A.B. Meek's Great American Epic Poem of 1855; or, the Curious Career of 'The Red Eagle.'

Article excerpt

At least three major poetic texts published in 1855 could claim status as original American epics based on the large-scale treatment of native materials. Of these, surely the best known and most widely appreciated at the time was Henry W. Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha.(1) Twentieth-century readers, on the other hand, would now readily identify the great epic "original" of 1855 as that arty, enigmatic collocation of prefatory manifesto and twelve untitled poems---including the debut of the one eventually called "Song of Myself"--comprising the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.(2) Less known then and now, although achieving considerable literary and historical recognition in the author's native Deep South, was a third production, corresponding visibly in poetic subject and attitude with the first, but with important political and historical affinities to the second. This was A. B. Meek's The Red Eagle.

To be sure, then or now, there will be no confusing the importance to literary futurity of The Red Eagle with either that of Hiawatha or of Leaves of Grass. Nor, even within a historical frame of reference, is one tempted to a scholarly reflex of long critical habit and accreditation in wishing to claim for Meek's Red Eagle the status of neglected or lost classic, popular masterpiece, etc. On the other hand, as already suggested, it does provide an opportunity to re-examine conventional accounts of literary history, North and South, in a number of significant ways. Certainly, the text itself provides yet another scholarly opening in current reconsiderations of nineteenth-century literary and cultural categories. From a national perspective, for instance, a consideration of Meek's poem and its cultural visibility challenges conventional notions of a literary flowering of the 1850s as taking place predominantly within the philosophical orbit of American transcendentalism; and, at the very least, in the dimension of epic poetry of the era, it certainly forces us out of the convenient 1855 juxtaposition of Longfellow versus Whitman as genteel versus subversive, paleface versus redskin, conventional versus avant garde, and the like. As importantly, however, it further impels us to a particular consideration of the nineteenth-century literary politics of region, in this case with many of the century's very real questions of social ideology--here, most pointedly, the complex cultural politics of class and race in the antebellum frontier South-brought into very specific contexts of historical relief. Accordingly, in an examination both of the circumstances of its composition and reception, and, as will be seen, of its subsequent career as a staple of the library and classroom, The Red Eagle thereby becomes a deeply historicized case study in the forms and processes of cultural mythmaking, of what truly might be called ideology in a new country. As a political text, like many another popular epic of the era, North and South, it once again becomes important for what it attempts to say about the groundbreaking work of social organization; and, particularly in its relationship to regional counterparts, it also becomes equally important, as a distinct kind of compensatory history, for what it carefully attempts not to say about cultural origins--in this case by exploiting a conventional tendency to use tragic accounts of the treatment of native peoples as an equally conventional way of sublimating the larger racial guilt of chattel slavery.

To put this for the moment back into the context of 1855, like Longfellow, Meek chose, then, to weave his homegrown epic out of a romantic tale of Native American culture, steeped in aboriginal lore and sounding an elegiac lament--as had contemporaries as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms, Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child--for the passing of a great indigenous race.(3) Further, here, too, the scale of the action was large, centering ultimately on a pair of fated lovers, with that love placed against the backdrop of savage myth and heroic conflict; and here, likewise, as if in formal recognition of the grandness of the topic, the poetic tones and cadences were replete with quaint atmospherics. …