A.B. Meek's great American epic poem of 1855; or, the curious career of 'The Red Eagle.'
To be sure, then or now, there will be no confusing the importance to literary futurity of The Red Eagle with either that of Hiawatha or of Leaves of Grass. Nor, even within a historical frame of reference, is one tempted to a scholarly reflex of long critical habit and accreditation in wishing to claim for Meek's Red Eagle the status of neglected or lost classic, popular masterpiece, etc. On the other hand, as already suggested, it does provide an opportunity to re-examine conventional accounts of literary history, North and South, in a number of significant ways. Certainly, the text itself provides yet another scholarly opening in current reconsiderations of nineteenth-century literary and cultural categories. From a national perspective, for instance, a consideration of Meek's poem and its cultural visibility challenges conventional notions of a literary flowering of the 1850s as taking place predominantly within the philosophical orbit of American transcendentalism; and, at the very least, in the dimension of epic poetry of the era, it certainly forces us out of the convenient 1855 juxtaposition of Longfellow versus Whitman as genteel versus subversive, paleface versus redskin, conventional versus avant garde, and the like. As importantly, however, it further impels us to a particular consideration of the nineteenth-century literary politics of region, in this case with many of the century's very real questions of social ideology--here, most pointedly, the complex cultural politics of class and race in the antebellum frontier South-brought into very specific contexts of historical relief. Accordingly, in an examination both of the circumstances of its composition and reception, and, as will be seen, of its subsequent career as a staple of the library and classroom, The Red Eagle thereby becomes a deeply historicized case study in the forms and processes of cultural mythmaking, of what truly might be called ideology in a new country. As a political text, like many another popular epic of the era, North and South, it once again becomes important for what it attempts to say about the groundbreaking work of social organization; and, particularly in its relationship to regional counterparts, it also becomes equally important, as a distinct kind of compensatory history, for what it carefully attempts not to say about cultural origins--in this case by exploiting a conventional tendency to use tragic accounts of the treatment of native peoples as an equally conventional way of sublimating the larger racial guilt of chattel slavery.
To put this for the moment back into the context of 1855, like Longfellow, Meek chose, then, to weave his homegrown epic out of a romantic tale of Native American culture, steeped in aboriginal lore and sounding an elegiac lament--as had contemporaries as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms, Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child--for the passing of a great indigenous race.(3) Further, here, too, the scale of the action was large, centering ultimately on a pair of fated lovers, with that love placed against the backdrop of savage myth and heroic conflict; and here, likewise, as if in formal recognition of the grandness of the topic, the poetic tones and cadences were replete with quaint atmospherics.
On the other hand, unlike Longfellow's attempt at deep literary primitivism--unapologetically imitative in its attempt to approximate the vaporous mythicality of the great Finnish national poem, the Kaelevala,(4)--Meek's epic was also deeply political in a way that Whitman, and before him, Emerson, would have grasped readily. Although grandly stylized and replete with the air of legend, for instance, Meek's version of history was also local and concrete, having its basis in actual events of the relatively recent Alabama Creek War of 1813-1814; and--as in Whitman's interpolated vignettes in "Song of Myself" of the massacre at Goliad or the sea battle between the Bonhomme Richard and Serapis--it thus could be said to partake of a political realism emphasizing the epic potential of roughly contemporary historical events.(5) In Meek's case, a collection of actual wartime episodes formed the core of his epic plot, and included the Creek massacre of several hundred settlers at Fort Mims; the advance into the region of militia armies under Claiborne of Mississippi and Jackson of Tennessee; various battles including the Canoe Fight of the heroic Sam Dale and the penultimate defeat of insurgent forces at Holy Ground; after the war's deciding engagement at Horseshoe Bend, the bold, unflinching appearance of Creek leader William Weatherford before Andrew Jackson to plead for his people; and, by dint of the young hero's rare majesty and eloquence, the great warrior's famous decision to spare his life.(6)
Similarly, Meek's central characters--to the degree that characters in any nineteenth-century American romance of the forest could be so--were for the most part historically real. As important, there was at least the attempt to make them actual, to allow them to exist, that is, within living tradition and to act and speak in at least some poetic approximation of their historical roles. The titular character is, for instance, the actual William Weatherford, the last of the great mixed-race Creek political leaders in the lineage of McGillivray, McQueen, and McIntosh. His great love, a character of the author's imagination, is Lilla Beazeley, a forest maiden of mixed racial descent. In a careful Montague-Capulet touch, she is cast as the daughter of a frontiersman attached to the Fort Mims garrison;(7) and the latter, known to his former Creek kindred as the "WHITE WOLF," as one of the few survivors of the massacre, thereby also continues to figure importantly--by some contemporary evaluations, too importantly--as the vengeful antagonist.(8)
Most real of all is Andrew Jackson, the Indian fighter and hero of New Orleans ultimately to become seventh President of the United States. Here, he becomes the central historical presence, by virtue of his role in local events and his subsequent stature in regional and national politics. So, too, the historical events recounted, those of the Creek War of 1813-1814, possess the same kind of multi-leveled political reality. They comprise local, historical tragedy, while proving as well to be a crucial arena for the making of Andrew Jackson as a frontier military hero; and they can now be seen also as prophesying the larger design of regional and national expansion eventuating over the next quarter-century in the great and final removals of Native Peoples from the antebellum Southwest.
As to the traditional stylistics associated with mid-nineteenth-century poetry, although heavily belletristic and mannered in its reliance on genteel poetic convention--and thus hardly to be mistaken for Whitman's free verse--Meek's epic assemblage nevertheless reveals a remarkable variety and musical heterogeneity. It certainly avoids the drumbeat monotony of Longfellow's pounding tetrameter trochees--alleged in most accounts to be the author's improbably native-sounding attempt to approximate epic formula, albeit arising out of transliteration of a German rendering of the Finnish original. To be sure, in Meek's poem, there is a conventional iambic tetrameter core advancing the main narrative in the vein of much long poetry of the era, British and American; and if not as deadly as Longfellow's simulation of native song, a kind of homegrown quantitative, for the majority of the poem it does its craftsmanly work mainly by staying out of the way. At the same time, however, in accord with the various requirements of plot, character, setting, tone, and theme, one also finds in The Red Eagle considerable formal variation not only at the level of rhyme, meter, and stanza pattern, but also at times involving leaps and shifts of categories of poetic mode and even genre. The poem, so to speak--albeit, again, hardly any Whitmanesque heterotopia--still becomes something like a poem of poems. Narrative mixes with lyric, and lyric with dramatic. Rhyme, meter, and stanza form, along with subdivision of individual cantos into discrete formal units, create a succession of tones and moods. Strung along a main strand of tetrameter exposition, iamb mixes with dactyl and anapest, sonnet with song, song with ballad, ballad with dramatic dialogue, and dramatic dialogue with blank verse oratory.
To choose just the poem's opening passages, for instance, a prefatory sonnet leads off, claiming in its first measures, "Voluptuous Spring!--in this soft southern clime,/With prodigality of birds and flowers!/Not Guido, in his rosy Dream of Hours,/Framed in Arcadian vales, a lovlier time!--." This yields in the first section of Canto I to several pages of tetrameter exposition, in a mixture of successive and alternating rhyme--"Few days agone, the song of peace/Was heard amid these woodland homes,/The sounding axe smote forest trees,/And upward sprang new rustic domes" (p. 18); or, "Along the stream, the light bark bore/Young commerce to the opening shore,/And rosy children strolled away,/With bees and birds through woodlands gay" (p. 18)--and concluding with a couplet of stately pentameter: "And now while all the West in radiance swims,/The sun's last glory lingers on FORT MIMMS!" (p. 19). A second section provides an interlude of natural description rendered in a more conventional ballad pattern of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, albeit again with flexible rhyme. Section three, introducing the heroine, lightens the tone into tetrameter anapestic and shortly, in the voice of the "Woodland Flower" herself, yields to pure song: "The blue-bird is whistling in Hillibee grove,--" she sings, "Terra-ret Terrare!"
His mate is repeating the tale of his love,--
But never that song,
As its notes fleet along,
So sweet and so soft in its raptures can be,
As thy low whispered words, young chieftain, to me. (p. 21)
Then, as the lovers meet, and the plot begins to advance, ensuing sections again take up the basic exposition, albeit even here with the iamb in appropriate cases replaced by the anapest, and the octasyllablic line by the more stately pentameter couplet.
To be sure, here and elsewhere within the formal hodgepodge, one finds the inevitable excess of a forced meter or stretched rhyme, most frequently originating in some clank of the lofty and the vernacular that a genteel critic of the era would have described as the occasional poetic "fault." Still, in diction, rhyme, meter, and stanza pattern, Meek reveals a laudable, even adventurous willingness to let the music go where it needs to: to create a sudden couplet, for instance, where the rhyme has been alternating; to allow a couplet to spawn a triplet; to break from tetrameter into a concluding pentameter and even the occasional alexandrine. Technically, it may not be up to the grandstanding of Poe, but certainly Meek maintains a musical quality equal to that of such Southern contemporaries as Simms and Hayne, Lanier and Chivers.(9) In the traditional sense, of course, Meek in these respects is certainly much closer to Long fellow than to Whitman. But even here regionality is pronounced in a distinctly Southern kind of direct, Arcadian simplicity--albeit, ironically, with much of the sensuosity and musicality that seems to have so influenced Whitman on his Southern sojourn, but also in this case coupled with a local tradition of frontier storytelling, a kind of narrative poetic realism. Further, as to the visible influence of AngloEuropean poetic models, these too seem to have been largely favorites of the South, with pronounced emphasis on Scott and, in particular poem in question, Thomas Moore's wildly popular Lallah Rookh.
Further, even with so literarily establishmentarian a figure as Meek, one also detects a distinctly Southern concept of the profession of authorship. He is the poet as learned, genteel man of letters, to be sure, but with an emphasis placed on his prize standing as the gifted aristocratic amateur. This is to say, like such fellow Alabama literati as Johnson Jones Hooper, Joseph Glover Baldwin, Albert J. Pickett, not to mention countless regional figures including William Gilmore Simms and others, he embodies that expressly Southern image of the cultural patriot and man of affairs who counts among the many features of his reputation significant status as a literary author. As a member of such a regional comitatus, Meek, indeed, seemed to take a kind of perverse pleasure in remarking on an "indolence" that he described to Simms in a letter of May 18, 1847, as "the God of my nature."(10) Accordingly, his literary remains even now strike us as notable for projects of many genres in varying degrees of incompletion.
Finally, as will be seen, distinct evidence of the importance of Meek's poem as a literary-cultural property would also be apparent in the history of its reception. Further, in the present case, this would be uniquely twofold. Widely noticed and approvingly read at the time of its initial publication, The Red Eagle would again be given new impetus and substantial public visibility nearly six decades later by a cultural intelligentsia wishing to make it serve the historical and educational politics of a new century as well.
On the first point, if nothing else, one should realize that, in a substantial portion of the antebellum Republic about to recognize itself as a separate nation--and, accordingly, at a zenith of regional patriotism both political and literary--Meek's poem was an important literary-cultural production of its day. Billing itself explicitly in a subtitle as "A Poem of the South," it could and did claim major visibility and popularity, as a distinctly Southern achievement, albeit in what was recognized as one of the most important national literary-cultural projects of the antebellum era--the breakneck quest of a new generation of romantics in poetry and prose to come forth with a bona fide original American epic. The author certainly affirmed such a purpose on his own part in a historical preface. "The lovelife of Weatherford," he claimed, "his dauntless gallantry, his marvellous personal adventures and hairbreadth escapes, and, chief of all, his wonderful eloquence, which eventually saved his life, when all other means would have failed, afford as fine a theme for the poet as any in American history" (p. 9). And to emphasize what Meek hoped to be both the regional and the national appeal of the text, he had it published simultaneously by D. Appleton Company of New York and S.H. Goetzel and Company of Mobile.
