The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

October 3, 2013

October 3, 1800

George Bancroft ((October 3, 1800 – January 17, 1891) was an historian and diplomat. His histories of the United States were part of the nation building impulse, as someone somewhere has no doubt noticed. There is a certain self-consciousness reflecting such an impulse in his obituary from the New York Times, which is not just lengthy but contains details such as that Benjamin Franklin had been dead just 7 years when Bancroft was born.  Such allusions establish Bancroft as part of a process in which the new country understands and justifies itself. Graduating from Harvard, Bancroft spent the next several years studying in Germany, and received a doctorate from the University of Gottingen when he was 20 years old. Germany was itself beginning a century in which it claimed the mantle of setting and leading intellectual trends, obtaining  laurels as the most intellectual culture in the world. 

Bancroft answered the question of who was the United States (perhaps he phrased it more gracefully) in many volumes of history, of which his History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. was the mainstay. This was  a multi-volume set of which the first book was published in 1834.  Let's look at a passage and notice how pride is built by daring deeds, and the reward of such a beautiful county. This starts at page 555 of the 1916 edition if anyone wants to pursue it further at Google books. 

In his peaceful habitation on the banks of the Yadkin, in North Carolina, Daniel Boone had heard Finley, the memorable pioneer trader, describe' a tract of land west of Virginia as the richest in North America, or in the world. In May 1769, having Finley as his pilot, and four others as companions, the young man, then about three-and-twenty, leaving his wife and offspring, wandered forth "in quest of the country of Kentucky," midway between the subjects of the Five Nations and the Cherokees, known to the savages as "the Dark and Bloody Ground." After a fatiguing journey through mountain ranges, the party found themselves in June on the Red river, a tributary of the Kentucky, and from the top of an eminence they surveyed with delight the beautiful plain that stretched to the north-west. Here they built their shelter, and began to reconnoitre the country and to hunt. All the kinds of wild beasts that were natural to America—the stately elk, the timid deer, the antlered stag, the wild-cat, the bear, the panther, and the wolf—couched among the canes, or roamed over the rich grasses which sprung luxuriantly even beneath the thickest shade. The buffaloes cropped fearlessly the herbage, or browsed on the leaves of the reed; sometimes there were hundreds in a drove, and round the salt licks their numbers were amazing.

The summer, in which for the first time a party of white men remained near the Elkhorn, passed away in explorations and the chase. But Boone's companions dropped off, till he was left alone with John Stewart. These two found unceasing delight in the wonders of the forest, till one evening, near Kentucky river, they were taken prisoners by a band of Indians, wanderers like themselves. They escaped, and were joined by Boone's brother; so that, when Stewart was soon after killed by savages, the first among the hecatombs of white men slain by them in their desperate battling for the lovely hunting-ground, Boone still had his brother to share with him the building and occupying of the first cottage in Kentucky.

In the spring of 1770, that brother returned to the settlements for horses and supplies of ammunition, leaving the renowned hunter "by himself, without bread, or salt, or sugar, or even a horse, or a dog." "The idea of a beloved wife," anxious for his safety, tinged his thoughts with sadness; but otherwise the cheerful, meditative man, careless of wealth, knowing the use of the rifle, though not the plough, of a strong robust frame, in the vigorous health of early manhood, ignorant of books, but versed in forest life, ever fond of tracking the deer on foot, away from men, yet in his disposition humane, generous, and gentle, was happy in the uninterrupted succession "of sylvan pleasures."

He held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation.

One calm summer's evening, as he climbed a commanding ridge, and looked out upon remote "venerable mountains," the nearer ample plains, and the distant Ohio, his heart overflowed with gladness for the beautiful land which he had found. "All things were still." Not a breeze so much as shook a leaf. Kindling a fire near a fountain of sweet water, he feasted on the loin of a buck. He was no more alone than a bee among flowers, but communed familiarly with the whole universe of life. Nature was his intimate; and, as the contemplative woodsman leaned trustingly on her bosom, she responded to his love. For him, the rocks and the crystal springs, the leaf and the blade of grass, had life; the cooling air, laden with the wild perfume, came to him as a friend; the dewy morning wrapped him in its embrace; the trees stood up gloriously round about him, as so many myriads of companions. How could he be afraid? Triumphing over danger, he knew no fear. The nightly howling of the wolves, near his cottage or his bivouac in the brake, was his diversion; and by day he had joy in surveying the various species of animals that neighbored him. He loved the solitude better than the thrifty hamlet or rivalry with men. Near the end of July 1770, his faithful brother came back to him at the old camp; and they proceeded together to Cumberland river, giving names to the different waters. He then returned to his wife and children, fixed in his purpose, at the risk of life and fortune, to move them as soon as possible to Kentucky, which he held to be a second paradise.

Unlike this guileless rover were the plotters against Boston. 

And so our mystic reverie of nature is interrupted by British stupidity and greed.  It is a history after all. Later writers would regard Bancroft as simplistic in his ideas about god's favor and the necessity to spread democracy. They themselves did not understand the motive for Bancroft's work: that America should understand itself.  Such an enterprise necessitates myth. 

By the time Bancroft died, the century was about over, and the options for pioneering by jolly boys already dead. At least regarding this planet. 

No comments: