Ohio History Journal

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By Edwin Fussell. (Princeton, N. J.:

Princeton University Press, 1965.

xvi+450p.; introduction and index.


This is a stimulating though highly

speculative book. In the preface Fussell

explains he offers it as an example of

"imaginative historiography," a method of

writing history in which facts are used

merely as emblems to illustrate the theme.

His procedure seems somewhat similar to

that employed in Increase Mather's Divine

Providences, in which shipwrecks, comets,

earthquakes, and thunder storms illustrate

Mather's thought that the hand of God is

busy in New England.

Like Mather, Mr. Fussell finds signifi-

cance in emblems, images, and analogies.

The West, he says, had no single or fixed

meaning, and so each of the six major

writers whom he studies -- Cooper, Haw-

thorne, Poe, Thoreau, Melville, and Whit-

man -- regarded it and the westward

movement according to his own peculiar

mind. Mr. Fussell contends that though

none of these men lived in the West, their

conception of the frontier is the key to

understanding their writings. Thus

Cooper, he argues, troubled by the con-

flicts arising from the confrontation of

nature and civilization beyond the settle-

ments, resolved the antithesis by creating

the tall figure of Leatherstocking, who

incarnated "the best of both worlds"

(p. 50). Hawthorne, too, so Mr. Fussell

continues, was a western writer, for The

Scarlet Letter takes the reader back to

an era when Massachusetts was the fron-

tier; and like Cooper, Hawthorne tried

to reconcile opposites on the frontier --

thus in the conclusion to The Scarlet

Letter Hester (nature, the New World)

and Dimmesdale (Puritan ethics, the Old

World) have separate graves but share

a single tombstone (p. 114). As for Poe,

Mr. Fussell thinks "The Mask of the Red

Death" is a parable in which Prince

Prospero represents the United States;

and the Red Death, the retribution which

will overtake the nation for its maltreat-

ment of the Indian (pp. 165-169). Poe

restlessly patrolling the border between

waking and sleep, sanity and insanity,

equated the terror in his mind with the

terror of the actual frontier. Fussell

thinks Thoreau hated the actual West,

but loved an ideal West and drew inspira-

tion from it for his backyard pioneering

at Walden Pond. He believes that Mel-

ville's intention in alluding to the West

so frequently in Moby-Dick is "to insinuate

some sort of sly connection between Ahab's

business with the White Whale and

America's business with the Far West"

(p. 261), and that The Confidence Man

is Melville's vote of "no confidence in the

nation" (p. 303). Whitman, he finds, sang

the ideals of the West confidently in the

first two editions of Leaves of Grass, but

the third edition (1860) revealed a decline

in his inspiration; and thereafter, save

for an occasional poem or two, Whitman

sank into platitude. The reason for the