Such efforts were rewarded for the moment at least by six printings in the first year and mainly approving reviews in major publications in the North and South. The December 1855 Harper's praised the poet's "frequent vivid pictures of nature" as manifesting "an enviable power of accurate description" and concluded, "[W]e know of few more faithful delineations of Southern scenery than are given in many passages of this poem." It also praised "the plot" as "one of varied interest" being "well sustained throughout."(11) In Richmond, the Southern Literary Messenger of the same month rhapsodized, "Mr. Meek is one of the truest poets in the country, and has that deep sense of the beautiful that finds it proper utterance in song. His gift is one from nature, and can no more fail to declare itself than the melody of birds." It went on: "We regret that we have not the space to do justice here to 'The Red Eagle,' a poem which abounds in striking incident and vivid representations of life and character .... At present we can only say that it is a most delightful addition to the literature of the South and shows that Poesy yet loves to linger in the dread haunted dells and glorious forests of the Southern land.'"(12) Meanwhile, over in Charleston, the current hotbed of Southern patriotism literary and political, the estimable William Gilmore Simms, who had risked a review of Meek's epic-in-the-making a full decade earlier while it was still in manuscript,(13) took to task the editors of the Mercury for not reviewing the work at sufficient length. "I do not like to see our native authors, even in their crude beginnings, passed over neglectfully in our domestic courts of criticism," he wrote. "Mr. Meek has a fine imagination, a lively fancy, an excursive thought, and a grace and force of expression which with proper pains-taking must assure him of the highest excellence in style."(14)
Augmenting the visibility of the text and the approving response among the literary-cultural cognoscenti was the fact that Meek himself was acknowledged as a figure of considerable consequence in antebellum Southern letters, mentioned in the same breath with Simms, Poe, Kennedy, Chivers, John Esten Cooke, Hayne, Timrod, and Bagby.(15) As a critical arbiter and literary patriot, he was certainly considered a worthy contemporary of most of these, having made something of a name for himself in a career in law, politics, oratory, and general public affairs, notable in many eyes for how little effort had actually been expended in the service of literature. Among his achievements had been the creation of the short-lived, but influential literary magazine, The Southron, with big-name contributors during the first half of 1839 including Simms and A. B. Longstreet, as well as Alabama worthies W. R. Smith, F. A. P. Barnard, and H. W. Hilliard. In the same year he published an essay entitled "Southern Literature" and delivered an oration at the Erosophic Society of the University of Alabama on "The Southwest, its History, Character, and Prospects." Other such productions followed, including "Jack Cadeism and Its Prospects" and "Americanism in Literature.'"(16) In turn, some of these were reprinted, along with other essays and poems from Meek, by Simms in periodicals and collections of the 1840s and 1850s appearing under his editorship. As noted above, Simms also gave favorable notice to Meek's work, and the two engaged in an extensive correspondence during the 1840s on matters cultural and literary. Meek returned the favor by "cordially" dedicating The Red Eagle--as had Alabama historian Albert J. Pickett his 1851 volume--to "W. Gilmore Simms, LL.D., the Historian, Novelist, and Poet."
For all this, as noted by Benjamin Williams, 1855 proved hardly the most propitious year for a work staking its quest after enduring renown on self-advertisement as an epic poem of the South; and during the post-Civil War era it largely sank from view to become an object of appreciation mainly among literary antiquarians and cultural nostalgists. Meek himself died in 1865; and what local reputation he retained became increasingly associated with popular lyrics such as those contained in his 1857 volume, Songs and Poems of the South, and a collection of prose historical sketches and essays, many of them reprinted orations, published in the same year and entitled Romantic Passages in Southwestern History. By late in the century, in Sutton S. Scott's The Mobilians,(17) a devotee of the merits of The Red Eagle had to content himself with the hope that the poem might once again shine "as the finest production of the kind which the Gulf States have given to the world"--or, as he phrased it, "when the South shall turn her attention to the literature in which her particular history and characteristics are set forth, not only be highly regarded, but lastingly as well as affectionately cherished" (p. 123).
Ironically, what neither Scott nor his fictionalized commentator could have known was that shortly, across the entire region, just such an articulated campaign of general remembering in Southern literature and history would soon be underway; and that, in Alabama particularly, the single text benefiting most directly from such efforts at cultural recovery would be none other than A. B. Meek's The Red Eagle. Yet such was the case as a new century beckoned, and a New South cast about accordingly in search of occasions to reconnect past and future. To be sure, among cultural heralds pushing ahead toward twentieth-century topics, there remained plantation nostalgists and celebrants of the lost cause; but in most cases, such an atmosphere of historical and literary renewal called for a turning away from slavery, secession, war, military defeat and devastation, and enforced political reconstruction(18)--or at least the attempt to look beyond recent historical tragedy and find a means of reconnection with what might be termed a usable past. And in Alabama, especially, that meant recourse to the same built-in literary-historical escape valve devised by virtually all major writers of the state in the decades before the Civil War: the intense, even obsessive contemplation of one vision of socio-political tragedy--the subjection and eventual extirpation of native peoples--as a way of not contemplating the other comprised in the succeeding racial curse of chattel slavery. Accordingly, in the new century as in the old, there was a return by history-minded Alabamians to the twinned legacies of frontier heroics and Native American lore, with emphasis on accounts of early settlers and records of aboriginal inhabitants; territorial development and constitutional deliberation; early statehood and accomplishments of founding political figures; and works dealing in such topics by pioneering figures of literature. (19)
In terms of institutional specifics, certainly such a purpose of reconnection seemed the thrust of the activities of the State Historical Society at the turn of the century,(20) and, from 1905 onward, of the newly founded State Department of Archives and History, both under the leadership of Thomas McAdory Owen. Similarly, the newly organized Alabama Library Association actively promoted the productions of important early Alabama figures. Again, with Owen in the lead as author of a massive four-volume history and biographical encyclopedia, and through the continuing efforts of his wife, Marie Bankhead Owen, and the textbook author Albert B. Moore, such a reconnection was also emphasized in the writing of Alabama history and the distribution of texts to the schools and libraries. The cause of local culture would be abetted by folklorists such as Ruby Pickens Tartt, educationists such as Julia Tutwiler, and literati such as the state's official poet, Samuel Minturn Peck; and through various state agencies there would be a serious refocusing of public interest on Native American history and archaeology, with such efforts eventually abetted further by depression-era WPA support.
Amidst all this, in 1914 a celebrated literary-cultural touchstone of the effort would turn out to be an attractive, new, custom-printed edition of A. B. Meek's The Red Eagle, published by Montgomery's Paragon Press and timed to coincide with well-publicized public celebrations of the centenary of the great Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Accordingly, with due historical reverence, in size, jacket color, and textual layout, it presented itself as essentially a facsimile of the slim octavo original, but with important giftbook features accentuating its commemorative status. Meek's dedication, introduction, poetic text, and explanatory notes were faithfully reproduced, this time on high quality uncut stock; in the frontispiece and interleaved at the beginnings of separate cantos were engravings of several period illustrations; and the original embossed red cover was updated with full title and likeness of the hero in gilt decoration.(21) A most important new addition, however, was an introductory essay, credited to Geo. T. Bayzer and Will T. Sheehan, the latter the editor-in-chief of the Montgomery Advertiser with a well-known reputation as a promoter of early Alabama history and literature? In it, Meek was lauded for his innumerable contributions to early Alabama life and culture: as poet, orator, editor, critic, and historian. Further, paralleling Meek's own textual commentary, a renewed attempt was also made to set various matters of the historical record straight concerning the work's titular hero and the essential nobility of his character and actions.(23) But from start to finish, the main object of the new preface was clearly literary promotion of the text itself as a recovered touchstone of cultural memory. Here was a book, the authors strenuously asserted, of epic importance in the fullest sense--a testament to the misfortune "that the school children of Alabama should be so familiar with the exploits of King Phillip and Tecumseh, and other Indian leaders, and be kept in ignorance of the deeds of Weatherford and Osceola, Indian leaders of their own state"; or that Longfellow's Hiawatha enjoys continuing renown at the expense of "a poem of Indian life in Alabama, and of equal merit."(24) Left to "dusty places in old libraries" or quotation by an elder "with kindling eye," they concluded, here was Alabama's true contribution to the world in the very definition of epic: "a poem which to the South should be as Scott's Lady of the Lake to Scotland" (p. 9); a text whose loss would truly be that of history itself.
The obvious curricular thrust of republication paid important cultural dividends, some immediate and some longer-range. With new copies widely distributed to schools and libraries, simple availability led to a modest twentieth-century popular revival of the text as a staple of classroom reading and recitation. At present, it is a rare college or university library in the state that does not have multiple copies in the stacks or as part of special collections. Most educated Alabamians to this day know something of Weatherford. Some, mostly of the pre-World War II era, can still recollect a classroom encounter with the poem. And, pace Bayzer and Sheehan, there are still even a few elders around who can recite "stirring passages." To be sure, in the popular or literary canon, on the other hand, fate has once again dealt The Red Eagle a renewed verdict of critical oblivion.(25) Yet, from the grave, Meek--as an artist, frequently disparaged at the time for not devoting himself sufficiently to a purely literary career--surely must have enjoyed some small literary and political triumph, if for nothing else on the basis of the multi-fariousness of his talents. For besides all his literary achievements, he had also been, as was well known from biographical accounts, a political figure of some consequence, with a record including service as a federal attorney and a probate judge, and several terms as a state representative. And it is in the latter role, no doubt, that Meek the politician would surely have enjoyed seeing the epic volume by Meek the poet reissued in a commemorative edition clearly intended for classrooms and libraries. For, even though he had presided as Speaker of the House during the so-called 1859-60 Secession Convention, the legislative achievement most visibly associated with his name over the years had always been his sponsorship of the 1854 Alabama Education Act, whereby the state had officially established its system of public schools. Even as the poet had prepared to publish his mid-nineteenth-century epic, then, the politician was already helping to create the twentieth-century reading constituency who would ultimately serve him most widely and affectionately.
