A Passage through "Indians": Masculinity and Violence in Francis Parkman's "The Oregon Trail"

Article excerpt

Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail of 1849 is justly regarded as a particularly detailed, if highly selective, account of life "on the frontier. But what frontier is Parkman, the narrating "I" in this text, actually exploring? This narrative can be read, in its obsessions and its evasions, as one of the best examples of the male Anglo-American ego confronting an environment that threatens to break it apart, but that also gives it a space in which to act out its masculinity. The "I" here wants both to gain "strength" from a masculinized landscape defined against "civilization," and to revitalize the male self in that civilization. The means of doing so involve two major activities: searching for Native Americans on whom to project the unacknowledged "savagery" of the narrator and his culture, and committing violent acts against "nature" in the form of large animals. Or, to be more accurate, observing violent acts as a form of entertainment and as vicarious participation in rituals of masculine reinforcements--"activities" that continue into our own time in various mass forms of romanticized violence. Parkman's text thus participates in the performance of gender and also in the ongoing development of warfare as a spectacle of national masculine renewal.(1)

As Bernard De Voto and other historians and critics have observed, one of the most striking things about The Oregon Trail is how little of it actually deals with the trail itself or the important events of the year it covers, 1846. Instead, this narrative follows the trail of an upper-class Boston boy's masculine and homosocial obsessions, especially as they center on (male) "Indian" warriors. The narrator of this text is essentially a spectator and a projector. Unlike certain Spanish-American writers, for example, this Anglo-Saxon observer remains almost entirely that -- an observer who is not in any serious way changed by his experience among aboriginal people. Despite the novelty of many of the things he encounters, he mainly (re)discovers what he already knew, and remains within the paradigms and epistemology with which he set out. His masculinist assumptions are reinforced. Rather than following any linear trail, Parkman circles repeatedly around a few images and ideas; this is not finally a journalistic narrative based on a presumed empiricism but a record of the interaction between one man's interior journey and certain recurrent tropes of American culture.

This is not to say, of course, that Parkman did not have "adventures" and record them. But his language is not language of exploration, and there is no true engagement with the cultures and environments he encounters. Any tendency toward perceiving the world through the Other's eyes is negated by the narrator's essential detachment, his safe enclosure within a white male language of privilege and self-justification dating back to the Puritans. The text begins with "The Frontier" and ends with "The Settlements," and in between the "I" confronts forces that are mainly described in terms of their effect on the integrity of individual manhood, Parkman's, primarily, but also that of the many male characters with whom he interacts. The narrator's adventures, as recreated in this text, center on versions of American masculinity renewing itself in solitude and in male groups and presented to an Eastern civilization that is inevitably Westward-moving. The "empty" West is for Parkman -- as for many narrators before and after him -- both a threat to and a means of revival for a supposedly decadent and feminized Eastern American culture.

In order to investigate Tile Oregon Trail in terms of the dynamics of masculine self-mythologizing, we need first to move beyond the considerable legacy of myth criticism that begins from premises of masculinism and American exceptionalism. All of these early male-authored studies (such as Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land [1950] and Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness [1956]) proceed from (unconscious? …