Religious Assimilation in Early American Fiction

By Salesses, John J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Religious Assimilation in Early American Fiction


Salesses, John J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


In Susan Vreeland's novel, The Forest Lover, the artistic and historical accomplishments of Emily Carr (1870-1946) are portrayed. (1) Carr was a strongly independent woman, an amazing adventurer and painter who was born and raised in a well to do family in Victoria, British Columbia. As a young woman, she studied painting, first in London and later in Paris. Her art consists of modern and innovative representations of the rugged frontier villages and people of the Pacific Northwest, and the subject of her paintings ranges from pine trees and bear cubs to eagles and totem poles. In the novel, Halliday, a man described as "the Indian agent" expresses his concern about the First Nation People of British Columbia and their "heathenish ways, especially the potlatch," which he describes as a Grand-Fetes lasting days. Halliday continues "Potlaching requires outlandish expenditures of money for gift-giving, encourages vanity and fantastical competition.... and conflicts with Indian employment in logging, agriculture, and canneries and spreads disease, sloth, rowdiness, irresponsibility, and prostitution, if ye must know." When asked what the alternative might be, the "Indian agent" responds, "Why assimilation, of course." (2)

These lines reveal more than an attitude toward religion and competition between religious ideologies. Underlying this conflict about religious belief, one can observe an effort to control the economic, financial, and political freedom of these vulnerable native people. Their vulnerability is not a weakness but the result of their moral and ethical belief in treating others including animals, trees and other objects of nature with respect and in being prudent in their usage and behavior towards them.

The theme of assimilation or the forcing of the native peoples to be subjected to the religious beliefs and practices of others can be seen in the works of James Fennimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and other early American writers as the cause of continuing regional if not global conflict and strife. In almost every instance one can observe an assumption of superiority and close-minded righteousness that leads to conflict.

In James Fennimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer, the last of the five novels to be published in The Leatherstocking Tales, the protagonist, Natty Bumpo, is characterized by a strong sense of toleration through which he overcomes the prejudicial religious assimilation that Halliday represents in Vreeland's novel.

In Melville's short novel, Billy Budd, the central figure comes to a tragic end because of his inability to recognize the evil practiced and represented by petty officer and Master-at-Arms John Claggart and Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere. Billy Budd is unable to comprehend the rigid hierarchy and command structure of the Royal Navy in which he has little standing because he is at the lowest level of the chain-of-command. No matter what he says or does, he is insignificant, and he doesn't realize the lowliness of his position and the rigor of the system, especially when there is a threat to the "good of the order." In his impressment he has been assimilated into the rigid world of military hierarchy from his ideal and unreal world, coming as he does from the Rights of Man (named for Thomas Paine's book which urged political equality for all men based on their equality in the eyes of God.) (3) "The Handsome Sailor," who is cheerful to all, and smiles at everyone, and thinks that all men are as good and kind as he would be, first reveals his dangerous innocence when he rises in the small boat as he is being transferred to the man-of-war.

   The new recruit jumped up from the bow where the coxswain had
   directed him to sit, and waving his hat to his silent shipmates
   sorrowfully looking over at him from the taffrail, bade the lads a
   genial goodbye. Then, making a salutation as to the ship herself,
   "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of Man. … 

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