The Innocence and Wildness of Nature:
The Wild Western hunter and scout descended from Leatherstocking could reach full status as a literary hero only at the cost of losing contact with nature. Before we follow this interesting character in his later adventures we may profitably glance for a moment at what he was giving up.
Leatherstocking's own debt to nature was of course very great. "I have been a solitary man much of my time," he exclaimed in his old age, "if he can be called solitary, who has lived for seventy years in the very bosom of nature', and where he could at any instant open his heart to God without having to strip it of the cares and wickednesses of the settlements ....'' 1 The two principal ideas implicit in this statement the negative doctrine that civilization is wicked and the positive doctrine that untouched nature is a source of strength, truth, and virtue occur sporadically in writing about the Wild West far into the nineteenth century. Thomas J. Farnham, for example, on his way out to Oregon in 1839, records an interview with a remarkable and perhaps largely fictitious Indian whom he says he met on the Arkansas River west of Fort Bent. The Indian is not presented as an untutored noble savage (he was educated at Dartmouth ) but as a philosopher whose views Farnham finds impressive.
As soon as you thrust the plowshare under the earth [declares the articulate Red Man] it teems with worms and useless weeds. It increases population to an unnatural extent creates the necessity of penal enactments spreads over the human face a mask of deception and selfishness and substitutes villainy, love of wealth and power,
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and the slaughter of millions for the gratification of some royal cut throat, in place of the single minded honesty, the hospitality, honour and the purity of the natural state.2
Civilization is pernicious also because it interposes a veil of artificiality between the individual and the natural objects of experience. The sophisticated art of the cities substitutes a copy for the realities of things "as they live in their own native magnificence on the eternal mountains, and in the secret untrodden vale." That other boasted triumph of civilization, science, may point to its shallow successes in the realm of mere physical manipulation of natural forces; but the true savage scorns the aid of such trivial tools, and "looks through Nature, without the aid of science up to its cause." 3
Something resembling this set of ideas was almost certain to be used sooner or later in imaginative interpretation of the Wild West. The man who went farthest in such a direction was one Charles W. Webber, a forgotten writer who nevertheless in his day created quite a stir. Webber was appropriately enough a native of Kentucky. He spent some time in Texas in the late 1830's and subsequently entered the Princeton Divinity School. Finding himself troubled by theological doubts, he went to New York and embarked on a prolific career as a writer for the magazines. Between 1844, when his story "Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye" had a sensational success, and 1856, when he met his death while filibustering with Walker in Nicaragua, he wrote several books and some two dozen articles, essays, and stories, many of them related to his experiences in Texas.
Webber started with the simple exploitation of violence on the frontier that was to furnish the substance of so many hundreds of subliterary tales in the Beadle period and after. Encouraged by the popularity of "Jack Long" to think of himself as an interpreter of the West, he began to affect the manner of a philosopher and wrote two ambitious novels. Of these, Old Hicks, the Guide (1848 ) is the more interesting because it shows so clearly how the author tried and failed to construct an interpretation of the Western wilderness within the framework of primitivism. Chapters V to VIII of Old Hicks contain, according to Webber, extracts from a journal of an actual trip which he made from the
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headwaters of the Trinity River in north central Texas to the upper Canadian River, near the present boundary between Texas and New Mexico.4 At the end of Chapter VIII Webber inserts the words "End of the Journal," and immediately introduces his characters to a fabulous "Peaceful Valley" where are discovered a heroine, Emilie, and a villain, Count Albert, both of them Parisians. The narrator functions as hero. Webber seems to have intended a contrapuntal arrangement of related themes of primitivism-- the decadent impulse to go back to nature peculiar to the overcivilized, and the original harmony with nature enjoyed by virtuous savages. But he faces the same problem of plot construction that confronted Cooper: for incident he can contrive only a love story and an Indian fight. It is true that he handles these familiar materials in an unprecedented fashion. Since Emilie is French she would be felt by the author and his readers as possibly immoral, or at least less rigidly proper than Cooper's females. Besides, she is married to the wicked Count. This contretemps interposes an obstacle to the hero's love for her which gives Webber the opportunity to contrast the intuitive ethics of the wilderness with the bigotry of urban society.5 As for the Indians Comanches whom Count Albert has made into a disciplined cavalry enslaved to his will, they are presented as children of the ancient mother nature. They are, for instance, skilled in the art of healing by the purely natural means of cold water or sweat baths. This Indian accomplishment launches Webber on an extended passage of moralizing called "The Philosophy of Savage Life." He declares that
the highest truths in many departments of human investigation, which it has taken our complex civilization many centuries to arrive at or approach, are recognized and acted upon intuitively in the savage or elementary forms of the social state.... The great geniuses are and have been essentially savages in all but the breech clout. They arrive at truth by much the same processes; they equally scorn all shackles but those of the God-imposed senses, whether corporeal or spiritual, and, with like self-reliance, rule all precedents by the Gospel as revealed within themselves!6
Although there is more of this sort of thing in Webber's discussion of his implausible Comanches, the crux of his literary
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problem is of course what he is going to do with his love story on the basis of the philosophical apparatus he has so elaborately constructed. His solution is not very impressive. He introduces a brother of Emilie who kills Albert when he discovers that the Count has deceived his sister by the familiar device of a spurious marriage ceremony. The situation would seem to depend entirely upon civilized and even genteel conceptions of propriety. But Webber justifies the brother's action on the score that frontiersmen, having withdrawn from civilization "to get rid of what, to their free instinct, seemed merely conventional and unnatural requisitions," have based their stern moral code upon the light of nature that is, upon "those conscious instincts of honor, justice, and right, which are common to all mankind." 7
Another supposed aspect of frontier morality leads Webber in a different direction. If the rangers' intuitive sense of honor and justice demands the death of the villain for his seduction of the heroine, the same instinct leads them to approve their leaders love for her even when they think she is the lawful wife of the Count. The author's point, reached after rather devious reasoning, is that the Texan rangers' freedom from all shackles upon the physical life has released them at the same time from moral bigotry.
With them [he declares] the primitive virtues of a heroic
manhood are all sufficient, and they care nothing for
reverences, forms, duties, &c., as civilization has
them, but respect each other's rights, and recognize the
awful presence of a benignant God in the still grandeur of
mountain, forest, valley, plain, and river, through, among,
and over which they pass.
The rangers are thus prepared to accept their leader's love for Emilie. But surely this is a long preamble to a simple tale. Since the narrator performs no action more remarkable than winning
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the love of the heroine, he hardly represents a significant advance in the development of a characteristic Western hero.
Webber's determination to develop his primitivistic theory leads him into an elaborate description of the Peaceful Valley as "a new Eden of unsophisticated life" where the antelope are so tame they walk up to sniff the saddles the Texans have thrown upon the grass.
These graceful creatures [he explains] had been shut out, by their steep hills in this enchanting recess, from any knowledge of the gloomy and bloody strife which man has been waging with himself and all God's creatures since sin and death came into the world.9
No one in the party was cruel enough to fire at such an unsuspecting prey, "to be, willingly, the first messenger of terror to announce to these innocent creatures that the curse was upon the world, smiting with a red right hand its sunny heart." The theme of conflict seems to have had a peculiar importance for Webber; his tributes to a natural as contrasted with a civilized life return again and again to the notion that the essence of civilization is struggle. His symbols are loosely managed, but a genuine, if somewhat formless, emotion comes through the tinsel rhetoric:
I felt the better instincts of my nature uplift themselves in a revolt against the harsh and fierce conditions of that endless struggle with all being and all peace, in which my life had been so long involved. Was this stern antagonism natural? Did it include the higher purposes of our lives touch our nobler capacities of bliss? I felt weary at these thoughts, and as if I could. sink forever upon the placid bosom of our mother earth and sleep a sweet sleep of dreamlessness; for that would, at least, be peace.10
Upon a first encounter with this farrago one might well conclude that Webber's adventure in primitivism was a mere idiosyncrasy. But to his contemporaries he was a far from negligible figure. Shortly before his death in 1856 the Duyckincks gave him an impressive amount of space in their Cyclopaedia of American Literature, speaking with approval of his "healthy sense of animal life," his "inner poetical reflection," and his "mental enthusiasm" 11 phrases which show an accurate if uncritical perception of the writer's intentions and manner. In reviewing The Gold Mines of the Gila, Webber's second novel, Graham's stated that
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"if the author would concentrate his energies, he might produce a novel which would give him a place in the front rank of our original minds." 12 This comment, together with certain other contemporary remarks to be considered presently, suggests that Webber's readers correctly evaluated his careless, headlong, improvisatory method. At the same time, they believed that he was moving in an interesting direction and that his central ideas, with greater discipline and rigor, might well support an important work. The primitivism that now seems merely pompous and absurd did not seem so to professional critics of the mid century.
The impression Webber made on his contemporaries is best shown by the fact that two leading journals compared him with Melville, in both instances to Webber's advantage. Graham's declared flatly that Old Hicks showed "more genius than Typee or Omoo" 13 and the Democratic Review said that Old Hicks resembled Omoo in its "remarkable vraisemblance" but had "more of earnestness and poetry ...." In fact, the anonymous critic for the Democratic Review seemed on the point of becoming a convert to Webber's faith. He remarked that "We have evidently much to learn yet of these Camanches," and described the chapter on "The Philosophy of Savage Life" as "a manly exposition of truths, which have for a long time puzzled the heads of our wiseacres..."14
As for vraisemblance, a modern reader finds Old Hicks so signally deficient in this regard after the opening chapters that he can hardly believe the reviewer was saying what he meant. But the comparisons with Typee and Omoo are more illuminating. Both Melville and Webber wrote of adventures among primitive peoples in remote parts of the world. Both novelists drew heavily upon their own experiences and cast their narratives in the first person. Both perceived in the simple life of savages values strikingly in contrast with the official doctrines of American society, and drew inferences not flattering to refinement, gentility, and civilization. Webber, of course, was vastly inferior to Melville either as thinker or as artist, and his subsequent development demonstrates what now seems evident on every page of Old Hicks, namely that he was far too careless and irresponsible to mature and integrate his art. Melville went on to Moby Dick while Web-
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ber was trifling with miscellaneous sketches of animals, outdoor life, and hunting. Both men had, so to speak, lived among cannibals, but Webber was never able to get beyond this experience.
The comparison with Melville nevertheless has the advantage of suggesting why no one besides Webber made a serious effort to develop a literature of the Wild West in terms of primitivism, and why Webber's effort failed. The strain of exoticism which colored Webber's Peaceful Valley on the Upper Canadian as well as Melville's idyllic valley in the South Seas gave to both these symbols an essentially static, dreamlike quality. They derived their vitality from an attenuated form of the idea of communion with nature. This idea, as Melville was later to proclaim with unmatched force, was no longer tenable; but Webber was unable to confront the fact. He could do no more than exemplify the bankruptcy of primitivism. He did not have the intellectual or imaginative force of a Melville, to build a new art from the ruins of his earlier doctrine of nature. And his career strongly suggests that a valid literary interpretation of the West could not be based upon a conception of nature that was losing force with every passing year.
Yet if the Wild West considered as untouched nature proved to be unsuitable material for major literature, it had a considerable attraction for American writers at the middle of the century. Emerson noted in 1844 that"The imagination delights in the woodcraft of Indians, trappers and bee-hunters." "We fancy that we are strangers," he continued, "and not so intimately domesticated in the planet as the wild man and wild beast and bird." Men who felt themselves divorced from nature seemed to hope that by dwelling upon these symbols they might regain a lost imaginative contact with some secret source of virtue and power in the universe. Emerson considered the quest vain: primitive man, and even animals, had no more root in the deep world than civilized man; "the world is all outside; it has no inside." 15 But among Emerson's younger contemporaries, Thoreau and Melville were still able to find some meaning in the virgin West.
Even though the Western wilderness no longer seemed benevolent in the old fashion, its very wildness could nourish Thoreau's rejection of the organized society he surveyed with such superb
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detachment. He conceded, grudgingly, that for the wise man civilization offered advantages superior to those of the savage state. But he felt that these advantages had been secured only at a grievous cost in individual freedom and spontaneity.16 In an often-quoted passage from his posthumous essay on "Walking" he declares that the West draws him by an indescribable magnetic attraction. "The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side." To the East lay the city, to the West the wilderness, "and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness."17 This westward impulse led Thoreau momentarily to envision a Whitmanesque future society composed of men whose hearts should correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to the topography of the West.18 But more often, and more deeply, the West was for him "but another name for the Wild." And he believed that "in Wilderness is the preservation of the World...From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind."19 At the very moment when he was celebrating transcendental "higher laws" in Walden, he noted that he felt an equal impulse toward a primitive rank and savage life. "I love the wild not less than the good."20 "I would have every man," he declared in the essay on "Walking," "so much like a wild antelope, so much a part and parcel of Nature which he mosts haunts." 21
Thoreau opposes the vital wildness of the West to the dead tameness of civilization. To the extent that he affirms a supreme good in the trackless wilderness he falls into the pattern cultural primitivisms. But to Melville the Wild West, like nature in general, came to seem in the highest degree ambiguous. It was not more certainly good than bad, yet in either case it was terrible and magnificent. The point is worth making because metaphorical material derived from the Wild West plays such an important part in Moby Dick. Toward the agricultural West of the Ohio Valley Melville had an attitude not unlike that of most conservative Easterners in the 1840's. Mardi makes a conventional attack on Western politicians with their cult of manifest destiny, and paints an unsympathetic picture of the Goldrush.22 But the West beyond
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the frontier had a different value for him. The two images developed at greatest length in the pivotal Chapter XLII of Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale," are those of the White Steed of the Prairies and the Vermont colt maddened by the scent of a buffalo robe. These Wild Western images are used to establish the incantation of whiteness, the sinister blend of majesty and terror which Ishmael perceives in the White Whale and of course by implication in the suprasensible reaches of the universe. Yet at the same time Melville adopts the theme of the paradisiacal innocence of the Wild West which had attracted Webber. The White Steed, in this celebrated passage, is
a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of the vast herds of wild horses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies. At their flaming head he westward trooped it like that chosen star which every evening leads on the hosts of light. The flashing cascade of his mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings more resplendent than gold and silver-beaters could have furnished him. A most imperial and archangelical apparition of that unfallen, western world, which to the eyes of the old trappers and hunters revived the glories of those primeval times when Adam walked majestic as a god, bluff-browed and fearless as this mighty steed. Whether marching amid his aides and marshals in the van of countless cohorts that endlessly streamed it over the plains, like an Ohio; or whether with his circumambient subjects browsing all around at the horizon, the White Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening through his cool milkiness; in whatever aspect he presented himself, always to the bravest Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe. Nor can it be questioned from what stands on legendary record of this noble horse, that it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him with divineness; and that this divineness had that in it which, though commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror.23
The frenzy aroused in the colt in his peaceful Vermont valley by the savage musk of the pelt from distant Oregon testifies to the demonism in the world: it calls up associations of the gorings of wild creatures trampling some deserted wild foal of the prairies. For Ishmael, as for the sheltered Vermont colt, such nameless evil things must exist. And at this point comes the
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sentence that conveys more than any other passage of similar length what Melville meant by his novel: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright."24 The native wildness of the West served him as a means of expressing one of his major intuitions.