Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Elkswatawa,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 116-126


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[page 116, continued:]

ELKSWATAWA; OR THE PROPHET OF THE WEST. A TALE OF THE FRONTIER. NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS.

[Southern Literary Messenger, August, 1836.]

THIS novel is written by Mr. James S. French, of Jerusalem, Virginia — the author, we believe, of “Eccentricities of David Crockett,” a book of which we know nothing beyond the fact of its publication. The plot of Elkswatawa is nearly as follows. About the period when rumors were abroad in our frontier settlements, and elsewhere, of contemplated hostilities by the Indians under Tecumseh, one Mr. Richard Rolfe, “a high-toned and chivalrous Virginian,” is a resident of Petersburg. He is left an orphan in early life — is educated under the guidance of an uncle, completes a course of studies at William and Mary, and finally practises law. His uncle now dying, he is left pennyless; and his want of perseverance precludes any hope of professional advancement. In this dilemma he falls in love. The young lady is “a gentle, quiet, little creature,” has hazel eyes, auburn hair, and “the loveliest face my eyes ever beheld.” Moreover, she is “intellectual without being too much [page 117:] book-learned, kind without seeming to intend it, and artless without affectation.” “Not a dog” says Mr. French, “but read her countenance aright, and would follow her until he obtained his dinner.” Besides all this, she has some little property, a penchant for Mr. Richard Rolfe, and a very pretty appellation, which is Gay Foreman. But that the course of true love may not run altogether smooth, the young lady’s father “knows a thing or two,” and will have nothing to do with our hero. The damsel too refuses to run away with him, and so he is forced to run away by himself. In a word, he resolves “to leave the scene of his unhappiness and seek a home in the western wilds.” “Oh poverty! poverty!” says Mr. Richard Rolfe, in throwing his leg over the saddle, “how often hast thou been sketched in some humble sphere, as fascinating in the extreme — and indeed lovely art thou — in the abstract!” — a very neat and very comfortable little piece of positive fact, or as Ben D’Israeli would call it — of æsthetical psychology.

Our hero is next seen in Kentucky, where we find him, on the night of the 10th of August 1809, in the woods, on the banks of the Ohio, in company with one Mr. Earthquake, a hunter. A cry is suddenly heard proceeding from the river. Stealthily approaching the banks, Mr. R. and his friend look abroad and discover — nothing. Earthquake, however, (whom our hero calls Earth for brevity) is of opinion that the Indians have been murdering some emigrant family. While deliberating, a light is discovered on the Illinois bank of the river, and presently a band of Indian warriors become visible. They are dancing a war-dance, with a parcel of bloody scalps in their hands, and (credat Judæus!) with Mr. Rolfe’s very identical little [page 118:] sweetheart in their abominable clutches! “Is there a human bosom callous to the appeals of pity?” here says Mr. Richard Rolfe, attorney at law, placing his hand upon his heart. Mr. Earthquake, unfortunately, says nothing, but there can be no doubt in any reasonable mind, that had he opened his mouth at all, “Humph! here’s a pretty kettle of fish!” would have come out of it.

It appears that Mr. Rolfe having decamped from Petersburg, old Mr. Foreman, as a necessary consequence, becomes unfortunate in business, fails, and goes off to Pittsburg — or perhaps goes to Pittsburg first and then fails — at all events it is incumbent upon him to emigrate and go down the Ohio in a flat-boat with all his family, and so down he goes. He arrives, of course, before any accident can possibly happen to him, exactly opposite the spot where that ill-treated young attorney, Mr. Rolfe, is sitting as aforesaid, with a very long face, in the woods. But having got so far, it follows that he can get no farther. The Indians now catch him — (what business had he to reject Mr. Rolfe?) they give him a yell — (oh, the old villain!) they kill him — (quite right!) scalp him, and throw him overboard, him and all his family, with the exception of the young lady. Her they think it better to carry across to the Illinois side of the river, and set her, up on the top of a rock just opposite our hero, with a view, no doubt, of letting that interesting young gentleman behold her to the greatest possible advantage.

But the glaring improbability of this rencontre (an incident upon which the whole narrative depends) is perhaps the worst feature in Mr. French’s novel. Matters now proceed in a more rational manner. The Indians, eight in number, having finished their war-dance, [page 119:] make off with their prey. The two hunters (for Mr. R. has turned hunter) swim the river and proceed to follow in pursuit, with the view of seizing any favorable opportunity for rescuing the young lady. There are now some points of interest. At one time, our friends, hiding in the trunk of a tree, are near being discovered by the red men, when these latter are turned from the path by the rattling of a snake. This is a manœuvre on the part of Earthquake, who carries the rattles about his person. Something of the same kind, however, is narrated by Cooper. At another period, one of the eight becoming separated from the party, is waylaid and dexterously slain. Mr. Rolfe too, manages to obtain a glimpse of the face of the captive, and is convinced of her being his inamorata. The pursuit, however, is unsuccessful, and the maiden is carried to the camp of Tecumseh.

