The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman

1848

(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)

AlfredJacobMiller-FortLaramieCrop of Fort Laramie, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1858-1860), painted from memory, as Miller had joined an 1837 expedition along the Oregon Trail.  This is the only painting of the fort, as no other artist had trekked there prior to 1840 when it was torn down.  Fort Laramie lay at the junction of the east-west Oregon Trail and a north-south Indian trail.  The Cheyenne and Sioux would camp outside the fort for trading purposes.  This painting can be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):

“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”

So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue.  But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches.  Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition.  Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.

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The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

BattleOfRoncevaux Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778.  The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn.  Roland will not.  He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal.  He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine.  They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book—a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories.  This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre—the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852

(Two slaves struggle mightily: one for her liberty, the other for his integrity.)

Group of SlavesCrop of A Group of Slaves leaving to Work in the Field on James Hopkinson’s Plantation in Edisto Island, New Hampshire, circa 1862 by Henry P. Moore. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

 

This novel, the best selling book in the nineteenth century besides the Bible, is a remarkably forceful argument against the world’s most blatant form of widespread institutionalized violation of human rights. It is a collage of slave lives and lifestyles assembled with a thin glue of plot, all combining to urge our sympathies with the slaves and our antipathy to the injustice of their condition. It is an effort to bring free people to the realization that slaves are real persons who have the same sorts of spirits and minds as their masters, and yet they are and will always be subject to all sorts of anguish, suffering, and torture until slavery is abolished. “It is a comfort to hope,” Harriet Beecher Stowe writes in the Preface, “as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” We can be thankful that the author’s hope came true– the book served phenomenally well the purpose for which Stowe designed it. Testament to this are its enormous sales, the several hasty rebuttal “slavery isn’t so bad” novels, and, perhaps more than anything else, the comment of Abraham Lincoln when he met the author, calling her the “little woman whose book started this big war”.

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Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep.  He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper… but this is no milktoast city boy.  This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell.  And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman.  In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together?  Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war?  Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra.  Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband– her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street.  But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home.  But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around.  He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable.  Take one particular tent meeting, for instance. In the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing.  And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee.

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Njáls Saga

(Njála)

anonymous

1270-1290

(A sage in medieval Iceland attempts to restore order in the face of bloody vengeance and warrior’s honor)

GunnarBillDetail from Gunnar at Rangá, an illustration of an event in Njáls Saga by Andreas Bloch (1898).  This drawing originally appeared in Vore fædres liv: karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden, or Our Fathers’ Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga, by Nordahl Rolfsen.

The mighty deeds of a free people in struggle are frequently represented in timeless literature—such stories will never go stale.  Whether tossed on the stormy Mediterranean, afoot in the forests and scrublands of India, or galloping through prairie grasses among stalwart buttes in the American West, there is something deeply inspiring about a small people forging a life in the face of privation, violence, and treachery.  We who live in the comfort of civilization can be tempted to think that a reasonably stable government and the rule of law are guaranteed, automatic, assumed.  Or, even if we endure corruption, are wary of the tyranny or selfishness of our leaders, or have suffered at the hands of criminals, we are among millions and are likely to see ourselves as puny actors on an immense stage—what can we possibly do?!  How fascinating, then, are the tales of those who managed to defend some fragile order amidst a storm of chaos—those whose survival was assured not by the actions of others, whether their venerated ancestors or soldiers on distant front lines, but by themselves:  by the wisdom of their own minds, the words that passed through their own lips, and the swords that hung from their own belts.  The Icelandic Sagas—the Íslendingasögur—are epic narratives of this very sort.  A man in the Age of Saga, so we are told, could cut his own destiny, no matter what coarse fabric sought to hem him in.  And a woman could make the best of things by controlling the men.  Anyone who wishes to see how this sort of lifestyle could play out can do no better than to read Njáls Saga (or, in the alternative title that is at once a spoiler, the Saga of Burnt Njál).  The professionals tend to consider this the greatest and most well-developed of the 40 or so Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 13th-14th centuries.  Whatever the critics say, here we certainly find hefty measures of all the most engaging ingredients in that genre: the bloody swinging of swords and thrusting of spears, the uncompromising defense of honor, the defiant challenge of the sea, the tenuous rise of God over the idols and of Law over bloody feuds, the disastrous fruits of pride and envy, the sly instigations of women, the mystic power of prophecy and fate, the iron duty of loyalty, and the deathgrip of revenge!

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The Travels

Marco Polo

(with Rustichello of Pisa)

1299

(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).

 Caravan_Marco_PoloMarco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France

 

We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards.  He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa.  No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious.  I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked.  I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch.  It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.

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Pliny’s Letters

Pliny the Younger

97-109 AD

(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)

PlinyAndMotherVesuviusCrop of Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum, 79 AD, by Angelica Kauffmann (1785). Here Pliny dictates his most famous letter as he and his mother observe the eruption of Vesuvius. Courtesy of the Princeton Art Museum.

 

Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman.  At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality.  He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity.  He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation.  He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious.  He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices.  Maybe this is true for all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.

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The Right Stuff

Tom Wolfe

1979

(Seven pilots scale the ziggurat of manliness on the quest to be America’s space heroes.)

 MercuryRedstone3_ShepardMercury-Redstone 3 rocket launching Alan Shepard in 1961 to become the first American in space. Courtesy of NASA.

 

Tom Wolfe probably awoke one morning and thought to himself, wouldn’t it be great if reading about current events were as fun as reading novels?  And with as simple an idea as that, he kicked off the movement known as New Journalism.  And Wolfe sure is fun to read!

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