Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Western Trail": unsigned review of Thornton's Oregon and California in 1848

More than fifty years ago Norman E. Hoyle proposed that Herman Melville wrote more anonymous book reviews for the New York Literary World than the five we already knew about.  Like one we know for sure Melville reviewed, Parkman's Oregon Trail, four books Melville might also have reviewed concern travel and adventure in the American West.  Evert Duyckinck, then editor of the Literary World, apparently
"considered Melville his Far West specialist," 
according to Hoyle in his unpublished doctoral dissertation, "Melville as a Magazinist" (Duke University, 1960), p. 46.  No external documentary evidence for Melville's authorship (manuscripts, correspondence, diary entries, receipts) has been located for any of the possible Melville reviews identified by Hoyle.  What evidence Hoyle gives is in the form of internal evidence, textual parallels to Melville's known writings-- usually interesting, sometimes persuasive, often not.

Clearly more work needs to be done in the way of investigation and analysis of these unsigned reviews.  Little has been written on the subject since Hoyle's 1960 dissertation.  Here, for its own sake and hopefully to kick-start a fresh discussion in the "Did Melville Write It? department, we present the unsigned review of Thornton's Oregon and California in 1848 from
The Literary World 4 (March 3, 1849): 198-199.

THE WESTERN TRAIL.
Oregon and California in 1848. By J. Quinn Thornton, late Judge of the Supreme Court of Oregon, and Corresponding Member of the American Institute. 2 vols. 12mo. Harpers.

Mr. Thornton's book may be taken as an interesting addition to the stock of information which we possess of the great western routes of travel in the works of Fremont and Bryant. It covers the details of a numerous expedition from Independence, Mo., to the settlement of Oregon, in which are exhibited in an honest and impartial manner, the various trials, hardships, difficulties overcome, the many disappointments, the few alleviations of the great overland journey—a route of travel which will one day be looked back upon with the wonder and interest with which we now peruse the records of old oriental travel, or follow the disheartening explorations of the African desert. Very soon new and more practicable routes will be open to the emigrants to the Pacific, the ox will be supplanted by the horse on the plank road, or both will be superseded by the flying locomotive. The buffalo will be left to waste away into extinction, hunted solely by the Indian; while forts and depots, with some adequate surrounding cultivation, will supply the necessities of the traveller. When that period arrives, journals such as this before us will be matters of extraordinary interest as studies of the human race in novel situations, which can never again be repeated. It will then be seen how much of heroism, of romance, how many patiently developed virtues, how much latent villany suddenly brought to light, how much chivalry in man, endurance in woman, were acted in this present time, which it is accustomed to call barren and prosaic. There are incidents in this volume touching as any which attended the first emigration of Europeans to this continent; woes as afflictive as ever darkened the eyes of Virginia or New England colonists; deeds of manhood of as much nerve, sufferings as patiently borne. A man who would learn human nature rapidly, who would see it developed under the most vigorous forcing system which can be applied to that fertile soil, should join the party in an overland journey to the Pacific; or failing to do that, he should sit down quietly by his fireside to the reading of some such narrative as that of Judge Thornton. A sea voyage used to be thought a good opportunity for the study of character, but there are few sea voyages nowadays at all to be compared for this purpose to the voyage of the Prairie and the Desert. Our author gives it the preference even, though his taste for temperance has something to do with the choice, to wine—the old unmasker of truth. He found cold and hunger brought out scoundrelism, as fire applied to sympathetic ink; and quotes with naivete the aphorism of an old sailor of his party, named Grinnel, who remarked, "that if a man was a dog, and should enter upon the road, it would be impossible for him to conceal it, since circumstances would be sure to occur every day that would be certain to cause him to bark." Yet this was but one side of the picture. Doubtless there were some touches of the angelic as well as the diabolic nature in the camp. Nay, the traits of kindness and feeling are numerous. If there were groans there were also jests; good humor laughed twice for every sigh. There were springs even in the desert.
      A singular picture, however, of life, is that overland journey in its best conditions. The motley companies, hundreds in number, bring with them the full material for the acting of the old drama, childhood, youth, womanhood, and manhood, fresh with hope, or distracted by the thousand vexations of a disappointed career. The oddly-assorted body forms itself into a state, a kind of provisional government is adopted, there is a species of military organization, and captains lead on the emigrant squadrons. Here there is a trial of dispositions, but the primary difficulties are softened by the ease of the opening portions of the journey. There is considerable gaiety in the camp. Marriages even take place, and something of the etiquette of ball-rooms is transferred to the tent and carpet of the prairie. There are births too, but as the train goes on, it may be tracked by subsequent travellers, who note the graves, with their rude memorials, by the road side. The cattle, in this moving panorama, are not the least observable. The ox developes his patient virtues, and the kind-hearted emigrant looks upon him as his friend,—perhaps, when the last blade of grass is left behind, to shed tears as he leaves him to die in the desert.

