Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 3


Continuing on Aarti’s and my joint reading of Robert Morgan’s Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, we’ve moved on to the early 1800s and the man you probably know as “Johnny Appleseed.”

Catch up with chapters 1 and 2, Jefferson and Jackson, respectively.

Chapter 3, John Chapman: Apples and Angels

Kari: I thought that this chapter was quite a departure from the previous two on Jefferson and Jackson, and I thought this for a couple reasons. The first being, Chapman is a figure who was “monumental” in westward expansion…but he actually had zero power! He was not political; he was not a general; he was just a guy, yet he is remembered for his role in western settlement. (To be honest, I’ve never associated him with western expansion, but since Morgan is including him in this book, I’ll just give it to him without argument.)

Aarti: I never associated Johnny Appleseed with westward expansion, either! Though to be fair, I always thought of him as a “frontier man,” though never in the sense of Pennsylvania and Ohio being the frontier. I do really like him, though, so I am glad he got his own (very short) chapter.

Kari: The second difference is that Chapman didn’t play the same role that Jefferson and Jackson had—that role of conquering, compromising, defining. He represented a different side of the expansion, one that was more idyllic than the forceful nature of the Presidents. He stood for more than just his actions; he represented something, an ideal, that meant more than what he actually did. If anything, the most important role he played in western conflict was that of a mediator, making things better between opposing sides by acting as a message man and looking out for others. It’s like he worked to prevent conflict while he went about doing his own thing. Basically, Chapman strikes me as an 18th century wandering hippie type. He just went around, never getting too caught up in the lives of others, holding strong to his own set of ideals and lifestyle, not caring what others thought. It’s not an image you really associate with this time period!

Aarti: You really hit the nail on the head here. In a way, Chapman is the anti-Manifest Destiny guy, and it’s refreshing to read about him. I can just imagine how much he flummoxed the people he encountered – wearing rags, preaching a very obscure branch of Christianity, planting apple trees, giving girls ribbons… It’s sad because I feel like if I were to come across Johnny Appleseed today, I’d be totally freaked out by him, with the evangelizing and the torn clothes and the weird gifts to little girls. But reading about him, I am totally enthralled. And so happy that people were so kind to him, too.

Kari: Hahaha, that is quite an idea—picturing him today. Society would probably be a little freaked out by him!

One idea that piqued my interest was how nature often dictated the actions of people for settlement. The idea that Chapman went across the country, planting trees, so that they would be fully grown and fruitful by the time the rest of the people made it out there was fascinating. In a sense, he was dictating how the west was developed and where people stopped to settle. Maybe that is giving him too much credit, but to some degree, it did have an effect. And the fact that he thought ahead like that, and struck out on his own across open lands, definitely took a certain kind of person.

Aarti: I actually spotlighted Johnny Appleseed in a Sunday Salon post a while ago and was also struck by just how enterprising he was. He actually died with a good amount of property to his name because he was very good at guessing where pioneers would go next. Michael Pollan referred to him as the “American Dionysius” because wherever he went, hard apple cider followed :-) I wonder if he just struck a path and people followed him because the way was already paved there or if he really thought he knew where people would go. Either way, it’s a very interesting strategy for growth, and it seems to have worked very well for him!

Kari: Morgan emphasizes the legend that runs alongside “Johnny Appleseed” and how the stories of him have been passed down and down again. We (or at least I) usually associate the western frontier at this time with a strong storytelling culture, and it’s almost like the chicken and the egg; which came first? Did Chapman’s story sort of spark the verbal histories of American folk tale legends, particularly in the west, or was this already a large part of the culture of these people moving to the frontier?

Aarti: This really struck me, too, not only with Chapman but also with Davey Crockett (more on that later). I thought it was interesting the way that Morgan said that the larger-than-life characters of westward expansion really epitomized what people wanted to believe about themselves, or mocked parts of themselves that they were self-conscious about. In that way, I think Chapman was really the ideal- he was a kind man who took care not to judge too quickly and got along with everyone, whites and Indians. And he was really, really good at surviving out on his own! One thing that wasn’t mentioned in this chapter but that I learned through my own research was that Chapman was vegetarian! I find this so fascinating for someone who lived in the old frontier- I associate that culture so strongly with hunting that it was really mind-blowing to find out that someone was so out of the norm at that time.

Kari: A particular passage I liked: “It is something of a mystery why certain people become figures of myth and folklore…What is it that makes virtually everyone who knew them remember and talk about a Daniel Boone or a John Chapman?…The stories reveal how they like to see themselves, the potential, the ideal of an age.” (p 111)

Aarti: Oh, there’s the quote I was mentioning above! Yes, I agree. And if everything I know about John Chapman (it is hard for me to think of him as that name, as opposed to Johnny Appleseed) is true, then I am fine with him being an ideal for us. He really seems to be the nicest of the bunch we’re going to “meet” in this book, and I was really glad to learn more about him here, even if the stories are probably very exaggerated.


zibilee said…

I also never really thought about Johnny Appleseed being an influence in westward expansion, but it makes sense. I liked that both of you weighed in on the difference between Appleseed and the other men that have been highlighted so far. He doesn't fit the mold, but it seems to me, that he was a little more lovingly represented than the others were. Great discussion today! I enjoyed it!

Kari said…

He definitely is the most sympathetic figure we've encountered so far! Morgan's chapter on him contains the most factual information I've ever read about the man known as Johnny Appleseed. Even while Google Image-searching for a picture to use in this post, most of the pictures that came up were illustrations or photos from stories or films—few came from his own time period. He really has become more a myth and legend than a "real" person.