Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
Pioneer. The word often evokes esteem and reverence here in America, and those bold enough to earn the honorific are vaulted to an almost holy, prophet-like status. We cheer technological pioneers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; extol political pioneers such as Jeannette Rankin and Barack Obama. Then there are the archetypal pioneers, the Daniel Boones and Kit Carsons: the frontier folk who transformed a rag-tag group of colonies into an international powerhouse, people who made “pioneer” a verb. But “pioneers,” frontier or otherwise, weren’t always lionized. “Pioneers” were originally disdained in America, and they wouldn’t be respected today if it weren’t for the author James Fenimore Cooper.
The people we today call “pioneers” were referred to as many things pre-Cooper—“back-settlers” or “foresters,” chiefly—but rarely “pioneers,” and when they were described as such, the meaning was closer to the word’s French origins, les pionniers, a circa 1520 military term for an army’s vanguard. They were the first wave of foot soldiers sent to absorb the conflict’s initial brunt. In other words, pioneers were poor schlubs sent on a kamikaze mission. These ill-fated men were respected for their sacrifice but were in no way, shape, or form enviable. They were doomed. This nihilistic stink remained after the lexeme “le pionnier” transitioned into civilian vernacular around 1600, and it even stuck around once the word wound its way into English, too. Just consider its usage in 1782 by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French-born naturalized citizen who wrote in his tome Letters from an American Farmer: “[Frontier pioneers] are a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of veterans which come after them…In all societies there are outcasts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers…”
But, yes, de Crèvecœur’s French, so let’s consider an utterance from a person born in the New World: Dr. Benjamin Rush, surgeon general of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration. Rush who spoke for a generation when he described back-country pioneers in 1787 as “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts.” While integral to paving the way for more decent folk down the road—“The small improvements he leaves behind him generally make [his land] an object of immediate demand to a second species of settler…men of some property.”—pioneers were still disposable. They were backward, anti-social weirdos looked at askew for living apart from society proper, begrudgingly respected only for the improvements they made on that land. They’re expendables unfit for emulation, much like les pionniers.
And so it went for even more decades, well after real-life pioneers pushed into new lands in Ohio, Tennessee, and beyond. As late as 1823 we see Yale president and Minister Timothy Dwight noting in his book, Travels in New England and New-York, “The business of [the forester or pioneer] is no other than to cut down trees, build log-houses, lay open forested grounds to cultivation, and prepare the way for those who come after them.” Then, echoing most other mainstream Americans, he sneered, “These men cannot live in regular society. They are too idle…too shiftless, to acquire either property or character.” But Dwight would be one of the last to speak of the pioneer in such a derogatory manner, because just as the pious educator was trash-talking frontier dwellers, the author James Fenimore Cooper was preparing to celebrate them in a novel entitled, simply, The Pioneers.
A rising literary star known for his 1821 Revolutionary War thriller The Spy, Cooper’s latest work told the tale of Templeton, an upstate New York hamlet that evolved from an insignificant smattering of log cabins into respectable town. Based on Cooper’s own childhood in a town his father founded—“[Readers] may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact,” Cooper wrote in his original introduction—The Pioneers was filled with assiduous and tenacious heroes building a wholly American town out of nothing but wilderness. This wasn’t a place like Boston or New York, tarnished by colonial influence, trod by imperialist boots. It was all-American. And Templeton was a template for countless towns across America; these outposts-turned-hubs were a “singular feature in American life at the beginning of this [18th] century,” wrote Cooper, and he believed they were destined to become the engine and impetus for an expanding American empire, all crafted by pioneers of the highest order.
The Pioneers was a game-changer, both etymologically and culturally. Linguistically speaking, Cooper’s repurposing of the lexeme “pioneer” imbued the figure with heretofore unprecedented honor. They were still the front-line of “civilization,” but this was now an estimable position indeed. Like other post-colonial subjects-turned-citizens, i.e. Noah Webster, Cooper was trying to define a distinct American identity via language, and adapting “pioneers” was a perfect route toward this end—and, apparently, quite palatable, too: the public ate it up. As James D. Wallace notes in Early Cooper and His Audience, “Readers displayed an early and continuing interest in the ‘real-life’ prototypes of Cooper’s fictional heroes.” (Wallace also notes that the “rearguard” literati wrote scathing critiques of Cooper’s mass-marketed novel.) Haters aside, within a few years the word “pioneers” is being used with deference: author Zachariah Allen praises “persevering” pioneers in his 1832 work The Practical Tourist: “It requires a firm heart for a solitary individual to enter the wilderness alone, for the arduous enterprise of clearing up new lands.”
And it was precisely this popularity that gave the pioneers so much power on a broader cultural level, too: pushing Romanticism to the forefront of the American imagination. While the aesthetic movement and its adoration of nature had been subtly eclipsing the reason-based enlightenment for almost two decades, Cooper’s humanistic portrayal of life in the “hinterland” helped usher the movement, and pioneers, into the mainstream. Once portrayed as forbidden and sinister, woods and unvarnished vistas were now divine, and the pioneers within were admired for their place therein.
