March 09, 2010

Vanished Mound Builders in The Prairies

In the comments to Stuff White People Do:  think of the Americas as empty before white people came, someone noted a poem similar to Robert Frost's The Gift Outright. Here are the first few lines of The Prairies by William Cullen Bryant:

The PrairiesTHESE are the gardens of the Desert, these
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name--
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness.
The second stanza tells us of the mysterious Mound-Builders who once inhabited the prairie. (The references to them are in red.)As o'er the verdant waste I guide my steed,
Among the high rank grass that sweeps his sides
The hollow beating of his footstep seems
A sacrilegious sound. I think of those
Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here--
The dead of other days?--and did the dust
Of these fair solitudes once stir with life
And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers, or that rise
In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
Built them;--a disciplined and populous race
Heaped, with long toil, the earth
, while yet the Greek
Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
Nourished their harvests, here their herds were fed,
When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,
And bowed his maned shoulder to the yoke.
All day this desert murmured with their toils,
Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed
In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
From instruments of unremembered form,
Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came--
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.

The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie-wolf
Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone--
All--save the piles of earth that hold their bones--
The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods--
The barriers which they builded from the soil
To keep the foe at bay
--till o'er the walls
The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped
With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,
And sat, unscared and silent, at their feast.
Haply some solitary fugitive,
Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
Of desolation and of fear became
Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.

Man's better nature triumphed then. Kind words
Welcomed and soothed him; the rude conquerors
Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose
A bride among their maidens, and at length
Seemed to forget--yet ne'er forgot--the wife
Of his first love, and her sweet little ones,
Butchered, amid their shrieks, with all his race.
What it means

Bryant wrote another poem, Thanatopsis, along the same lines. The person who transcribed these poems offers an analysis:Bryant's writing of "Thanatopsis" marks the first mention of America's "lost civilization" in the poetry of her latecomer sons and daughters of European descent. "Thanatopsis" and "The Prairies" are among the poet's most highly acclaimed writings: both point the reader westward--they are sunset poems and it is no coincidence that Bryant's friend, the artist Asher Durand depicts a late afternoon's fading light upon a practically deserted landscape in his mysterious 1850 painting "Scene from Thanatopsis." The death of the unknown past opens wide the early 19th century American frontier to both the hardy pioneer and the dreamy idealist. The "red men" of Bryant's "the Prairies" are thin upon the land, compared to the "millions" who once filled the continent. They are but a shadow of the "disciplined and populous race" who reared "the mighty mounds." Of course Bryant, like most of his contemporaries, got it all wrong--the "red men" were the supposedly extinct "Mound-Builders."

Perhaps a romantic poet could have picked up that truth and colored it with the literary shades of pleasurable remorse, but the effect worked better upon the reader if the living Indian tribes could be ignored and hazy images of noble civilizations, who "heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek was ... rearing on its rock the glittering Parthenon" presented in their stead.
Here's another quote along the same lines from the same period:In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes. Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted. Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the conditions in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?

Andrew Jackson, First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1830
Here again we see the myth-making I described in Empty Land in The Gift Outright. There were no Indians here, only a race of giants who built great earthworks before disappearing. Okay, a few Indians were here, since we have to blame someone for killing the Mound Builders. But these Indians were more like animals than humans. They destroyed the Mound Builders like a pack of wolves or a swarm of locusts. When the Europeans arrives, only these vermin-like wretches were left.

For more on the subject, see Indian Mounds in P. Allen Smith Gardens and Lamenting Indians = Letting Indians Die.

Below:  "The brown vultures of the wood flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres" (illustration for "The Prairies" from Poems, 1876 edition).

No comments: