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

The title begs for details, it just does: why would the frontier pop up there in the first place?

The novel, The Confidence Man, is supposedly set in the 1850s, and it describes a voyage through territories – the Midwest and the Coastal Plains, or: the area wedged between the Appalachians and the Great Plains, or: Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana – that had well been integrated into the union.

[first posted by EricGjerde, some rights reserved]

To wit, in this context –

The Indian Removal Act had been ratified in 1830, under the auspices of President Andrew Jackson, signing into jurisdiction a forced westward movement –

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That it shall and may be lawful for the President of the United States to cause so much of any territory belonging to the United States, west of the river Mississippi, not included in any state or organized territory, and to which the Indian title has been extinguished, as he may judge necessary, to be divided into a suitable number of districts, for the reception of such tribes or nations of Indians as may choose to exchange the lands where they now reside, and remove there; and to cause each of said districts to be so described by natural or artificial marks, as to be easily distinguished from every other. (my emphasis)

A sharper edge than mine is applied on the act – here – what the law implied was, of course, the forced removal of member of the Five Civilized Tribes from the South East into the West, here meaning: west of the Mississippi river.
Indian and frontier fighting, in the vein of Colonel John Moredock, was introduced into the White House with the presidency of William Henry Harrison (1840-1841, being the ninth president and the first to die in office, obviously. He was not impeached out of it.). The White House biographical info page introduces his vita thus –

“Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, ” a Democratic newspaper foolishly gibes, “he will sit…by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”

– which seems like a very fair deal. Earlier in his life he had been governor of the Indiana Territory, moving in that position into the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, against the Indian forces under the command of Tecumseh, below in a British uniform, documenting the fact that he went into an alliance with the British after his forces had been defeated in 1811. The iconographic conventions baffle me somewhat – most of all the lady on the medallion. If anyone, it should show George III, king of Great Britain & Ireland from 1800-1820, which it clearly does not. Since the painting was done in 1848, decades after Tecumseh’s death (at the hands of said William Henry Harrison, as the uncorroborated story goes) in 1813, I would think the artist gave a damn for historical accuracy and planted Queen Victoria into the painting – though she, whoever she is, doesn’t seem to wear any regal apparel – crown, diadem, or something – or any other thing indicating her status.

Chief Tecumseh

So. At the time of the Fidèle scuttling down the Mississippi river, the frontier had been established as a place of presidential geo-politics – at the same time, Indians were hurried out of the Eastern seaboard colonies, West and in the direction of the frontier – which around 1850 had, of course, long reached the Western seaboard.

The Mexican-American war had brought California into the Union, ceded by Mexico in 1848 – with General William Tecumseh Sherman playing a major role in the events, of course.

The Bear State Flag, as hoisted by the Sonoma, Ca. crew who went to occupy the Mexican garrison in the city.

The Fidèle is an all-comprehensive stage for a self-contained narration. Using what must by needs and apocalyptic logic be the final hours of the world, a judgment day presided over not by a celestial panel, but, well – by the reader, to whom the con man is busy catering, – using these final hours productively entails a reconstruction.

Melville brings back the frontier into the middle of the country, – the sense of it radiates off board the Fidèle, that brave Mississippi steamer acting as a world stage, as a diorama of the world. On rolling down the river, she is creating a steadily updated sense of frontier, en passant, if you will – an inside (the ship= the world) and an outside (historical, secular reality outside the confines of the ship/world stage: such as the extended chapters on Indian hating, which present a geographical frontier themselves, THE frontier as worked into the site by real life explorer-heroes like Daniel Boone and fictional, ambiguous villain-heroes like Nick of the Woods).

This is not so much a geographical frontier, but more a figurative, spiritual one. And that new frontier experience is part of the apocalyptic one-day-one-stage-experience that the con man, aka Satan, aka What-was-his-name, brings to an end when he smothers the light of the candle at the very end of the novel. There is no one left to reach out after that, no narrator lucky enough to be spared just for the sake of the narration, the way Ishmael takes the narration away from the capsizing of the Pequod –

[The Crew of the Pequod; first posted by Dunechaser, some rights reserved]

____________

I realize this is a way, way, way messed up argument that I would liberally cover in red if one of my students handed it in like that – I need to work out that frontier/apocalypse-interpretative-routine more, and my next chapter (and that’s where I’m escaping to now) on the Riders of the Purple Sage will give me the chance to.

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