Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Howard Means's "Johnny Appleseed"

Howard Means was Senior Writer for Washingtonian magazine from 1977-1982 and Senior Editor from 1989-2000. In between, he was Critic at Large and an editorial board member for the Orlando Sentinel and an op-ed columnist for King Features Syndicate. At the Washingtonian, he won three William Allen White Medals for feature writing.

Among his earlier books are the first biography of Colin Powell, a selection of the History Book Club; Money & Power: The History of Business, companion piece to the CNBC documentary of the same name; a novel, CSA, optioned for an ABC mini-series; The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer, studies in eccentricity, co-authored with Susan Sheehan; and most recently, The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story, and reported the following:
I can’t claim any conscious design, but pg. 99 — the beginning of Chapter 6 of Johnny Appleseed — is not a bad fit with the Ford Madox Ford thesis.

In the previous five chapters I’ve introduced the myth of Johnny Appleseed and the historical man, John Chapman, who lies buried beneath more than a century and a half of accumulated mythic debris. I’ve laid out Chapman’s roots, taken him west across the Alleghenies to the edge of the Northwest Territory, and shown how his famous nursery business was tied to the nation’s relentless westward push. Chapman would walk into the wilderness, clear an acre or so, plant his seeds, and in three years — just when the seedlings were ready for transplanting — settlers would arrive and find a waiting inventory of apple trees. I’ve also shown how the Ohio frontier at the start of the 19th century was a frenzy of land speculation and how Chapman was a deep part of that, too, buying, leasing and flipping more than a thousand acres over nearly four decades.

In this chapter, “A Calling,” I get to the religious impulse that was the animating force of his life. The chapter begins thus:
In the Christian world, apples are never far from religion. Nor was John Chapman. He needed only to find a theology he could believe in, a system that fit what he already was becoming, and the Ohio-Pennsylvania-Virginia frontier at the start of the 19th century offered a full range of possibilities.
From there, I go on to place Chapman in the context of the times: the Second Great Awakening and the campfire-meeting fervor that gripped the frontier. And then I introduce readers to Chapman’s transforming muse, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and to the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded on his writings. Like Chapman, Swedenborg is almost lost to modern memory, but his visions, his emphasis on the accessibility of the spirit world were tailor-made for this odd-ball frontiersman. Chapman became the New Church’s most ardent wilderness prophet, and the Church, in turn, helped propel Chapman into Appleseed and the myth he would become.

So, does pg. 99 “reveal” the quality of the whole? I can’t say, but it certainly serves as the key pivot for what the book is all about.
Learn more about the book and author at Howard Means's website.

--Marshal Zeringue