Thus Meek's The Red Eagle--the last of Alabama's premier literary productions to occur before the Civil War--became in new popular and educational incarnations among the state's most culturally cherished; and thus, as well, a production by an antebellum Alabama writer became as important once again for the subject of racial tragedy it depicted as for the one it allowed Alabamians to evade. In 1855, The Red Eagle had been an epic poem of a South standing at the crisis of Union and yet insisting for all the world that chattel slavery was not the central fact of its history; in 1914, it had been resurrected for a South styling itself "New" but knowing full well that it was still to be a savage, segregated South to be feared and disparaged for endless decades to come. The curse of race lying upon the land remained the curse of race arising out of chattel slavery. As to the literary celebration of history and the celebration of literary history, on the other hand, the frontier and native associations of the Old Southwest could be made to serve once again. For a new educational class of twentieth-century readers, the world of the forest wars in America--in this case, that of early nineteenth-century Alabama--could once more be made distinctly prelapsarian in a general sense as it had been in other contexts by Cooper, or, in a more directly Southern connection, Simms: a living Whig explanation of history--a world, that is, before the fall into politics, law, and the need for governments. But for Alabamians, a particular attraction of that world would remain its identification as a world before the fall into slavery as well. With the resurrection of Meek's poem, the epic celebration of the past would be allowed to rework its old politics of racial substitution into a new politics of cultural affirmation and reassurance.
(1) Newton Arvin's phrase "phenomenally popular," applied offhandedly to Song of Hiawatha as if it were a simple adjective, remains correct (Longfellow: His Life and Work [Boston: Little, Brown, 1962], p. 155). The poem sold 10,000 copies in the first four weeks. By the end of six months, 30,000 had been purchased.
(2) Although we enjoy the bemused retailing of anecdotes about Whitman's writing of at least three of his own early reviews, it should not obscure the known information that the 1855 Leaves of Grass attracted more attention than might have been expected from established contemporary critics and reviewers. An immediate review by Charles A. Dana, "friendly and sympathetic" as described by Gay Wilson Allen (The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1967], p. 169), appeared in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Also appearing, perhaps less favorable, but of similar visibility, was an anonymous account--subsequently revealed to have been written by Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard--in the September Putnam's Magazine.
The letter of praise sent to Whitman by Ralph Waldo Emerson is well known. Emerson also plumped the book vociferously to such associates as Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, Frank Sanborn, Moncure D. Conway, and others. On Whitman's part, permitting Dana to publish Emerson's letter stirred up further publicity. New reviews followed, some of them likely a direct result of the publicity, in the Criterion, the Boston Christian Examiner, and the Washington, D. C. National lntelligencer. Most important in the second wave was surely Edward Everett Hale's quite favorable notice in the North American Review (Alien, pp. 169-176).
Ironically, Ezra Greenspan points out, the latter was immediately preceded by a favorable review of Song of Hiawatha, praising it as "the first poem which savors of the prairie or the mountain hunting trail" (Walt Whitman and the American Reader [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990], p. 274.) As Greenspan observes, "one person's truthfulness to nature was apparently another's artificiality" (p. 250). The same confusion of standards seems to have marked the reception of the two poems in the Whitman family household. According to Whitman, his brother George and his mother had reportedly leafed through Song of Hiawatha and the 1855 Leaves of Grass at roughly the same time, with George reporting "the one seemed to us pretty much the same muddle as the other" (David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995], p. 485).
(3) Indeed, in poetry alone, as revealed by Roy Harvey Pearce, the era had seen a veritable flurry of such melancholy production, including such rifles as Mrs. M. M. Webster's Pocahontas (1840), Seba Smith's Powhatan (1841), George H. Colton's Tecumseh (1842), and Elbert Smith's Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia -Kiak; or, Black Hawk and Scenes in the West (1848). Most notably in relation to Meek, even the magisterial Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, author of the multi-volume Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851-1857), had earlier weighed in with A/ha/ga (1843), a poetic romance of the Creek War (Pearce, Savagism and Civilization [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988], p. 189).
Longfellow, of course, wished to exploit such topical appeal in Song of Hiawatha; but by setting his work resolutely in the dimension of myth--his main historical source was Schoolcraft's deeply antiquarian Algic Researches--and thus, by Western terms, the prehistoric native past, he was forced to treat the advent of white civilization in the realm of prophecy.
(4) In a related comment on his general intention, Longfellow also called Hiawatha his "Indian Edda."
(5) Actually, in this respect, Meek was outstripping such contemporaries as Cooper and Simms, taking as his subject the great frontier clash of savage and civilized cultures, but finding it unnecessary to displace the struggle to a more romantic past--in Cooper's case the French and Indian War and in Simms's the pre-Revolutionary era of the South.
(6) Attesting to his concern for the particulars of historical actuality, Meek elected to preface the text with a preliminary explanation of what he called "the leading incidents" of his poem and the major historical figures involved. He also appended several pages of explanatory notes of imposing scholarly density, at the same time having resisted an earlier, larger plan, he confided to the reader, of "copious, `Historic Illustrations'" (Alexander Beaufort Meek, The Red
(7) To complicate matters of naming and actual historical association further, as would have been well known to Alabamians of the era, Daniel Beasley had also been the real name of the commander taxed with the neglect of defensive preparations at Fort Mims that made the bloodbath inevitable. A militia major in deeply over his head, he is described by Meek in the Fort Mims chapter of Romantic Passages in Southwestern History (Mobile: S. H. Goetzel, 1857) as "a vain, rash, inexperienced, and over-confident soldier,--although unflinchingly brave when in the presence of the foe" (p. 250).
(8) In the first scene we witness in the poem, for instance, a foorest meeting of the lovers I which Weatherford seeks to warn Lilla of the impending attack on the fort, Beazely lies in ambush and narrowly misses killing the young chief with a rifle shot; and again on the work's final page, presuming his daughter dead at Weatherford's hands, he bursts into Jackson's tent swearing revenge just as the commander has made his decision to spare his noble adversary. Accordingly, a somewhat incongruous last scene eschews an embrace by the young lovers and instead has the daughter fainting happily upon her father's breast
(9) To show the period's vagaries of poetic tastes, on the other hand, even Southern admirers of The Red Eagle found specific occasion to quarrel on just these grounds with Meek's departures from the formal regularities traditionally associated with epic. In the dimension of musicality, for instance, Meek's friend and poetic compatriot William Russell Smith expressed disappointment at the poem's tendency to act too often as a lyric piece. Losing the opportunity to have his heroic merits expounded in blank verse, Smith said, "Weatherford is shorn of much of his majestic proportions, being cut off at the knees by the lyrical sword" (Rhoda Coleman Ellison, Early Alabama Publications [University: University of Alabama Press, 1949], p. 153). And similarly, praise leveled by a fictionalized admirer of the poem, cited below from Scott's The Mobilians, was prefaced by an expression of disappointment in Meek's failure to maintain sufficiently his core of muscular tetrameter.
As to the premium placed on variation, one suspects here the primary influence of Meek's idol, William Gilmore Simms, who esteemed his own poetic talents highly and worked in a variety of forms, including the extended narrative. Particularly as to the operatic set-piece of rhetorical performance constituting the climax, however, one should note Meek's probable awareness of a long literary-historical tradition in American letters of celebrating Indian oratory. In national memory, there were the well-known examples, for instance, of Seneca and Chief Logan; and locally, Alabama legend had enshrined the speech to the legislature by Chief Eufala in the role of the noble, vanquished, savage adversary, wisely representing his doomed people, their protector, their last advocate.
(10) Benjamin B. Williams, A Literary History of Alabama: The Nineteenth Century (Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1979), p. 40.
(11) Anonymous, review of The Red Eagte, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 57 (December 1855), 118.
(12) Anonymous, review of The Red Eagle, in the Southern Literary Messenger, 20 (December 1855), 674. Ironically, it should be noted, the same issue devoted thrice the space to a review of Longfellow's poem that mainly rehashed comments about its self-parodic meter and Kaelevala connections.
(13) In the Charleston Southern and Western Magazine and Review, 2 (1845), 119-120.
(14) Edd Winfield Parks, William Gilmore Simms as Literary Critic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1961), p. 129.
(15) The list comes, in fact, from Jay Hubbell's classic The South in Modern Literature, 16091900 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1954), p. 359. With the addition and/or deletion of a name or two, however, it would also have been fairly accurate within the contemporary era.
(16) The first was delivered in 1841 to the Literary Society of LaGrange College in Alabama, and the second in 1844 to the assembled literary societies at the University of Georgia.
(17) A set of cultural commentaries styled as the camphouse gathering of a literary club, and subtitled Talks about the South, the work is set in 1878. It was published in 1898 by Brown Brothers Printing in Montgomery.
