Back in October, I wrote about Lydia Maria Child’s “Chocorua’s Curse” and America’s literary presence. I’m not going to go back into the discussion from that post, I do want to expand a little on one of the allusion to the English born painter Thomas Cole that Child uses in the story. In the second paragraph, Child comments that Americans need to look for literature and art at home rather than looking towards Europe, invoking Sir Walter Scott as an example. She concludes by alluding to Cole’s landscape paintings, and specifically his depiction of Mt. Chocorua: “Our distinguished artist, Mr. Cole, found the sunshine and the winds sleeping upon it in solitude and secrecy; and his pencil has brought it before us in its stern repose.”
A sketch by Cole accompanies Child’s story in the 1830 edition of The Token. It displays Chocorua cursing the English settlement and Cornelius Campbell as he dies. As a companion to “Chocorua’s Curse,” the image depicts the conflict the story through its highlighting of the pivotal moment where the chief curses the settlers. This image, of course, did not probably inspire Child when writing her story. Rather, a number of other paintings of Mt. Chocorua by Cole served as the inspiration for the allusion that Child deploys. The image below of Mt. Chocorua is from 1828 and titled Autumn Landscape (Mt. Chocorua); it shows Cole relaxing on a rock near a waterfall, presenting an image of tranquility and pastoral innocence.
Another image that could have served as inspiration is Cole’s Mount Chocorua , New Hampshire from 1827. Again, we see a peaceful scene set in nature, but instead of having someone lounging against a rock, we see a man fishing in the lake with the mountain in front of him. Both images show an uninhabited landscape that has not been touched by man; a landscape that exists as a place of repose and rest, a pastoral space. Each shows America in its frontier splendor.
Written during calls for Native American removal in the Southeast, and the signing of the Indian Removal Act, Child comments on the government’s mistreatment of the Cherokee, Creek, and other tribes in its calls for removing the tribes to the west of the Mississippi. “Chocorua’s Curse,” at first, portrays the interactions between Native Americans and settlers as a relationship of communion and respect. However, that relationship changes once Campbell accidentally poisons and kills Chocorua’s son.
Child presents Chocorua in a sentimental manner, making the reader feel sympathy for him at the loss of his son and his interactions with Campbell and the rest of the settlers. However, the story ultimately falls into the trap of the Vanishing American as Chocorua dies at the end of the story, essentially paving the way for the English settlement to expand into the present. This is the problem that arises in Hobomok, Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, and other texts from the period that strive to paint Native Americans in a positive light. While they may present readers with non-stereotypical Native Americans who exhibit humanity, the texts ultimately fail because they typically do not provide a space for the Native American characters at the end of the narratives.
It is here that I want to focus a little more on Thomas Cole. If you look at the pictures above, except for the sketch that accompanies “Chocorua’s Curse,” the landscape does not contain any indication of Native American habitation. Rather, we see two people leisurely enjoying the untended scenery by resting against a rock or fishing. This, of course, does not seem out of the ordinary for a Romanticist painter who looks to nature for inspiration. However, it does say a lot about what the paintings represent.
When teaching “Chocorua’s Curse” I typically use Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm–The Oxbow (1836). While it appeared six years after Child’s story, I think it provides students with a good visual image of the Vanishing American and the progress of civilization as it moves further and further into the interior of the nation.
We can look at The Oxbow and break it up into two distinct sections, almost down the middle of the painting. On the right, we see a clear sky with a few white clouds off in the distance. We see a cultivated landscape with smoke rising from houses and farmers tilling the soil. We see a boat on the river. We see the sun shining down as if blessing the progress of civilization into the untamed wilderness on the left side of the image. We also see, as Steven Zucker and Beth Harris note in the video below, what appear to be Hebrew letters carved into the mountain near the middle of the image. These letters look to spell Shaddai (Almighty). The name here can be read in relation to the belief that God ordained the settlement of America for his divine purpose. On the left, the storm continues to roar over an uncultivated landscape that is waiting to be tended. The tree, leaning towards the left end of the frame, is broken, and birds fly wildly amongst the clouds.
Taken together, these images from Cole provide an opportunity to explore some of the overarching themes of American Literature in regards to supposed progress and Native American removal. Like the other two images, The Oxbow does not provide an image of Native Americans. Through this, Cole erases Native Americans from the nation, denying them a presence or even the acknowledgement that they even existed before settlers arrived. Within the context of the 1820s and 1830s, this is an important point of discussion to have with students, especially considering the fact that Child, with “Chocorua’s Curse” and her other works, is arguing against Native American removal.
If you would like to bring another image into the discussion, I would suggest using Cole’s The Oxbow alongside John Gast’s American Progress (1872). Gast’s painting shows a similar scene, adding Native Americans to his depiction of American movement West. Still, settlers displace the Native Americans in the image, and the trope of the Vanishing American continues. We need to remember that Gast’s painting appears after the Civil War, when some, like Child, returned to arguing for Native American rights. Westward expansion also increased and confrontations between Native Americans, the US Government, at settlers rose.
What are your thoughts and suggestions? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.