Monday, November 18, 2013

Race in early frontier fiction

Huck and Jim, 1884
For readers sampling early frontier fiction, one of the obvious differences between now and then is how unembarrassed writers were in their treatment of race. We know the arguments about the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn (1884), and that novel turns out to be a useful benchmark in the subject of race as it appears in the writings of others.

In Twain’s novel, the slave Jim is actually a full-fledged character, and Twain ascribes to him dignity as a member of the human race. You can’t really say that about most of the nonwhite characters in the novels of other mainstream writers. On the occasions when they appear in popular fiction, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Mexicans are typically peripheral characters portrayed in caricature. They may not even have names.

White supremacy is simply assumed in most novels, and there are degrees of whiteness. To call a man “white” carried the meaning of “decent,” “honest,” “generous,” and “honorable.” The word also meant “respectable” and “civilized.” Obviously, not all white men were. The connotation survives today in phrases like “that’s white of you.”

Occasionally one finds white supremacy actually voiced as a doctrine. Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows (1902) applauds the survival of the fittest and sermonizes about the superiority of the white race. Rarely are notions of this caliber openly questioned or challenged by other writers, but the few examples that exist are worth noting.

Native Americans, 1900
Native Americans. In her novel Ramona (1884), Helen Hunt Jackson attempted to write an Uncle Tom’s Cabin to draw attention to the plight of Indian tribes in Southern California. Simple and trusting folk, her Indians are powerless against the unscrupulous land grabbers who are swarming into California. Confused like children in a suddenly alien and hostile world, they are ennobled by Jackson, who makes them patiently accepting of their fate.

The title character, Ramona, is the orphan daughter of a white father and Indian mother. Falling tragically in love with her is a young Indian, Alessandro, a gentle soul who has learned to speak Spanish and can also read and write.

Seeking sympathy and understanding for Indians, Frederic Remington takes a different tack in John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902). The hero of this novel is a white man raised by Indians who attempts to reenter the white world as an Army scout. As he falls in love with an officer’s daughter, he is caught in a collision of cultures, and his story ends tragically, as well.

Mary Austin’s Isidro (1905) embeds in her romance of Old California a critique of the mission system’s treatment of Indians. She portrays their conversion to Christianity as no better than enslavement, and she makes no secret of the flogging of Indians for infractions of mission rules. She portrays them as peaceful people wanting no more than to live as they please, where they please. In their wish to be left alone by whites, she says, they were not savages. She points out that they knew nothing of torture, scalping, or massacre.

D. Farnum, Red Wing, The Squaw Man, 1914
Squaw men. Jack Genesee, a prospector and mountain man in Marah Ellis Ryan’s Told in the Hills (1890), has given home and shelter to an Indian woman. This kind of connubial arrangement was regarded with contempt by respectable whites, and such men were called “squaw men.” While Indian women in Ryan’s novel are seen as “horribly slouchy, dirty creatures,” the white men who take them as wives are considered “worthless and degraded.”

Ryan’s heroine, Rachel Hardy, is of a different mind and develops respect and sympathy for both Genesee and the Indian tribe he has befriended. While she may not quite countenance sexual contact between races, she learns in the novel that to know all is to forgive all.

“Breeds.” Modern readers of these novels may be surprised to discover the belief that mixed-race characters exhibit not the best but the worst traits of both races. “Half-breeds” are normally cast as villains. Showing them as admirable or heroic is uncommon. Only a few, like Ridgwell Cullum in The Story of Foss River Ranch (1903), break with this pattern. His character Jacky is a “quarter-breed” woman who competently runs a ranch for a white man who has befriended her. While beautiful and intelligent, she has an independent temperament that is nevertheless attributed to her mixed ancestry.

Snapping Turtle, "Half-Breed," 1834
The mixed-blood heroine of Marie Manning’s Judith of the Plains (1904) often struggles with her double identity. The narrator tells us:

It was her destiny to be the daughter of a half-Sioux and a border adventurer, and to feel the counter influences of the two races make forever of her heart a battleground.

In the closing chapter, she accepts being torn between the traits she has inherited. Unlike the shallow and frivolous or the domineering women who populate the pages of this novel, Judith is fated to experience her life with a fierce emotional intensity.

It was in her inheritance to know and live for the wild thrill of ecstasy in her pulses, to feel trembling joy and despair and frantic hope, that exacted its tribute hardly less poignant; as it was also to feel a shivering sensitiveness in regard to the loneliness and bitterness of her life, to have the same measureless capacity for sorrow that she had for loving.

Mexicans. Writing as a Mexican-American, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton told of the injustices experienced by Mexican landowners after California became a state. The Alamar family at the center of her novel The Squatter and the Don (1885) experiences the prejudice of white America, which considers them members of a conquered people.

They are stereotyped as “greasers”: lazy, thriftless, ignorant, and lacking ambition. Though he has worked in a bank, one of the family is unable to find suitable employment in San Francisco because of his ethnicity. He resorts to doing manual labor for two dollars a day, which eventually breaks his health.

Black caricature, 1900
African-Americans. Black characters are nearly nonexistent in early frontier fiction. When they appear, it is almost always as menials and cooks. A curious exception occurs in John C. Bell’s The Pilgrim and the Pioneer (1906), where a black man emerges fully drawn as a delegate to a political convention.

He surprises the other delegates by being in support of a Democrat from Georgia. He argues that the Republican Northerner, a shabbily dressed judge, lacks the kind of polish that would recommend his character. The candidate from Georgia, by comparison, has the dress and manner of a proper gentleman, whom the black delegate feels he can trust. His endorsement swings the convention in favor of the Democrat.

Asians. Chinese characters appear commonly as cooks or owners of laundries, and the occasional Japanese work as house servants. They are sometimes named and may have a line of dialogue, though in barely readable English. Generally Asian characters are no more than stereotypes.

The Yellow Terror
It’s worth remembering that the decades spanning the turn of the century saw passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1892). Now and then we see them as the objects of harassment, as when in Florence Finch Kelly’s With Hoops of Steel (1900), a cowboy “Americanizes” a Chinese man by cutting off his queue.

Another can be found in Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville (1897). A Chinese man, Lung, who runs the town laundry is alluded to as a “slothful Mongol,” an “opium slave,” and a “heathen from the Orient.” When a white woman arrives with plans to open her own laundry, the residents consider it a disgrace for her to compete for business with a “Chinaman,” and he is run out of town.

Wrapping up. Meanwhile, mainstream popular novels of the period are full of racial epithets that make Huckleberry Finn seem tame by comparison. The dominance of white characters and white points of view in this fiction reminds us that mainstream novels were meant for a white audience. It also reminds us of how other voices were not heard and other stories went untold. 

All the books mentioned above can be found online at google books and Internet Archive.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Snapping Turtle by George Catlin

Coming up: Rio Lobo (1970)


  1. Whenever I read these older books I make a point to myself of remembering that they are such a product of their time. Only in that way can I enjoy them despite the often very negative views on minorities.

  2. It's worth noting that the Choctaw "half-breed" Snapping Turtle, better known as Peter Pitchlynn, spent much time lobbying for his people in Congress, and was eventually their Principal Chief. He was only a "half-breed" to the whites. Great piece, thanks for doing it.

  3. Good article. I was startled to reread after 40 years Ian Flemings Live and Let Die. The film was not much better.

  4. Thought-provoking subject -- hard to believe we were so intolerant back in the days! I take it as a challenge to create believable characters of all races.