and fascinate his society.” Blake contends that, “The General’s severed tongue… might serve as a trope for the narrative itself, for it guarantees that he will never tell his tale without cultural mediation,” but the fact remains that Smith has a brand new tongue whilst his society cannot find its voice on the subject of his past. One gathers that the Bugaboos and Kickapoos triumphantly slaughtered the General’s men, but these peoples’ unmentionable histories are destined for oblivion whilst Smith’s own body constitutes a rewriting of history, transcending the failures and disasters from his curriculum vitae with a totally reinvented self. Reuben Bourne’s authorial father and his crassly authored son will share the same grave, whilst he, like Smith, is freed from his designated place in history and the determining narratives of others. As with Reuben, Smith’s “sin was expiated, the curse was gone from him” and one cannot help thinking that he would make a fine President.
[The only comparative study between these two tales which I have come across is a 2004 M.A. thesis by David Lonergan, which remains unpublished and unobtainable. See Tychy passim for further writing on Poe and Hawthorne, including the real solution to Poe’s “Gold Bug” and an assessment of Hawthorne’s attitudes towards abolitionism. Ed.]