     The incidents which we have glanced at in the aggregate will be found in Mr. Thornton's volumes related in a simple unaffected manner, though with little of the art of the trained writer. Yet upon the whole we would not have the book altered, though it were to pass through the hands of the most accomplished magazinist. Narratives of this kind are valuable, as they bear the authentic marks of the author's personality. We know, then, how to appreciate his facts—but let the same facts be related by a Captain Marryatt, or other adept in book-making, and we lose a proper guide to their valuation. There is sufficient personality thus infused into Mr. Thornton's story to put us in communication with the man. We learn his tastes and education; we know the books he has read, and even the sermons which he has listened to. We see the miscellaneous education, the good heart and clear head of the best specimen of the western Colonist—the Judge, Governor, or Member of Congress of the new settlement. He has not the literary tastes and condensation of the educated circles of the metropolis; on the contrary, he is somewhat diffuse, but the man is there, simple, sagacious, and in earnest—and the man, on such a spot, is more essential than the author.

     We cannot well detach any separate passages from the most remarkable narratives in these volumes, of the sufferings of two parties in the deserts of Oregon, or in the snow-covered regions of California. They exhibit a picture of privation rarely equalled even in the most harrowing narrative of shipwreck and famine. The story of the Mountain Camp may be compared with the shipwreck of the Medusa.