We have now a description of this warrior — of his brother Elkswatawa, the Prophet — of Net-nok-wa, the female chief of the Ottawas — and of Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa her daughter. The two latter are on a visit to Tecumseh, who refuses, for state reasons, the proffered hand of Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa. This princess, becoming interested in the fate of our heroine, begs her of the Prophet as a slave. The Prophet yields, and Miss Foreman is carried by Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa to visit some of the latter’s friends on the Wabash, before setting off for the more distant regions of her tribe. In the meantime, our hunters, arriving at the camp, and having reconnoitred it in vain for any traces of the captive, boldly enter the camp itself, and demand the maiden at the hands of the Prophet. His hostile intentions not being yet sufficiently ripe, Elkswatawa receives them with kindness, and gives them fair words, but disclaims [page 120:] any knowledge of Miss Foreman. Being desired, however, to aid the search by means of his power as a Prophet, the Indian finally points out the true route of Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa’s party, and our hunters taking leave, determine, as nothing better can be done, to return home for assistance. On their way they come across the body of the Indian, who, it will be remembered, was separated from his party and killed by our friends. Upon his person they find, among other articles, a handkerchief marked with the letters R. Rolfe, in the handwriting of our hero. He remembers having exchanged handkerchiefs with Miss F. on the day of his leaving Petersburg, and his doubts are now, consequently, resolved into certainty. This incident determines Rolfe to proceed immediately up the Wabash. Here, too, he fails in the object of his search, and the hunters commence their return. On the route an Indian woman is discovered, bearing a torch, and looking for her son whom she supposes to have been murdered by the whites. Touched with pity, our friends aid her in the search, and the son is found, grievously wounded, but not dead. In her lamentations, the mother drops some few words about a white maiden who has taken shelter in her wigwam, and the hopes of Rolfe are rekindled. They bear the wounded man to the hut, and the white maiden, who is found dead, proves not to be Gay Foreman. But the kindness of Rolfe and his companion have excited a deep gratitude in the breasts of the Indian mother and son — the latter is called Oloompa. They pledge their aid in recovering the lady — and, Rolfe having entrusted Oloompa with a letter for his mistress, the hunters resume their journey. Reaching Indiana, they find that, owing to the unsettled state of Indian affairs, no [page 121:] assistance can be rendered them in regard to the rescue of Miss Foreman. They proceed to Kentucky. Earthquake is made sheriff. Rolfe practises law, and having written to Petersburg in relation to Miss F. receives an answer inducing him to believe himself mistaken in regard to the identity of the captive. In the meantime Netnokwa, Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa and Miss Foreman are living on the banks of the Red River. The lady is, in some measure, reconciled to her fate by the kind attentions of her Indian friends — who are only prevented from restoring her to the settlements, through dread of the Prophet’s resentment. Elkswatawa and Tecumseh are busied in uniting the Indian tribes with the view of a general attack upon the whites. An emissary is thus sent to the wigwam of Netnokwa. Influenced by Miss Foreman the princesses treat the messenger with contempt and laugh at the pretensions of the Prophet. He returns home vowing vengeance, and Elkswatawa is induced to send a party of six warriors for the purpose of bringing all the inmates of Netnokwa’s cabin to his camp.

The friendly Indian, Oloompa, determines, in the meantime, to redeem his promise made to the two hunters, finds out the wig-wam of Netnokwa, delivers the letter of Rolfe, receives an answer from Miss Foreman, proceeds with it to Kentucky, searches out our hero, and returns with him as a guide to the dwelling of the Indian princess. Earth accompanies them. The cabin is found deserted — the inmates having been carried off the day before in the direction of the Prophet’s camp. But the ingenuity of Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa has contrived to leave, on a shelf of the cabin, a letter for the perusal of Oloompa — whose return was, of course, expected. This letter consists [page 122:] of a parcel of little clay figures, representing Netnokwa, Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa, and Miss Foreman, driven by six Indians in the direction of the camp of the Prophet. Upon this hint our hero starts with his two companions in pursuit. They fail, however, in overtaking the Indians in time to accomplish a rescue. The captive with her friends is carried to Tippecanoe, where the Prophet (Tecumseh having gone to the South) is expecting an attack from the American army under General Harrison. Entering the camp, Oloompa mingles with the Indians and finally discovers the tent in which are the princesses and Miss Foreman. Learning that the Prophet has granted to Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa the privilege of passing in and out of the tent at pleasure, restricting her only to the limits of the camp, he obtains an interview with her, and prevails upon her to disguise Miss Foreman to represent herself, (the princess) and thus enable the captive to pass out. The scheme succeeds, and our heroine is restored to the arms of Mr. Rolfe, who is awaiting her beyond the lines. In the meantime, the impatient Indians urge the Prophet to a night attack upon Gen. Harrison. They are repulsed, and at the conclusion of the battle, our friends make their way into the American army. All difficulties now vanish. The lovers are married, and the narrative is brought to a conclusion.

