The Frontier as Apocalyptic Place: Melville’s Indian Hating Revisited (II)

I find the idea of the Fidèle as a theatrical stage a little tricky to maintain when the novel moves into the topic of Indian hating & killing.

I find it tricky – what position would it provide to the extended chapters on Indian hating? Would it make them a tragic interplay in an otherwise comedic comedy, infuse some brutality into a story normally as light in tone as it is bitter and sardonic in import? Melville certainly creates a sense for how outré the whole Indian hating episode appears in the whole of the novel – he adapts for it, famously or infamously, passages from James Hall’s Sketches, Life, and Manners, in the West….and leaves out all the important parts, it seems at first (a short comparison between the treatment of Indian hating in Melville’s novel and Hall’s work is here, give or take the cheap advertisement) . The Indian turns into a demonic figure, unadressable and irremediable in his evil –

” As the child born to a backwoodsman must in turn lead his father’s life — a life which, as related to humanity, is related mainly to Indians — it is thought best not to mince matters, out of delicacy; but to tell the boy pretty plainly what an Indian is, and what he must expect from him. For however charitable it may be to view Indians as members of the Society of Friends, yet to affirm them such to one ignorant of Indians, whose lonely path lies a long way through their lands, this, in the event, might prove not only injudicious but cruel. At least something of this kind would seem the maxim upon which backwoods’ education is based. Accordingly, if in youth the backwoodsman incline to knowledge, as is generally the case, he hears little from his schoolmasters, the old chroniclers of the forest, but histories of Indian lying, Indian theft, Indian double-dealing, Indian fraud and perfidy, Indian want of conscience, Indian blood-thirstiness, Indian diabolism — histories which, though of wild woods, are almost as full of things unangelic as the Newgate Calendar or the Annals of Europe. In these Indian narratives and traditions the lad is thoroughly grounded. “As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.” The instinct of antipathy against an Indian grows in the backwoodsman with the sense of good and bad, right and wrong. In one breath he learns that a brother is to be loved, and an Indian to be hated. (chapter 26)

Innate evil is fought by innate good: the backwoodsman is as genetically biased against his opponent as is his opponent, and neither religious intervention (the Quakers, of course, being the archetypal ally Native Americans had among white settlers), nor education (“little from his schoolmasters”) would change anything about that. Melville Indian-slayer Colonel John Moredock treads the steps not so much of Cooper’s Natty Bumpo (Leatherstockings has his serious issues with the native population, but never quite seems able to surrender his idea of their inherent goodness and noble savagery), but rather those of Robert Montgomery Bird’s Jibbenaynosay – featured in an 1837 novel of quite some rarity these days. I wouldn’t even know it, most likely, had not my adviser dealt out the whole story, copied, to his seminar one day.

[These were exceedingly many names to store in one single sentence. Here is for some entertainment, before the argument resumes – provided by Dominique Signoret – and off, again, goes the argument.]

Rather than carry a peace corps spirit to the frontier, Nathan”Jibbenainosay” Slaughter, aka Nick of the Woods, takes his battle axe instead and massacres whatever Indians come his way – a genuine evil charm to protect the white frontier population. The novel makes for an excruciating, but highly interesting read, if you manage to claim one of the rare copies.

Nathan, and that makes him more than just a maniac on a killing binge, is a Quaker going the killing way & no longer searching for the “Christ within” the Indian. In short: he is as ruthless as Melville’s Colonel Moredock – whatever Indian crosses his way, automatically slides on his personal black list. Both Bird and Melville don’t seem to grant any plot devices into their narration that would allow at least some sympathy engendered for the Indian – in fact, anything but. By transporting hatred against Indians as not only a coincidental experience, but a pre-condition for survival at the frontier at all, both inscribe an agenda into their slayers’ register and make their reading audiences sign it: the western expansion, it goes, was possible exactly because backwoodsmen braved the Indian danger and thus guarded the white settlers from their encroachment. This is not so much a romanticized introspection into a patron-customer-relation, but rather a justification of a territorial expansion that was still rolling on when Melville and Bird wrote their novel.

[to be continued]

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