If you sang "John Henry" as many times as me – "John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain't nothin' but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I'll die with that hammer in my hand." If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you'd have written "How many roads must a man walk down?" too. --Bob DylanTaking Dylan's hint about sources and influences: if as a kid you read (recited? heard recited or declaimed?) Charles Sprague on "Extirpation of the Indians," you might write this in your first book:
The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. --Herman Melville, Typee
From William B. Fowle's The New Speaker, Or Exercises in Rhetoric:
EXTRACT FROM AN ORATION DELIVERED AT BOSTON, JULY 4, 1825.—THE CHARACTER AND EXTIRPATION OF THE INDIANS OF NEW ENGLAND.
— C. SPRAGUE.
ROLL back the tide of time; how powerfully to us applies the promise: "I will give thee the heathen for an inheritance." Not many generations ago, where you now sit, circled with all that exalts and embellishes civilized life, the rank thistle nodded in the wind, and the wild fox dug his hole unscared. Here lived and loved another race of beings. Beneath the same sun that rolls over your heads, the Indian hunter pursued the panting deer; gazing on the same moon that smiles for you, the Indian lover wooed his dusky mate. Here the wigwam blaze beamed on the tender and helpless, the council fire glared on the wise and daring. Now they dipped their noble limbs in your sedgy lakes, and now they paddled the light canoe along your rocky shores. Here they warred; the echoing whoop, the bloody grapple, the defying death-song, all were here ; and when the tiger strife was over, here curled the smoke of peace. Here, too, they worshipped; and from many a dark bosom went up a pure prayer to the Great Spirit. He had not written his laws for them on tables of stone, but He had traced them on the tables of their hearts. The poor child of nature knew not the God of revelation, but the God of the universe he acknowledged in every thing around. He beheld him in the star that sunk in beauty behind his lonely dwelling; in the sacred orb that flamed on him from his mid-day throne; in the flower that snapped in the morning breeze; in the lofty pine, that defied a thousand whirlwinds; in the timid warbler that never left its native grove; in the fearless eagle, whose untired pinion was wet in clouds; in the worm that crawled at his foot; and in his own matchless form, glowing with a spark of that light, to whose mysterious source he bent, in humble though blind adoration.
And all this has passed away. Across the ocean came a pilgrim bark, bearing the seeds of life and death. The former were sown for you; the latter sprang up in the path of the simple native. Two hundred years have changed the character of a great continent, and blotted forever from its face a whole, peculiar people. Art has usurped the bowers of nature, and the anointed children of education have been too powerful for the tribes of the ignorant. Here and there, a stricken few remain, but how unlike their bold, untameable progenitors; The Indian of falcon glance, and lion bearing, the theme of the touching ballad, the hero of the pathetic tale, is gone! and his degraded offspring crawl upon the soil where he walked in majesty, to remind us how miserable is man, when the foot of the conqueror is on his neck.
As a race, they have withered from the land. Their arrows are broken, their springs are dried up, their cabins are in the dust. Their council fire has long since gone out on the shore, and their war-cry is fast dying to the untrodden west. Slowly and sadly they climb the distant mountains, and read their doom in the setting sun. They are shrinking before the mighty tide which is pressing them away; they must soon hear the roar of the last wave, which will settle over them forever. Ages hence, the inquisitive white man, as he stands by some growing city, will ponder on the structure of their disturbed remains, and wonder to what manner of persons they belonged. They will live only in the songs and chronicles of their exterminators. Let these be faithful to their rude virtues as men, and pay due tribute to their unhappy fate as a people.I started looking at Fowle's The New Speaker because it has several pieces that were declaimed at the awards ceremony held by Albany Academy on August 4, 1831. Herman Melville received a prize that day for his superior ciphering books. The extract above from Sprague's 4th of July oration might be the one assigned to Albany Academy student Nathan Hawley, which is identified in the Albany Argus announcement only as "Extract from an Oration by C. Sprague." The New Speaker gives four extracts from orations by Charles Sprague, and "Extirpation of the Indians" comes first--so Herman Melville possibly could have heard it recited the day he received his award for excellent arithmetic.
Or not. Here's another possibility: it could be that Nathan Hawley gave them the extract from Sprague on the "Devotion of La Fayette to the Cause of America." Six years later, Sprague on Lafayette is specifically named as one of the selections to be presented by students in a similar awards ceremony, as announced by the Albany Academy in the Albany Argus on Friday, August 11, 1837.
Other pieces in the 1831 program which appear in Fowle's New Speaker:
- "Ames on the British Treaty" delivered first by Griffith W. Griffiths at the 1831 ceremony is the first selection in The New Speaker.
- "Harper, on Resisting French Agggressions"
- "Dewitt Clinton's address before the Phi Beta" (identified in The New Speaker as Clinton's 1823 discourse at Schenectady)
- "Wayland on Missionary Efforts"
- "Belshazzar's Doom" by Croly
- "Extract from Story’s Address before the Phi Beta Kappa"
- Marco Bozzaris