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Thoreau’s Retelling of the Hannah Duston Story

From Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence:

The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.

 

 

. . . Thoreau offers an "improvement" of Cotton Mather's account of Hannah Dustin's captivity and escape from the Indians.  Mather had mined the account for all the symbolism and typological data it might possibly contain.  He had approached it as a man composing a sermon on "Humiliation and Deliverance," and his perception of it was limited by his method of approach.  Thoreau begins with facts, reconstructing the events of the narrative carefully and objectively.  Where Mather luridly recounted the advent of the "raging Demons" and the horrid cruelties which their devilish nature led them to perpetrate, Thoreau reports simply that the Indians forced her to rise from childbed and go with them, that her husband and children had fled but she knew not where, and that "she had seen her infant's brains dashed out against an apple tree.”  The apple tree is Thoreau's own subtle addition to the tale, a seed of metaphor and myth planted among apparently stable, established facts.  The rest of the tale is told with equal economy.  The Indians threaten Hannah and her female companion with being stripped naked and made to run the gauntlet.  The women, stirred to resolution, rise secretly in the night, brain their captors with their own axes, and flee in terror.  Then, with a return of reason, they return to the scene of slaughter to scalp their enemies as evidence of the deed.  They reach home in safety and are awarded the bounty of fifty pounds.  At this point Mather cried out at the justice of the retribution and pleaded for his parishioners to turn from pagan to more Christian ways.  Thoreau makes no such obvious appeal for us to identify ourselves with the drama of Hannah Dustin, nor does he assert his own valuation of the meaning of her actions. . . .

 

The last sentence, for all its spartan adherence to simple statements of fact, touches a tangled and complex mystery in the tale of Hannah Dustin.  It begins with an image of the typical ending of the captivity narrative, the sundered family group reunited.  The only missing member of the family is the infant, murdered on an apple tree, a permanent and abiding sacrifice to the wilderness.  In the same sentence, however, we are told that people have "lived to say that they had eaten of the fruit of that apple tree.”  The fruit of the tree, in a figurative sense, is the sacrificed infant whose broken skull is the image most strongly associated here with the tree.  The eating of the fruit of the tree thus seems a kind of Indian-cannibal Eucharist.  The specification of the apple tree, reminiscent of the Eden tree, of man's knowledge and death, reinforces this impression.  Interpreted with the most intense concern for symbolism, the infant is a type of Christ; the tree, the cross on which the little god is hanged; and the eating of the fruit, a sacrament that ties the living family group to its sacrificed, divine child.  Thus the sacrament mythologically completes the reunion of the family required by the captivity narrative genre.  Moreover, it serves to link the present dwellers in the land to the reality of that bloody revelation of wilderness by means of a sacrament in which the symbolic fruit is perceived as a scant covering, an insignificant palliation or sublimation, of the reality of infant blood and torment.  It is a Eucharist, with real rather than figurative flesh and blood, a revision of the Eden myth in which the eating of the apple of knowledge is a sacrament rather than a sin.

Thoreau seems aware of the sacramental quality of this sympathetic reliving of the Dustin captivity.  It leads him first into contemplation of the mythology of woman--the great archetypes of the feminine principle, mother goddess and anima.  The history of the world, he reflects, is embodied in sixty generations of "old women," including Columbus's nurse, the Virgin, the sibyl, Queen Semiramis, and mother Eve.  The captivity and the exploration of the landscape thus illuminate two symbolic archetypes, woman and the wilderness.  These two in conjunction symbolize a third component of divinity, the human unconscious, source of poetic genius and abiding place of the spirit of God in man.  "The unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God.”  To merge with this consciousness by sinking into the unconscious is the quietist mystic's path to sainthood.  For Thoreau, however, the act of creation is, not a passive sinking into the unconscious, but a conscious hunter's foray into the "wilderness of the mind": "The talent of composition is very dangerous--the striking out the heart of life at a blow, as the Indian takes off a scalp.  I feel as if my life had grown more outward when I can express it.”  (He might as well have identified himself with the Indian who created the child-god by seizing him and dashing him against the tree.)

This insight emerges from a critical exfoliation of the narrative facts with which Thoreau begins.  Nor is the sequence of ideas that follows the narrative unified by a structure of logical or narrative connectives.  Like the narrative itself, the ideas generated by the narrative are offered as facts, as events for the reader to perceive.  No explanation, no explicit justification or illumination of the underlying symbolism of the tale or of the associational logic of the exposition is given.  The reader is left to make his own foray into the wilderness of Thoreau's intention, to make his own discovery and take his own scalps.  The words on the page are as enigmatic and full of possibility as the events themselves.  The symbolism we read into them, like the meanings Thoreau sees in Dustin's tale, may be an illusion imposed on reality by our own sensibilities.  On the other hand, there may in fact be some truth inherent in the very nature of the objects or events.

The poet is the man of most prowess in such hunts, surprising truth in her cabin, capturing her, and forcing her to run naked the gauntlet of his intelligence.  This grotesque image seems valid, since for Thoreau the Indian symbolizes the wild, spontaneous quality of poetic genius in the mind.  To the civilized white man are left the lesser functions of the understanding--material calculation, experience rather than innocence of mind, and recognition of rational limitations rather 'than acceptance of the infinite possibilities of the mind and the passions:

The white man comes, pale as the dawn, with a load of thought, with a slumbering intelligence as afire raked up, knowing well what he knows, not guessing but calculating; strong in community, yielding obedience to authority; of experienced race; of wonderful, wonderful common sense; dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humor but genuine; a laboring man, despising game and sport; building a house that endures, a framed house.

The Indian, who does not bind his genius to the soil by a plow, retains a transcendent buoyance of genius.  He does not entail himself to the gods and the soil like the white man, but retains "the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest life" and thus "preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature.” 

 


References are to Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849.

 

Source:  Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:  The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK  2000. Excerpts from pp. 522-24.   Used with the author’s permission.



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