The most notable and immediate example of this evolution is Thomas Cole’s seminal 1826 painting, “Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake.” Admittedly inspired by Cooper’s work, Cole’s the first major portrayal of Boone in such a respectable, almost gentlemanly manner. The iconic countryman had already been a folk hero for decades, ever since John Filson’s 1784 reportage The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, but where Filson highlighted the gruffer, authentic bits of frontier life—infamously louse-ridden log cabins were realistically described as “not extraordinary good houses”—Cole’s rendition was purposefully rosy: a ray of heavenly light shines upon Boone and his pooch, a sturdy and charming cabin keeping the darkness at bay. This was Romanticism on full blast, and it was just getting started.
Within a few short years the literary and artistic markets were filled with prose, poems, paintings, and lithographs dedicated to the pioneer Cooper helped reinvent: painters Asher Durand and Jasper Francis Cropsey were some of the early American artists to imitate Cole, depicting handsome and strapping pioneer families nestled into the woods, and Cooper himself spun off an entire franchise: The Leatherstocking Series, the most famous installment of which is The Last of the Mohicans. While earlier Americans had bashfully compared themselves to their estranged but still more “civilized” cousins in England, they now proudly celebrated themselves as a unique nation, and the forests and the pioneers were integral to this self-conception. They were an American-styled Moses, forging forests into towns that begot cities that begot states, propelling the American people into promised lands. They were pushing the country westward, toward what journalist John O’Sullivan would later call “Manifest Destiny.”
And this idea that whites were “destined” to conquer the continent of course brings us to a crucial aspect of American pioneering: the displacement and annihilation of Native Americans. Like les pionniers marching into battle, the American pioneers so many idolized were the first wave in the white man’s seizure of land occupied by First Nations, or “red-skins,” another term Cooper’s work popularized. Though it was first recorded in 1815, in a speech by Meskwaki tribal leader The Black Thunder, Cooper’s usage in such a wide-read tome as The Pioneers cemented it in the American vernacular. Wayne Franklin notes in his biography of Cooper that linguist Ives Goddard defended Cooper’s usage of red-skin, describing it as “an affectless designation for Native Americans,” but intention aside, the effect was very real: Cooper’s work graphically explains how Europeans “dispossessed” Indians of their land and decimated them with violence and alcohol, but he nevertheless described America’s first nations as “animal” and “savage.” He bestows upon them a certain naïve grace, a detail that helped fuel the tenacious “noble savage” narrative, but Cooper’s work primarily perpetuated the idea that Indians would always be outmatched by the unparalleled, unbeatable pioneer, figuratively and literally.
Not incidentally, it was this post-Pioneers cultural shift that laid the groundwork for Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the subsequent Trail of Tears. The nation’s fresh admiration for the rural helped “Old Hickory” trounce scion John Quincy Adams in 1828, an electoral victory aided in part by a campaign narrative hyping Jackson’s childhood in the country’s “interior,” away from the Europeanized East, and it was this same fervor that built support for Jackson’s crusade against Native people. And we see less malignant outgrowths of the Pioneers elsewhere in the political realm, too: Congressman Henry Clay sang the pioneers’ praises in the House of Representatives in 1832: “Pioneers of a more adventurous character, advancing before the tide of emigration, penetrate into the uninhabited regions of the West;” and during the presidential campaign of 1840, the so-called “log cabin election,” newspaper editors bent over backward to trumpet candidate William Henry Harrison’s youth as a “pioneer in the wilderness.” This was an outright lie: Harrison grew up wealthy on a Virginia plantation and didn’t move to Ohio until he was 39, and once there he converted a preexisting log cabin into a 16-room mansion. And though his political opponents publicized this fact far and wide, the truth didn’t matter to the average voter. The idea of the pioneer was already so much bigger, so much more alluring than any reality: Even eye-witnesses described Harrison’s mansion as a “log cabin” during that reality-warping campaign, a contest that established a winning formula for Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, yes, even Abraham Lincoln’s White House runs.
And thus, frontier pioneers became an integral part of the American identity, portrayed in art high and low for generations to come, from Currier & Ives lithographs to Disney-branded Davy Crocketts; pioneers inspired iconic fashions like coonskin caps and buffalo plaid; and the archetype defined the American character in ways more profound and deeper than even the cowboy. “The most characteristic figure of the New World for the first two centuries was the man of the ‘trace’ or trail: the settler who, carrying a rifle and an axe, adventured into the wilderness and there hewed out a clearing, built a cabin,” historian Hamlin Garland wrote in his 1923 biography of Crockett, the “typical pioneer.” And as for the term “pioneer” itself, it ventured into new territories, attaching itself to the likes of aviation vanguard Amelia Earhart, education titan Booker T. Washington, and space age pioneer John Glenn. And almost always the word’s invoked with awe and held up as a template for those that follow. And it all started thanks to one author’s decision to reclaim and redefine a word. By recasting the pioneer, Cooper elevated a lamentable, pitiable character into a hero who shaped the American identity, for better or for worse.
A perfect post to leave you with as we head into the long weekend. Perhaps, like many people, you’ve been wondering what Art Garfunkel’s been reading for… oh… the last 39 years, give or take. Luckily, he’s been keeping track.As a result, perusing through the nearly 1,000 books he’s read in that time, I now know that:When I was born, Art Garfunkel was reading Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur.When I graduated high school, he was reading “Our Crowd” by Stephen Birmingham.When I graduated college, he was reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.And when I got married, he was reading Love, Groucho, the letters of Groucho Marx.What was Art Garfunkel reading on the important dates in your life? (Thanks to John for sending that brilliant link my way)