WESTERN MIND:

ITS MANIFESTATIONS, ELOQUENCE, AND HUMOR.

[CONCLUDED.]

It was this dry and meager form of language which drove both Indians and Anglo-American borderers to the use of analogous terms, whose inappropriateness often renders them quaint or even witty, where no such effect was intended. There is in print a well-known writ, issued by an Indian justice of the peace, long ago in Massachusetts, which illustrates my point. It ran thus:--“I, Hihoudi. You, Peter Waterman. Jeremy Wicket. Quick you take him, fast you hold him, straight you bring him before me. Hihoudi.”

A singularly close parallel to this was the proclamation of the western sheriff, at the beginning and ending of court. As the ermined judge ascended the tribunal, this matter-of-fact functionary bawled out, “O yes, O yes, court am open!” and when the labors of the day were over, he proclaimed again with genuine western adherence to sense and logic, and disregard of form, the substance of the fact, thus: “O yes, O yes, court am shet!”

Thus, I repeat, many of the expressions of the western borderers which seem to us imaginative, humorous, or ludicrous, though in some cases, perhaps, derived from ancestors or ancestral peculiarities, were usually adopted as the first which came to hand when the new idea to be expressed came up asking for a word. The foresters had no training in language, and no habitude in abstract thought, or in modifying and distinguishing notions. but they had abundant readiness and self-reliance, and when they wanted a new word they either took an old one and modified it into a new one, much on the principle which forced their wives to make one utensil serve as wash-basin, kettle, dish, dish-pan, and swill-pail; or they manufactured one out of whole cloth, often in ridiculous exemplification of that figure of speech to which the grammarians have given the clumsy name of onomatopoeia: namely, making the sound suggest the sense.

The former of these two methods made words like “spontanaceous” for spontaneous; “obfasticate” for obfuscate; “cantankerous” for cankerous; “rampageous” or “rampunctions” for rampant; “hifalutin” or “hifalutinatin” for high-flying; “tetotaciously” for totally; and the like. The latter resulted in terms having often a ludicrous general similarity to proper English words of the long Latin kind, but utterly unfounded in fact; the merest phantoms of a raw, absurd and unconscious fancy. Such are “sockdolager” for a knock-down blow; “explatterate,” to crush or smash; “explunctify,” for the same; “honey-fuggle,” to hang about one and flatter him for mean purposes; and so on.

Many of the figures of speech and forms of rhetoric which characterize western eloquence, partake of the same bombastic and unsound character; this, however, of course not being true of the best of the western orators. And all these, words and figures and sentences, while they possess a show of poetical or imaginative character, with more or less of its actual essence, are nevertheless as a whole the products of deplorable and extreme barrenness of mind and poverty of thought.

But with the gradual growth of population, wealth, refinement and education, there is of course a gradual change in these respects; the phraseology and the intellect of the people improve and develop together. This change is brought about at the West in great measure, by means of the increasing frequency of public speaking. And we must not judge of the power exerted upon people, nor the good done them, merely by estimating the amount of positive information furnished by the speaker, and his grade of intelligence. It is from the stimulation which their natures experience, from his pouring out and rendering up to them of the treasures of his own life and soul, that the abiding profit of his work is derived. Now the rude speeches and sermons of the West task and stimulate the intellects of the people, and set their minds in motion. The steam is turned on; and when that is done, the engine must move forward or backward, or else explode. It may be admitted--to carry out the figure--that an explosion has sometimes happened, but on the whole, the general result has been a movement ahead. As was naturally to be expected, there was undue emphasis, exaggeration, violence, and exceeding heat. All this was perfectly natural, and to be expected; but from this noisy fermentation has come out, after all, a style of eloquence which has become distinctively and emphatically American eloquence. The spoken eloquence of New England is for the most part from manuscript. Her first settlers brought old world forms and fashions from the old world with them. Their preachers were set at an appalling distance from their congregations. Between the pulpit, perched far up toward the ceiling, and the seats, was an awful abysmal depth. Above the lofty desk was dimply seen the white cravat, and above that the head of the preacher. His eye was averted and fastened downward upon his manuscript, and his discourse, or exercitation, or whatever it might be, was delivered in a monotonous, regular cadence, probably relieved from time to time by some quaint blunder, the result of indistinct penmanship, or dim religious light. It was not this preacher’s business to arouse his audience. The theory of the worship of the period was opposed to that. His people did not wish excitement or stimulus, or astonishment, or agitation. They simply desired information; they wished to be instructed; to have their judgment informed, or their reason enlightened. Thus the preacher might safely remain perched up in his far distant unimpassioned eyerie.