(18) This is not to discount a thriving business in Confederate history and memoir, with emphasis on combat accounts and the lives of military and political leaders. It was the heyday, for instance, of the popular periodical entitled Confederate Veteran (1893-1932); and across the region, also gaining immense popularity at the turn of the century was at least one bitterly pro-Southern novel of reconstruction, Thomas Nelson Page's Red Rock. In Alabama, wartime divisions within the state had been resurrected in acrimonious fictions, with one side taken up by Jeremiah Clemens in Tobias Wilson: A Tale of the Great Rebellion, about anti-Confederate activity in the Northern counties, and the other by Thomas Cooper DeLeon and Irwin Ledyard in John Holden, Unionist, with the loathsome appositive of the title presumed to speak for itself. The work of plantation nostalgists was reserved for romance, sentimental literature, and the occasional attempt at patronizing humor, with Alabama contributing a children's classic of the genre in Sara Louise Pyrnelle's Diddie Dumps and Tog Serious attempts to preserve and represent traditions of African-American narrative, on the other hand, were also made by Joel Chandler Harris in the Uncle Remusstories and analogously by Alabamian Robert Wilson Burton in the tales of Marengo Jake.
(19) This search for some version of a usable past was hardly an isolated phenomenon. Virginia, for instance, while revering its Confederate saints, would also put new effort into celebrating Jamestown, Williamsburg, and the fathers of the Republic. North Carolina and Georgia would be at pains to represent their myths of origin as contrasting to the hierarchical ones of the aristocratic colonial and antebellum South. To be sure, one would find a certain proud recalcitrance on the part of South Carolina, with its continuing celebrations of Charleston, Fort Sumter, and the low-country planter society. At the same time, as with Louisiana, there would also be a new emphasis on the architecture, the cultural pluralism of colonial life, the admixtures of English, French, Spanish, slave, and Creole. In Mississippi and Alabama the emphasis would become most pronounced on the legacy of the native tribes, with literary reverberations running as far forward as William Faulkner and Harper Lee.
(20) To examine the volumes of proceedings produced in the period, for instance, is to be struck with the preponderance of interest in pre-Confederate Alabama history and culture.
(21) As a period artifact, one should add, in design and layout, the volume seems to have much in common with a contemporary publishing enterprise by G. H. Putnam known as the "Mohawk Edition" of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and making its appearance in 1912. As to the book's old competitor, Hiawatha, one should note, numerous deluxe, illustrated editions had also appeared around the turn of the century, with a most recent one of 1911 from Boston's Houghton Mifflin featuring art by Frederic Remington, N. C. Wyeth, and Maxwell Parrish.
(22) In this, as a promoter of state history and historical culture, Sheehan was a well-known admirer of and frequent collaborator with Thomas McAdory Owen. In the introduction at hand, the editors concluded with special thanks to Owen for his work in providing rare archival engravings of early paintings. More generally, as editor of the Montgomery paper, Sheehan proved also in print a frequent promoter of Owen's historical service projects. In turn, Owen, in his 1921 history, conferred the favor of a biographical entry on Sheehan, crediting him among other things with a crucial role in the campaign to establish an Alabama Department of Archives and History (History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography [Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1921], IV, 1539-1540).
(23) At the time, it was virtually obligatory, as to the massacre at Fort Mims, to attempt to absolve Weatherford of responsibility of direct command. Blame was also usually leveled at the English for stirring up the Red Sticks against the Lower Creeks representing a Peace Party. In later years, this would be followed by the tendency of historians to treat the abortive attack upon a Creek pack train by James Caller and his militia at Burnt Corn Creek as a direct provocation of the Fort Mims disaster that shortly followed.
(24) Will T. Sheehan and Geo. N. Bayzer, introduction to The Red Eagle, by A. B. Meek (Montgomery, Alabama: Paragon Press, 1914), pp. 543.
(25) For all his efforts, even Sheehan, for instance, seemed to express disappointment in a 1919 column, reprinted in Literary Digest, lamenting the neglect of Alabama literature within the state's educational and civic culture. Along the way he tried to give some favorite texts one last puff. As he had in his editorial columns some years earlier, he praised his competitor the Birmingham News for reprinting Johnson Jones Hooper's Simon Suggs stories. More diffidently, he also averred that "In recent years there was a revival of interest in A. B. Meek's notable 'Red Eagle' poem when it was published" ("Alabama's Neglected Literature," Literary Digest, 60 [22 March 1919], p. 35).
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|Author:||Beidler, Philip D.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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