Sunday, November 11, 2012

William Kerrigan's "Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard"

William Kerrigan is the Cole Distinguished Professor of American History at Muskingum University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, and reported the following:
Like most Americans, I was first introduced to the story of Johnny Appleseed in elementary school, as one of the frontier heroes who made up the cast of the American national origin story. My interest in him as a subject of scholarly inquiry emerged when I returned to the Midwest twenty-five years later. Johnny Appleseed is a curious outlier in our national origin story. Violence, directed at Native Americans and nature, is central to the stories of other members of this “team” of nation builders—Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and the thoroughly mythical Paul Bunyan—while Appleseed is remembered for his extraordinary meekness and generosity, and for sowing, not destroying. My book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard is a biography of John “Appleseed” Chapman, an examination of the meanings of the Johnny Appleseed myth, and a history of the Old World apple in North America.

Page 99 comes near the end of Chapter Three, “Suckers,” a term used to describe the unwanted root sprouts that emerge at the base of an untended apple tree. In the early 19th century, some Americans also used the term to describe the emigrating rural poor. “Suckers” places John Chapman in that class of emigrating rural poor, who were busy carving out homesteads on the borderland between white and Indian Ohio in the first years of the 19th century. The chapter concludes with an examination of Indian-white violence during the War of 1812 in central Ohio, and the local traditions about Chapman’s possible role in that conflict. Page 99 does indeed pass the page 99 test, addressing all three of the book’s themes:
Chapman’s real role in these events is not preserved in credible sources. But in local mythology, Chapman was able to exploit the trust Indians placed in him to travel unharmed through this region and alert whites to the presence of Indian belligerents in the area. These stories, of course, expose the contradictions and tensions within the Johnny Appleseed legend as it emerged in central Ohio in later decades. Was he a pacifist, a man who stood perfectly between the worlds of Indian and white Ohioans, innately trusted by both? The evidence seems to suggest that his fundamental allegiance was to his white neighbors. Was that allegiance limited to protecting families from harm, or would he, as is recounted in the Caleb Palmer story, shoulder a rifle and use it if necessary when violence broke out? The collective evidence suggests that Chapman was a man of unusual meekness and gentleness in a rugged and violent frontier world. But he ultimately was allied with the white, not Indian, vision for the Midwest. He dreamed of a world of farmhouses, fields and orchards.... This [dream] was achieved largely by plough and pruning hook; the musket and the rifle played only a minor role at the end of the drama. And it was by and large the suckers like John Chapman—the emigrating rural poor—who brought about this transformation.”
Learn more about Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue