Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Singularly Placed in Scenes So Cultivated": The Frontier, the Myth of Westward Progress, and a Backwoods in the Mountain South

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Singularly Placed in Scenes So Cultivated": The Frontier, the Myth of Westward Progress, and a Backwoods in the Mountain South

Article excerpt

Charles Fenno Hoffman, traveling eastward in the early 1830s after having spent a winter across the Appalachian Mountains in the West, was pleased to find "indications of a populous and long-settled country" near Charlottesville, Virginia (310). He notes the presence of "gay equestrians," "a gang of dandy-looking blackees," and "a score of mountain lasses, with scarlet saddle-clothes" (309). The settled nature of the region is evidenced not only by the number of men and women he encounters while traveling but also by fashionable clothing and tack. Even the occasional "solitary horseman" cuts a dashing figure in a "broad-brimmed white beaver" (309). Amidst these people, Hoffman recounts, "I met with one group that seemed singularly placed in scenes so cultivated" (309-10):

   Beneath the boughs of a mossy oak, that stood in a verdant swale by
   the road-side, reclined an Indian female with an infant at her
   bosom; while a long-haired Tennessean in a hunting-shirt, who proved
   to be her husband, was engaged in broiling some fish over a fire a
   few yards off. A halfblooded wolf-dog lay at the feet of the woman,
   with a young boy curled up asleep between the outstretched legs of
   the savage-looking animal; his chubby cheek reposing upon its
   grizzled crest. Near them grazed a couple of shaggy Indian ponies,
   whose wooden saddles and tattered blankets of blue and scarlet were
   thrown carelessly on the green turf around the gnarled roots of the
   tree which formed the foreground of the picture. (310-11)

The disjuncture between the groups of people Hoffman encounters on the road and this family is jarring. The family is opposed in activity, trappings, and social composition with the settled people of the region. The lethargy of the mother, older child, and dog contrasts with the activity implied by Hoffman's description of scores of mountain girls and gangs of black men. The man and horses are unkempt, clothing and tack primitive. Unlike the homogeneous gangs and scores of people traveling on the road, the bivouacked family strikes a discordant note in their social composition. The interracial union between an Indian woman and white man is so striking in this settled setting that the white man has to be "proved to be her husband." Even their dog, a "half-blooded wolf-dog," references misogyny.

The description of this "Western" family in "scenes so cultivated" reveals more than the degree of Hoffman's pleasure in his return to Eastern civilization, more than the curious nature of their very presence. Their discordant physicality, problematic familial connections, and disregard for the conventions of fashion in person and horse, purposeful or otherwise, suggest an uneven quality to the material and social realities of national economic and cultural progress supposedly ensconced in the "long-settled" country east of the Appalachian Mountains in the early nineteenth century. Unlike the other groups Hoffman describes, which appear to be on pleasure jaunts decked out in their finest, this family is literally on the move, pursuing a path of more purpose than pleasure. Their presence challenges Hoffman's, and his readers', view of the East as a long-settled region and symbolically complicates larger national narratives of progress. While a long-haired Tennessean in a hunting shirt accompanied by an Indian wife, their children, and a half-wolf pet could, in the national narrative of the 1830s, understandably inhabit the edge of the receding western frontier, such a domestic scene in the East calls into question the assumption of an orderly, westerly advance of economic and cultural progress, an ordering system operative well before Hoffman's time. (1) In an untimely, and unsightly way, the family's cultural makeup, clothing, tack, and animals reference Western-style exploration and adventure in an Eastern area that should be firmly and pleasantly past the exploration/adventure stage. …

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