     From the other parts of the volume we make a few extracts. And first, for a specimen of the author's good humor :—
INVASION OF PROPERTY.
"At this place the first open and very marked attempt was made to seize upon my property, and leave myself and wife in the wilderness, exposed to the tender mercies of the savages. David came to my wagon, with one Rice Dunbar, and coolly informed me that he intended to take from me two ox-yokes and their chains. He might have added —and two yoke of oxen, for the effect of the wickedness contemplated would have been to deprive me of that number. This would have left me helpless. Ere I could believe my senses, he had already carried away one yoke and chain.
" I now saw that the spirit I had for a long time observed must be met and promptly subdued, if I was not prepared to make up my mind to a very romantic death for Mrs. Thornton and myself in the wilderness. Having never read any works of fiction, except the story of Jack the Giant-killer, I had not by novel reading caught that spirit of romance under the influence of which I might have aspired to become the hero of some lachrymose story. I therefore determined that when this redoubtable Dutchman returned for the second yoke and chain, I would make an example of him for thus attempting by force to take away my property.
" He took up the second yoke, and loaded himself with it and the chain; and I took up a musket, which, though not loaded, had a bayonet upon it, and immediately came down upon him in a solid body, with fixed bayonet; charging with great spirit, in double quick time, I deployed, extended my flanks, and executed, with great skill and precision, a number of most masterly military manoeuvres; and, in fact, did everything but cut up myself into divisions, until I so cut up the enemy, that he dropped my property. Very .soon after this I succeeded in turning first his left flank, and then his right; when he commenced retreating, panic-struck and in great precipitation, disorder, and confusion, and so rapidly that his coat tail stuck out in very ludicrous style. I now concentrated all my forces for a full, vigorous, and final charge upon the enemy's rear; and accordingly bore down upon him with much enthusiasm, and was giving him great tribulation—indeed doing the most appalling execution—when Rice Dunbar and Albert reinforced him, and enabled him to make good his retreat, without further loss, behind a wagon; where he took post, shaking most terribly in his shoes, and crying, 'Plut and tunder.'  I then sprang into my wagon and got my six-shooter, and by making a forced march was soon before the enemy's works, which I forthwith stormed. I then marched him out, and marched him before me to the first yoke and chain taken by him, which, with great docility, he took up and carried back to my wagon."
The introduction of Capt. Applegate, whose misrepresentations of a route to Oregon were the cause of great suffering, is quaint and effective:—
A CAPTAIN.
"I never could learn how it was that Applegate obtained the title of' 'captain,' unless it was in some such way as that to which I once knew a 'major' resort for the purpose of obtaining a supply of linen. Captein comes from the Latin caput, a head.  But Captain Applegate has not enough head to make it appropriate to bestow upon him so great a title for the sake of a head which is not sufficiently large to be taken for the primitive of such a derivative."
As a specimen of the author's narrative, the description of a scene may be taken, which has also employed the pen of Mr. Bryant, in his "What I saw in California":—
BIRTHS, MARRIAGES, AND DEATHS.
"The Rev. Mr. Cornwall had made an appointment to preach at an encampment of emigrants, about one mile and a half distant; and we were about to set off, when a messenger arrived, desiring me to go over for the purpose of amputating a boy's leg, that had been fractured below the knee, and also above it. We went over, and upon examination of the limb, gangrene was found to have commenced about the wound made below the knee, by a protrusion of the fractured bone. The friends of the lad had sent back to the California company for Mr. Edwin Bryant, who had, I believe, in the early part of his life, studied medicine, and perhaps anatomy and surgery, but had never practised professionally. I had read books upon these subjects, for the sake of general information, and in connexion with medical jurisprudence, which constituted part of my studies as a lawyer. But I had not so much as seen a limb amputated. I declined amputating the limb, until Mr. Bryant should have had time to come up. There was a cattle-driver in camp, who had been several years a servant in a French hospital, and had frequently been present when limbs were taken off. He commenced making preparations for the work. Butcher knives and whetstones were soon in requisition. There was not a surgical instrument of any kind in either camp. Laudanum was given to the boy repeatedly without any effect, and he was taken from the wagon, and his body so bound to a shoe-box that his limbs did not rest upon it. The operator had just commenced operation immediately above the lower fracture, that is to say, about three inches below the knee, although I advised him to take it off above the upper fracture. About this time Mr. Bryant arrived, but declined to operate. He, however, conversed with me,and concurred with me in the opinion that it should be amputated, if at all, above the upper fracture. But our surgeon proceeded, until he had completed the incision in the flesh to the bone, all the way round, when a very offensive matter having followed the knife, my worst fears were realized, and the operator was at length convinced. A tourniquet was then applied above the upper fracture, and the operation was renewed. The boy bore his sufferings with the most wonderful fortitude and heroism. He seemed scarcely to move a muscle. A deathlike paleness would sometimes cover his face, and there cannot be a doubt that the pain was most intense; but, instead of groaning, he would use some word of encouragement to the almost shrinking operator, or some expression of comfort to his afflicted friends. It was only when the person who held the phial of the spirits of camphor to his nostrils, chanced to remove it, in his eagerness to watch the operation, that the boy manifested any extraordinary degree of suffering. Then his lips would become bloodless, and he would exclaim, while he eagerly sought with his hands to restore the phial, 'Oh ! no, oh! no, let me have it to my nose.'
"The limb was at length severed, the arteries were secured, and the flap brought down, in one hour and forty-five minutes from the time the incision was made in the lower part of the limb. I had frequently been compelled to retire from the painful and most afflictive spectacle. But at the time when the whole work was completed, I was present, and observing that he was much exhausted, I asked him in a soothing tone and manner if he was suffering much pain. He clasped his hands, and partially raising them, exclaimed, 'O, yes, I am suffering. I am suffering—so much.'  His lips quivered, his eyeballs gradually rolled back, and his spirit was gone.
"Preaching was omitted in consequence of the time being thus occupied. I then returned to our own encampment with Mr. Cornwall, taking with me Mr. Bryant, to receive such hospitalities as an emigrant might be able to offer. Mrs. Thornton having learned that Mr. Bryant had arrived at the camp of our neighbors upon the plain, and judging from the relations of friendship existing between us that I would bring him home with me, and anxious, moreover, to do whatever she believed would please me and afford me an agreeable surprise, had prepared an excellent supper of stewed bison and antelope flesh, which she had arranged upon a neat white cloth, spread in the open air upon a grass plot, and around which she had contrived to gather, I know not how, many little I kings to please tho fancy.
"All the company had, without much ceremony, been invited to attend a wedding, at the tent of Mr. Lard, at 9 o'clock that evening. We accordingly gathered round the altar, where we found the Rev. J. A. Cornwall ready to act as officiating priest, and Miss Lard and her affianced, Mootrey by name, as victims to be offered upon it. The bride was arrayed in a very decent but gay-looking dress. I was not sufficiently near to determine what were the materials of which it was made. The groom had on his best, and something more. Some of the young women were dressed with a tolerable degree of taste and even elegance. There were no long beards, dirty hands, begrimed faces, soiled linen, or ragged pantaloons; and all looked as happy as the occasion demanded. Indeed, at that very time there were four other persons present who expected to be married in a few days.
"I cannot say that I much approve of a woman marrying upon the road. It looks so much like making a sort of a hop, skip, and jump into matrimony, without knowing what her feet will come down upon, or whether they may not be wounded and bruised.
"The little sufferer before referred to, was buried in the night, and the silent and sad procession made a strange and affecting contrast, as it proceeded slowly, by the light of torches, to that lonely grave so hastily dug in the wilderness.
"Strange as it may seem, that same evening another interesting event transpired—the birth of a child, in another company, that was encamped upon the plain: so that the great epochs of life were all represented at nearly the same period of time."

     We must here pause. We have now several books of value on the first explorations and settlements of the Pacific territories. A new era is now opened, by the discovery of the gold mines, which will afford a fruitful source of matters of interest to future authors. Already the publishers begin to trench on their field—the present volumes, with several others of the kind recently published, having the accounts of Mason, Larkins, &c, appended—for the obvious purpose of introducing the magic word "gold" on the title page. These documents are useful, but we would humbly suggest that they have now been printed often enough, and that any repetition of them will be injurious to the publishers. They are to be found added to the new edition of Bryant, to Lieut. Revere's "Tour of Duty," to Thornton's Oregon, besides being at hand in various cheap compilations. We would add, too, that greater care and specialty in the maps published, would be of advantage to the reader. We look in vain on Colton's embroidered map, which accompanies these volumes, for some of the particular localities mentioned by Thornton.  --The Literary World, Volume 4 - March 3, 1849





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