From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Endings (8)—The Oregon Trail

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings." 
[a] Old Oregon Trail
No, not the video game. There is an entire literary history that predates 1990...or even 1971, when three teachers at Carleton College created a little educational game. The game is worth a look if you have never seen it (if you are my age), but I would like to push our narrative back, oh, 165 years...from today.

[b] Young Parkman
You see, there once was a well-heeled Harvard College graduate named Francis Parkman, Jr. who decided to take a trip "out west." The travel narrative already had a secure place in the world of American letters by 1846, when Parkman headed for Missouri, where he readied himself and his companions for a journey that would take him into today's Nebraska and Colorado before winding back along the Santa Fe Trail and arriving in Missouri in September. He covered over 2,000 miles, and wrote of encounters with the Oglala Sioux in some detail.

You might see where this is going. I am fascinated by encounters in American and European literature that seem "a little anthropological." Well, in 1846, Parkman undertook several months of intensive travel, spent time hunting and in discussion with the Oglala, and then wrote about those matters in a wildly successful book. It is the kind of narrative I have been reading for the past few years, as I ask the very general (but exceedingly important) question "how did we get from noticing and writing about 'other peoples' to a genre called 'ethnography'?"

How indeed. I won't kid you. After reading Parkman's book, it is difficult to find a meaningful connection. There is little analysis, and the kind of introspection that we seek today is largely missing.

[c] Fort Laramie
On the other hand, I find the narrative more interesting when it is seen as an engagement with "passages" through various streams of otherness. It should go without saying that readers of ethnography today are not going to find The Oregon Trail a very insightful work of cultural analysis.  Absolutely not.  As annoyed as I can get with the self-centered (yet far from self-reflective) narrative, there is a portrait of privileged whiteness here that is set against various backdrops in a rapidly changing United States.  I am guessing that you might be thinking "so what?"  Why would I want to read that?  If you seek to understand the cultural lenses that have contributed (broadly and often problematically) to what we today call "cultural anthropology," I think you should.  If you look carefully, you might well learn as much from the cultural cluelessness of the narrative as from its more than occasionally successful literary turns.

[d] Literary tour (de force)
Let's have a look at the last few pages of The Oregon Trail.  Notice the way that the narrative "fades to (the) east," as it were, and our author plays with the debatable concept of cultural refinement moving (back) on a west-east line.

You will notice a few names of his companions. Delorier (Antoine De Laurier), Henry Chatillon, and "Tête Rouge" (Red Cap) figure prominently in the concluding pages. As you will see, Parkman was a fine writer, if not always a penetrating cultural observer. These characters will "take shape" even in the snippet that follows.

Francis Parkman, Jr., The Oregon Trail

[e] "Savage scenes"
[f] Commemorative

Many and powerful as were the attractions which drew us toward the settlements, we looked back even at the moment with an eager longing toward the wilderness of prairies and mountains behind us. For myself I had suffered more that summer from illness than ever before in my life, and yet to this hour I cannot recall those savage scenes and savage men without a strong desire again to visit them.
[g] Old Oregon Trail
At length for the first time during about half a year, we saw the roof of a white man's dwelling between the opening trees. A few moments after we were riding over the miserable log-bridge that leads into the centre of Westport. Westport had beheld strange scenes, but a rougher looking trop than ours with our worn equipments and broken-down horses, was never seen even there. We passed the well-remembered tavern, Boone's grocery and old Vogles' dram shop, and encamped on a meadow beyond. Here we were soon visited by a number of people who came to purchase our horses and equipage. This matter disposed of, we hired a wagon and drove to Kanzas landing. Here we were again received under the hospitable roof of our old friend Colonel Chick, and seated on his porch we looked down once more on the eddies of the Missouri.

Delorier made his appearance in the morning, strangely transformed by the assistance of a hat, a coat, and a razor. His little log-house was among the woods not far off. It seemed he had meditated giving a ball on the occasion of his return, and had consulted Henry Chatillon as to whether it would do to invite his bourgeois. Henry expressed his entire conviction that we would not take it amiss, and the invitation was now proffered, accordingly, Delorier adding as a special inducement that Antoine Lejeunesse was to play the fiddle. We told him we would certainly come, but before the evening arrived a steamboat, which came down from Fort Leavenworth, prevented our being present at the expected festivities. Delorier was on the rock at the landing place, waiting to take leave of us.

"Adieu! mes bourgeois; adieu! adieu!" he cried out as the boat pulled off; "when you go another time to de Rocky Montagnes I will go with you; yes, I will go."
[h] Santa Fe Trail return
He accompanied this patronizing assurance by jumping about swinging his hat, and grinning from ear to ear. As the boat rounded a distant point, the last object that met our eyes was Delorier still lifting his hat and skipping about the rock. We had taken leave of Munroe and Jim Gurney at Westport, and Henry Chatillon went down in the boat with us.

The passage to St. Louis occupied eight days, during about a third of which we were fast aground on sand-bars. We passed the steamer Amelia crowded with a roaring crew of disbanded volunteers, swearing, drinking, gambling, and fighting. At length one evening we reached the crowded levee of St. Louis. Repairing to the Planters' House, we caused diligent search to be made for our trunks, which after some time were discovered stowed away in the farthest corner of the storeroom. In the morning we hardly recognized each other; a frock of broadcloth had supplanted the frock of buckskin; well-fitted pantaloons took the place of the Indian leggings, and polished boots were substituted for the gaudy moccasins.

After we had been several days at St. Louis we heard news of Tete Rouge. He had contrived to reach Fort Leavenworth, where he had found the paymaster and received his money. As a boat was just ready to start for St. Louis, he went on board and engaged his passage. This done, he immediately got drunk on shore, and the boat went off without him. It was some days before another opportunity occurred, and meanwhile the sutler's stores furnished him with abundant means of keeping up his spirits. Another steamboat came at last, the clerk of which happened to be a friend of his, and by the advice of some charitable person on shore he persuaded Tete Rouge to remain on board, intended to detain him there until the boat should leave the fort. At first Tete Rouge was well contented with this arrangement, but on applying for a dram, the barkeeper, at the clerk's instigation, refused to let him have it. Finding them both inflexible in spite of his entreaties, he became desperate and made his escape from the boat. The clerk found him after a long search in one of the barracks; a circle of dragoons stood contemplating him as he lay on the floor, maudlin drunk and crying dismally. With the help of one of them the clerk pushed him on board, and our informant, who came down in the same boat, declares that he remained in great despondency during the whole passage. As we left St. Louis soon after his arrival, we did not see the worthless, good-natured little vagabond again.
[i] Westport, two decades hence
On the evening before our departure Henry Chatillon came to our rooms at the Planters' House to take leave of us. No one who met him in the streets of St. Louis would have taken him for a hunter fresh from the Rocky Mountains. He was very neatly and simply dressed in a suit of dark cloth; for although, since his sixteenth year, he had scarcely been for a month together among the abodes of men, he had a native good taste and a sense of propriety which always led him to pay great attention to his personal appearance. His tall athletic figure, with its easy flexible motions, appeared to advantage in his present dress; and his fine face, though roughened by a thousand storms, was not at all out of keeping with it. We took leave of him with much regret; and unless his changing features, as he shook us by the hand, belied him, the feeling on his part was no less than on ours. Shaw had given him a horse at Westport. My rifle, which he had always been fond of using, as it was an excellent piece, much better than his own, is now in his hands, and perhaps at this moment its sharp voice is startling the echoes of the Rocky Mountains. On the next morning we left town, and after a fortnight of railroads and steamboat we saw once more the familiar features of home.

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