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LITERATURE is the written record of valuable thought, having other than merely practical purpose. Behind literature is race; behind race, climate and environment. The history of American literature is the history of the literature of a part of the English people, under new geographical and political conditions, within the present limits of the United States.
The predecessors of the English in America left unimportant literary remains. The earliest known occupants of the soil,—the people commonly called Mound-Builders, perhaps the ancestors of
The Moundthe North American Indians,*—whose mys
Builders. terious life is now in some degree made known to us by mounds, exhumed implements and ornaments, died without leaving any written records. They built homes, tilled the soil, worked mines, and reached a civilization higher in some ways than that of their less numerous descendants, the Indian tribes of modern history; but upon American literature they had no influence, and their life in Central and Eastern North
*“Prehistoric America,” by the Marquis de Nadaillac. Translated by N. d'Anvers ; edited by W. H. Dall. New York : G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1884.
America is not celebrated by way of memory, even, in any commanding literary production of their last successors. “They had no poet, and they died.”
The life of the North American Indians has been closely connected with the life of the English colonists in the New World, and therefore with their books of travel and history, their poems, and their novels.
The first settlers found the Indians on AmeriThe Indians.
can shores and in American woods; the very existence of the white men was jeopardized by their presence; and the personal and race characteristics of the red men became not only subjects for future romance and song, but matters of grim and direct everyday concern. To this day the Indians, possibly as numerous as in 1607, stand on the outskirts of Caucasian civilization in North America, a problem and a menace, a theme for literature, and a subject for moral and industrial reform.
But “aboriginal American literature," as it has been ambitiously termed, bears to the literature of the United States a far less important relation than Celtic Aboriginal literature bears to English. There is, to be Literature. sure, a scanty Indian literature, but it has been an influence rather than an entity; and it deserves mention, in a history of American intellectual progress, as an influence merely. The student of pure literature concerns himself with Longfellow's Hiawatha—the nearest approach to an American epicor with the novels of Fenimore Cooper, rather than with the remains of Indian eloquence or the paraphrases of Indian verse. Frequent episodes in the
history of the United States prove, to be sure, that Indian oratory sometimes possesses force, or even sublimity; that it may unite poetical thought with bold strength of utterance; and that measured by one rhetorical test, that of its effect upon a somewhat unimpressible and dogged race, it is not undeserving of study by the speakers of other languages. But here, as in poetry, the Indian race has not been one which has created or preserved a literature, in any large sense, whether by wandering minstrels, by rehearsers of national legends, by picture-writing, or by written words. The materials of literature have been about the race, in nature and life, but these materials have lacked the shaping force of an indigenous culture.
Much, indeed, must be said of the Indian, in studying the works of American writers; in the early narratives of colonization, unimportant as literature but interesting as history, he fills a large place; and in the pages of the two authors just mentioned, his picture stands out prominently, known and examined in many lands. Reserving for a future volume of this work the consideration of other matters concerning this interesting race, it may be said at the outset that two utterly variant presentations of Indian character have been prevalent in America, the second of which has chiefly influenced American literature.
In the first place, it has been maintained by many who have been directly familiar with the Indians in daily life, that they are cruel, vindictive, and treacherous; incapable of civilization ; and worthy only of
extermination in war or rigorous
or rigorous suppression in peace. No more candid presentation of this view can be found than in the following words of General George A. Custer, a brave fighter in the Indian wars, who finally lost his life at the hands of those whom he so sternly describes :
My firm conviction, based upon an intimate and thorough analysis of the habits of character and natural instinct of the Indian, and strengthened and supported by the almost unanimous opinion of all persons who have made the Indian problem a study, and have studied it not from a distance, but in immediate contact with all the facts bearing thereupon, is, that the Indian cannot be elevated to that great level where he can be induced to adopt any policy or mode of life varying from those to which he has ever been accustomed, by any method of teaching, argument, reasoning, or coaxing, which is not preceded and followed closely in reserve by a superior physical force. In other words, the Indian is capable of recognizing no controlling influence but that of stern, arbitrary power.*
Many other observers, with an equally good right to speak, and of a mental habit more teachable and less excitable than General Custer's, have reached the contrary conclusion.† They have recognized the fact that the elevation and education of the Indian must be a slow process ; but they have felt that he is capable both of education and of civiliza
* The Galaxy [magazine), New York, January, 1873.
| Gen. George Crook, a successful campaigner against the Indians, put on record in 1884 his belief that there was not in the State of Pennsylvania a town, of similar size, having a population more peaceful and law-abiding than the five thousand Apaches on the San Carlos reservation. Under Gen. Crook, whom these naturally fierce Indians respected, they made considerable progress in agriculture and civilized methods of living.
tion ; that he is less ungrateful than the Englishmen and Americans who have so often abused him; and that, whatever his present condition, his character has been lowered by long maltreatment and unrequited wrong.
“Do we of the present day really know the Indian character at all ? As well say we know the beauty of a grand old forest because we have seen the stumps and dead leaves that mark the place where once it stood." *
Leaving to the ethnologist and the philanthropist the further discussion of the Indian's character, we need do no more, at the outset of this history, than to present a few specimens of his intellectual output, chosen as most characteristic after examination of a large number. These specimens, whose genuineness is at least sufficiently established to warrant their introduction here as illustrations of the powers of Indian intellect, serve to show why the colonists in the seventeenth and eigiteenth centuries wrote books for the aborigines, as well as about them, and thought it worth while to found colleges and schools for their benefit. They also show why American poets and novelists, in later days, have deemed the Indian worth more than an angry or contemptuous chronicle in their pages.
An Algonquin traditionary account of the Creation, first partially recorded in picture- Specimens writing, then reduced to parallel verses in Literature. the Delaware dialect, and finally paraphrased in English, is as follows : 1. At first, in that place, at all times, above the earth,
* Good Company, Springfield, Mass., March, 1880.