- Historic Sites
Why These Three Men Are Part Of Your Soul
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
The Indian left his mark on the backwoodsman, in the latter’s place-names, his costumes, his forest sense. “The backwoodsman conquered the Indian,” wrote Rourke, “but the Indian also conquered him.” She claimed Audubon for her backwoods pantheon. The great naturalist was a fiddler, a crack shot, and a colorful liar who claimed to have ridden a wild horse through six states and gave an account of the Ohio River’s “Devil-Jack Diamond Fish,” ten feet long and armored with bulletproof diamond-shaped stone scales that struck fire with steel. But the type’s exemplars were Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, the flatboatmen’s king. Each started out a flesh-and-blood man and wound up a myth, for in the early nineteenth century the boundary between life and legend was porous indeed. We were a colorful, noisy, exaggeration-prone people, in love with the theater and with oratory (the close ties between the stage and politics were symbolized by the friendship of Sam Houston and the actor Junius Brutus Booth). The inflations and hyperbole of the day’s public speakers were part of the same language that created Crockett and Fink, “those minor deities men create in their own image and magnify to magnify themselves.” As the novelist Ralph Ellison, who was deeply influenced by Rourke, pointed out, “Constance Rourke reminded us that we began to define ourselves and to create ourselves through the agency of the word, of the imagination, the fictional imagination—and that basically we are liars.” Or tall-tale tellers.
tended to be highly self-conscious, the Yankee in his ruminations, the backwoodsman in his noisy preening. Their self-absorption mirrored that of their creators. We grew up well aware of our newness on the world’s stage—aware, too, of the Old World’s often scornful gaze. We winced, but we also learned to flaunt the very traits Europe ridiculed. We were noisy, bumptious, unfeignedly curious; we built our identity not by aping the Europeans but by going out of our way to irritate them.
The crowing backwoodsman kept a “comic oblivious tone” throughout all his roamings, although “horror, terror, death were written large in the life of the rivers and forests.”
The two mythic figures were usually portrayed as solitary, “never part of a complex human situation, always nomadic.” The earlynineteenth-century American imagination could go no further; the social fabric was too thin, the flux too absolute. No sooner did we settle down than we were off again, echoing Daniel Boone’s cry of “More elbow-room!” The precondition for a nuanced realism —a layered, textured society—did not yet exist. Neither Yankee nor backwoodsman “invited the literal view or the prosaic touch.” They were types, their features writ large. The forms our pre-literature took—the monologue, the rhapsody, the tale, loosely structured, improvised, shot through with the supernatural—were not those of realism but of fantasy. American writers early on tapped a vein of fabulism, of comic exaggeration, and have mined it ever since.
We touched a moment ago on a basic Rourkeian idea, even if she left it merely implicit in American Humor . It wasn’t content, she said, but form—the basic shape an artist gave his product—that determined his relationship to tradition. “It is the consistent print of form in successive periods,” she wrote in her later book on the twentiethcentury painter Charles Sheeler, “that gives a national tradition its character.” Old-fashioned subject matter guaranteed nothing; what rooted an artist in a tradition was his skillful adaptation of inherited forms. Sheeler often painted modern industrial buildings, but his work had the same purity of line as nineteenth-century Shaker crafts. The Shakers’ work was utilitarian, Sheeler’s strictly for contemplation, yet they were organically linked; they expressed the same tradition.
Taking leave of Yankee and backwoodsman, Rourke sketched her comedy’s third player. “The young American Narcissus,” she wrote, “had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image.” To identify the Negro as a crucial element of America’s self-image was a radical step in 1931. It made sense to Rourke. “The Negro was to be seen everywhere in the South and in the new Southwest, on small farms and great plantations, on roads and levees,” she wrote. “He was often an all but equal member of many a pioneering expedition. He became, in short, a dominant figure in spite of his condition, and commanded a definite portraiture.”