The dry compendium we have given will of course do little more than afford some idea of the plan of the novel. Its chief interest depends upon matters which we have avoided altogether, as being independent of this plan, and as forming a portion of our Indian history. Here Mr. French has been very successful. The characters of Tecumseh and of Elkswatawa appear to us well drawn, and the manœuvres skilfully detailed [page 123:] by means of which the vast power of the Prophet was attained. It is possible however, that the bear, tiger, Indian, and snake stories of our friend Earthquake, (with which the volumes are plentifully interlarded,) will be considered as forming the better portions of Elkswatawa. We have already adverted to the gross improbability of the main incident upon which the narrative is hinged. In the entire construction of the tale Mr. French has fallen too obviously, we think, into some mannerisms of Sir Walter Scott.

In him (Sir Walter) these mannerisms, until the frequency of their repetition entitled them to such appellation, being well managed and not over-done, were commendable. They added great force and precision to the development of his stories. They should now be avoided — as a little too much of a good thing. And to a man of genius the world of invention is never shut. There is always something new under the sun — a fact susceptible of positive demonstration, in spite of a thousand dogmas to the contrary. The mannerisms we particularly allude to in Mr. French, are involved in what he so frequently calls the “bringing up” of his narrative. Fixing in his mind, every now and then, some particular epoch of his tale, he deems it of essential importance (when it is by no means so) that the action of his various characters should be “brought up,” with entire regularity, to this epoch. The attention is no sooner engaged in one train of adventure, than a chapter closes with some such sentence as the following. “Leaving him to prosecute his journey, and the hunters with a perfect knowledge of the route he had taken, we return to the camp of the Prophet,” see chapter 21 — or with “Leaving the hunters to hover about the temporary camp of [page 124:] the Indians, we must bring forward other parts of our story,” see chapter 3 — or with “Thus amusing themselves, they continued their journey, to perform which we must leave them, while we bring forward other parts of our story,” see chapter 8 — or “And now having brought up the history of the Prophet to the period of which we are writing we will proceed with our narrative,” see chapter 14 — or “Leaving Rolfe to attend to his profession, and Earthquake to discharge the duties of the office which had just been conferred on him, let us proceed with other parts of our story,” see chapter 15. Many of the chapters commence in a similar strain, and even in the middle of some of them the same interruptions occur. And this adjustment of the date is so frequently repeated that Mr. French’s readers are kept in a constant state of chronological hornpipe.

There are some inadvertences to which the author’s attention should be called. When Rolfe, and his companion Earthquake, are in the woods on the banks of the Ohio, at the time of the murder of Mr. Foreman’s family, they are represented (see page 32, vol. i,) as hearing a sudden cry — upon which, proceeding to the river bank, they look around — and see — nothing. The boat containing the family had sunk before their appearance and no traces remained. Yet on page 113 of the same volume, we find the hunters giving to the Prophet a detailed account of the massacre and burning — things of which they could know nothing whatsoever.

When Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa (that acute young lady) is about leaving her wigwam on the Red River — forced away by the six Indians of the Prophet, she goes to much trouble in making little dirt babies as a means of informing Rolfe and Olonmpa, when they shall arrive, [page 125:] of the disaster which has befallen her. The six Indians, it is possible, would have taken notice of the dirt babies and destroyed them before their departure — for we are told they were set upon a shelf in the wigwam. At all events, the young princess should have had a less opinion of her own ingenuity, and have requested Miss Foreman to write a bonâ fide epistle to her lover. In this manner she would have saved herself no little dabbling in the mud.

In his dialogues, our author will observe that he makes a far too frequent use of the names of the speakers. Earthquake, for example, cannot say a word to Rolfe, without calling him Rolfe, to commence with — and Rolfe does nothing but Earth Mr. Earthquake to the end of the chapter. This has the most ludicrous effect imaginable. The colloquy might as well proceed, too, without so excessive an use of the word “said.” The “said Earths” and “said Rolfes” have put us in a positive fever. The general style of Mr. French is intrinsically good — but has a certain air of rawness which only time and self-discipline will enable him to mellow down. In depicting character, the novelist is unequal. Earth is natural, and although drawn with force, still free from the usual exaggerations. We have already spoken of Elkswatawa and Tecumseh. Oloompa is a bold and chivalrous Indian, with a fine ideal elevation of manner. Miss Foreman we dislike, because we cannot comprehend her. In vain we endeavor to form of her, from the portrait before us, any definite image. She is a young lady — and we are told a very pretty one — but Mr. F. must pardon us for saying that she has — no character whatsoever.

Upon the whole we think highly of “Elkswatawa,” as evincing a capacity for better things. But if the [page 126:] question were demanded — What has Mr. French here done for his reputation? — we would reply possibly, upon the spur of the moment — “very little.” Upon second thoughts we should say — “just nothing at all.”

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Elkswatawa)