J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Legend of “The White Horseman”

I believe “The White Horseman,” the earliest printed tale of Hezekiah Wyman, is an example of a lost literary genre called a “legend.” Washington Irving launched this form in American literature with such tales as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). The genre’s ingredients include a historical setting, a spooky atmosphere (whether or not events are actually supernatural), and a tone of inevitable moral judgment.

Other early American authors who used the form include:

  • William Austin, “The Man with the Cloaks: A Vermont Legend” (1836).
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Legends of the Province House” in Twice-Told Tales (1837).
  • Robert Montgomery Bird, “The Legend of Merry the Miner” (1838).
  • George Lippard, Washington and His Generals; or, Legends of the Revolution (1847).
You might guess that I chose those titles because they include the actual term “legend,” but there are many other examples of the form. Probably the highest achievement within the genre is Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The people who wrote legends and probably most of the people who originally read them understood those stories to be fictional. (Especially the ones that involved little men bowling ninepins, of course.) Some authors might have been inspired by historical episodes, but they added too much fiction for the result to be believed.

When those authors remained famous, as Irving and Hawthorne did, their legends were republished under their names, and American readers continued to recognize those tales as fictional. However, when an author was forgotten, his work was easily reprinted and retold without credit or context. In some cases, new authors took those legends to be fact.

For example, some of Lippard’s legends of Revolutionary Philadelphia, such as the Liberty Bell being rung to signal independence, got into the history books. His tale of a mysterious man orating to the Continental Congress continued to circulate as fact at the highest levels of American society into the late 1900s. Lippard appears also to have started the story, mentioned in the last Presidential Inaugural Address, that Gen. George Washington ordered Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to be read to the entire Continental Army (though he might have thought that was accurate, based on his interpretation of a Paine biography).

The fact that legends often included names that grounded them in real places and events furthered that confusion. One local example is the series of tales about “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man.” The Boston lawyer William Austin wrote those stories for The New England Galaxy starting in 1824. They were reportedly a major influence on Hawthorne, and later on Edward Everett Hale’s Man Without a Country.

Austin included some details that seemed authentic, most notably a man from Menotomy named Cutter. That was a common surname in that village; everyone in greater Boston probably knew a man from Menotomy named Cutter. (As I’ve noted, “The White Horseman” also mentions an Ammi Cutter from that village.) Nonetheless, Austin made up the whole story of Peter Rugg.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Austin was forgotten. The story of Peter Rugg was still being retold—as history, or at least as ancient New England folklore. Alexander Wollcott felt he had to write an article setting the record straight.

TOMORROW: So if “The White Horseman” was a legend, where does that leave Hezekiah Wyman of Woburn?


Rob Velella said...

I agree with your hypothesis about "legends" in 19th century literature. If I may add to it, my own theory is that early American writers chose to present pseudo-histories as a way of disassociating the author with his writing. Consider the lack of respect for American writings at the time or, more accurately, the outright disdain for American writing. These negative images mostly come from European (i.e. British) critics but also from Americans themselves (including Rufus Griswold, whose 1842 anthology of poetry had even the compiler concluding that there were no worthwhile writers in the nation). Thus, putting stories like this into the realm of legends that may or may not be true gave a certain credibility to them outside of their American authorship. You could also argue that, at the time, histories were selling pretty well. And, of course, even Hawthorne refused to admit he wrote "novels"; he called them "romances."

This series on Hezekiah Wyman has been fascinating. Thanks for being so in-depth about it.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. I suppose that legends might also have fed into the trends of early national literature in emphasizing the country’s history. That underscored the claim that the U.S. of A. had a history. It also carried the implication that these stories were distinctively American, not totally dependent on European culture.