Previously, I have written about calls for distinctly American literature in the early part of the eighteen hundreds and the role of newspaper reporting in Lydia Maria Child’s “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes.” Today, I want to take a moment and look at Child’s “Chocorua’s Curse,” a short story that originally appeared in The Token in 1830. (Page 257 in the link.) Child’s story, short as it is, provides interesting avenues for discussion in the classroom. Specifically, it calls upon students to think about the history that Child draws upon in her early writings, and it also brings up discussions surrounding debates about American literature during the period.
Relating to the New England colonists’ arrival in America, “Chocorua’s Curse” comments on the way that Pilgrims, Puritans, and other groups saw the land as something that should be tamed and ultimately cultivated. Daniel Webster even proclaimed the cultivation of the civilized land to be one of the Pilgrims’ greatest accomplishments in 1822. From the outset of the narrative, nature appears as something that is “wild and broken” but also beautiful.” The narrator states,
The rocky county of Stanford, New Hampshire, is remarkable for its wild and broken scenery. Ranges of hills towering above one another, as if eager to look upon the beautiful country, which afar lies sleeping in the embrace of heaven; precipices, from which the young eagles take their flight to the sun; dells rugged and tangled as the dominions of Roderick Vich Alpine, and ravines dark and deep enough for the death scene of a bandit, form the magnificent characteristics of this picturesque region. (162)
This opening paragraph highlights both the beauty and the dangers of the county, anticipating the encroachment of Cornelius Campbell and his family into the area. Cornelieus’ attempt to poison the fox that has been harassing his farm fails. Instead, Chocorua’s son drinks the poison and dies. What had once been a peaceful relationship between Chocorua and the Campbells turns into one of vengeance. Likewise, Campbell’s attempt to poison the fox, as Carolyn Karcher states, shows the “white settlers’ hostile relationship to nature, which they treat as an enemy to be subjugated, rather than as a source of life to be venerated and propitiated” (161).
Ultimately, after Chocorua kills Cornelius’ family in retaliation, Cornelius and a band of men shoot Chocorua dead. This series of events can be read in relation to the interactions between colonists and Native Americans during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but more importantly, the ultimate death of Chocorua needs to be read in light of the Indian Removal Act and debates of the sovereignty of the southeastern and still some northeastern Native American tribes. Chocorua’s death can be seen as Child’s comment on Cherokee removal and the idea of the vanishing American. It also needs to be considered as one of her any comments on the dangers of such government actions to deny the tribes their sovereignty.
Along with these items, “Chocrua’s Curse” participates in the debates surrounding a distinctly American literature, which many proposed to be works that mined the history of the colonies and more specifically the country’s Native American inhabitants. Child heeds this call with her first novel, Hobomok (1824). In “Chocorua’s Curse,” Child subtly comments on these ongoing calls in the second paragraph of the story. Here, she references Thomas Cole’s 1828 painting of Mt. Chocorua which possibly served as the inspiration for the story. As well, she makes a passing comment about Sir Walter Scott: “Had it [the precipice] been in Scotland, perhaps the genius of Sir Walter would have hallowed it, and Americans would have crowded there to kindle fancy on the heart of memory” (162). Here, Child takes a swipe at the reading public, who, as critics of the period lamented, preferred European writers over American ones, a clam that Herman Melville makes almost 25 years later in “Hawthorne and His Mosses.”
Six years before “Chocrua’s Curse” debuted, Child published Hobomok anonymously, and from the preface, she seeks to establish the novel of the eponymous Native American character as distinctly American, adding it to the growing number of American texts in the period. The preface consists of the anonymous editor speaks with the supposed author Frederic. Frederic wants to write a “New England novel” after hearing comments from a friend about its history. In reply, the editor remarks that it will be a challenge to get such a novel accepted especially with Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverly. . . galloping over hill and dale, faster and more successful than Alexander’s conquering sword” (3). Frederic persists, telling the narrator,” Still, barren and uninteresting as New England history is, I feel there is enough connected with it, to rouse the dormant energies of the soul” (3-4).
The conversation echoes the calls for an American literature that does not rely on European antecedents but one that mines the depths of the fledgling nation. Six years later, Child still can be heard calling for the same thing, even after more publications by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and more. The calls, while being heeded by some, still did not take full effect it appears because these calls, in varying forms, continued throughout the nineteenth century.
These are two aspects of Child’s story that could be brought up when talking about the author with students. Some of her other short stories act in the same way, navigating calls for a national literature while also commenting on the political injustices of the period. What other texts would you suggest using? What texts have you used in these discussions? As usual, let m know in the comments below.
Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok, And Other Writings on Indians. Ed. Carolyn L. Karcher. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.