Sunday, November 6, 2011

Melville's prose headnote to "John Marr" and Carleton's Oregon Emigrants

Alfred Jacob Miller - Prairie Scene - Mirage - Walters 371940149
Prairie Scene: Mirage
Alfred Jacob Miller  via Wikimedia Commons
A sailor on the prairie. Does it get any lonelier than that? It doesn't help when you're surrounded like Melville's John Marr by unsympathizing farmers. Nice enough people, but no sympathy for sailors or sailor talk:
But the past of John Marr was not the past of these pioneers. Their hands had rested on the plow-tail, his upon the ship's helm. They knew but their own kind and their own usages; to him had been revealed something of the checkered globe. So limited unavoidably was the mental reach, and by consequence the range of sympathy, in this particular band of domestic emigrants, hereditary tillers of the soil, that the ocean, but a hearsay to their fathers, had now through yet deeper inland removal become to themselves little more than a rumor traditional and vague.

They were a staid people; staid through habituation to monotonous hardship; ascetics by necessity not less than through moral bias; nearly all of them sincerely, however narrowly, religious. They were kindly at need, after their fashion; but to a man wonted--as John Marr in his previous homeless sojournings could not but have been--to the free-and-easy tavern-clubs affording cheap recreation of an evening in certain old and comfortable sea-port towns of that time, and yet more familiar with the companionship afloat of the sailors of the same period, something was lacking. That something was geniality, the flower of life springing from some sense of joy in it, more or less. This their lot could not give to these hard-working endurers of the dispiriting malaria,--men to whom a holiday never came,-- and they had too much of uprightness and no art at all or desire to affect what they did not really feel....
Melville's depiction of Illinois "emigrants" in 1838 seems partly inspired by the chapter on "The Oregon Emigrants" in J. Henry Carleton's "Occidental Reminiscences / Farther West," a serialized account of the 1845 dragoon expedition to the Rocky Mountains which ran in the New York Spirit of the Times from December 1845 to May 1846. Happily, Old Fulton NY Post Cards by Tom Tryniski has the very page from the May 16, 1846 Spirit of the Times with  Carleton's take on the "Oregon Emigrants":
Nearly all who have gone to the shores of the Pacific, with a view of making a permanent settlement there, have been born and nurtured in the interior counties of the States lying in the Valley of the Mississippi, and are, therefore, as a class, practical agriculturalists. They may be regarded as a straight-forward, simple, and well-meaning people, and shrewd and thrifty withal; and as having a fair share of good common sense. It is true, in the aggregate they are somewhat deficient in even the primary branches of education, and have but a limited knowledge of the usages of society, and a still narrower, of what is denominated “the world”; but there are many amongst them of creditable attainments, and of talents which in any country would be regarded as respectable. -- J. Henry Carleton, The Oregon Emigrants
Later on Carleton quotes the leader of a pioneer group from Illinois. Back in Illinois the Oregon emigrants had endured regular intervals of illness very much like Melville's Illinois "pioneers":
"...for two or three months every year, we have been, more or less, prostrated with sickness, which in itself not only caused us much suffering, but deprived us of the power of taking a proper care of what we had already accomplished..."
Carleton's emigrants were unaccustomed to the "usages" of "the world"; Melville adopts the word "usages" and applies it to the plainer pioneer customs, in contrast to the ways of the world or in Melville's phrase, "checkered globe." Melville's phrase "a staid people" compactly paraphrases Carleton's description of the Oregon emigrants as "a straight-forward, simple, and well-meaning people."

Carleton's writings in the New York Spirit of the Times have been edited by Louis Pelzer under the attractive but inaccurate title Prairie Logbooks (University of Nebraska Press, 1983).  

The complete texts have yet to be presented in a modern edition. The original title of Carleton's 1845-1846 series in the Spirit of the Times was "Occidental Reminiscences. Farther West; Or, Rough Notes of the Dragoon Campaign to the Rocky Mountains in 1845."

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