But how would such a style of eloquence--if, indeed truth will permit the name of eloquence to be applied to the reading of matter from a pre-concerted manuscript--how would such a style of delivery be received out in the wild West? Place your textual speaker out in the backwoods, on the stump, where a surging tide of humanity streams strongly around him, where the people press up toward him on every side, their keen eyes intently perusing his to see if he be in real earnest--“dead in earnest”--and where, as with a thousand darts, their contemptuous scorn would pierce him through if he were found playing a false game, trying to pump up tears by mere acting, or arousing an excitement without feeling it. Would such a style of oratory succeed there? By no means. The place is different, the hearers are different; the time, the thing required, all the circumstances are totally different. Here, in the vast unwalled church of nature, with the leafy tree-tops for a ceiling, their mass stems for columns; with the endless mysterious cadences of the forest for a choir; with the distant or nearer music and murmur of streams, and the ever-returning voice of birds sounding in their ears for the made-up music of a picked band of exclusive singers: here stand men whose ears are trained to catch the faintest footfall of the distant deer, or the rustle of their antlers against branch or bough of the forest track--whose eyes are skilled to discern the trail of savages, who leave scarce a track behind them; and who will follow upon that trail, utterly invisible to the untrained eye, as surely as a bloodhound follows the scent, ten or twenty, or a hundred miles--whose eye and hand are so well practiced that they can drive a nail or snuff a candle with the long, heavy western rifle. Such men, educated for years, or even generations, in that hard school of necessity, where every one’s hand and woodman’s skill must keep his head; where incessant pressing necessities required ever a prompt and sufficient answer in deeds; and where words needed to be but few, and those the plainest and directest, required no delay nor preparation, nor oratorical coquetting, nor elaborate preliminary scribble; no hesitation nor doubts in deeds; no circumlocution in words. To restrain, influence, direct, govern, such a surging sea of life as this, required something very different from a written address. The effect of the New England manner of preaching upon a western man is illustrated by the broad and random criticism of that same rough old Peter Cartwright, of whom I have already written. All that he thought it worth while to say of the young clergyman who delivered a written sermon somewhere along his western track, was, that “it made him think of a gosling that had got the straddles by wading in the dew.” What that eloquence is which can and does control such a constituency, can scarce be conceived, except by those who have heard it. Yet there is is, [1] and of a lofty grade of power and beauty; and it has become distinctively American in method and style. It would not be difficult to fill volumes with quotations illustrative of the eloquence and humor of the West. But such quotations are too plentiful in our contemporary literature to make any such selection at all necessary; and I have preferred accordingly to present such an imperfect analysis as I might of the shaping causes which have waited on its birth and growth. The causes of the character of western mind, the nature and derivation of its constituents, have been too little examined to be understood or appreciated.

As I already quoted a negro as affording an instance of the grim and cool humor characteristic of his western home, if not of his own tropical blood, so I desire to cite another as having, in a brief and homely description, exemplified a very high order of rude natural eloquence. This was a preacher, who was endeavoring to set forth the attributes of the Almighty; and who summed up the mysterious and awful powers of the Unknown God in a single sentence, which for terseness and telling force and heart [unclear] would be difficult to match. Using a common western and southern idiom, he thus said: “He totes the thunder in his fist, and flings the lightning from his fingers.”

I well remember the impression produced upon me--a boy of twenty-two years of age, educated in the woods and prairies of the West--when I attended for the first time the session of Congress at Washington. I imagined that whatever eloquence I might have heard was, at least in some sense, deficient in the higher and sublimer qualities of oratory. I had heard and read much of the great men of our national legislature, and fully expected to be charmed beyond measure, in House and Senate, with new revelations of majesty and beauty; to be educated into a perfect passion for eloquence; to sit long happy days and nights in the halls of Congress, listening, a humble scholar, to those great men as they expounded or enforced the principles of the laws and the statesmanship of the land. The disappointment I experienced was inconceivable. I had expected a new kind of speech, something loftier and nobler than I had heard before; but, after hearing the most famous debaters, the world-renowned champions of that great arena, I went home to my boarding house every evening with the mental exclamation, “Can it be possible that all these men have taken lessons in eloquence from the old Methodist preachers and exhorters of the West?” The most effective and successful of them were those who spoke loudest and with most passion, and thumped the desks the hardest, just as it was at the West. I have seen Adams and Webster thumping on the desks in front of them as if they had no knuckles at all, or wanted to knock them off. The Western style of oratory has become American; it is extempore, the thoughts suggested by the occasion, and the words such as mustered upon the hasty call of the thoughts; often harsh, or rude, or ill-sounding words; but, nevertheless, words of force, every one effective in performing the service of the occasion.

A Western writer, in a sketch of a trip into the State of Kentucky about 1806, has occasion to describe one who was an early and splendid master of the style of eloquence of which I have spoken. This writer had occasion to visit the lower or Green River counties, and on arriving at a county town found the court just assembling, and a great concourse of people from all the region round, gathered together in expectation of a trial which had excited very great interest in all the neighborhood. He entered the court-house, an extempore affair--for all the appurtenances of justice, like the speeches of that day and place were improvised. The abode of justice was a log-cabin. On one side sat the judge, and the sheriff, shouting out “Oyez, oyez,” proclaimed the opening of the court. Business was begun, and the docket regularly called; and in process of time this case, so eagerly looked forward to, was put in course of trial; the witnesses were called and examined, and the pleadings commenced. The case was a civil suit for damages for slander, brought by a poor orphan girl, whose fair name, her only possession, had been defamed by the defendant, a wealthy man in that region. She had no kinsmen who could revenge this great wrong by personal prowess, by the strong hand, as the custom of the country would ordinarily have required; and the spirited young girl found herself perforce left to the slow recourse of the law. The counsel for the plantive, as he appeared to my authority, was tall, straight, and rather slender; of dark, or at least, swarthy features. Long black locks fell over his face, an eagle-eye looked keenly from beneath his forehead, and his costume, as unjuridical a dress as could well be conceived, was that of a hunter in those woods: buckskin hunting-shirt, with fringed border leggins and moccasins. He arose and commenced his speech. As he proceeded, the wild backwoodsmen, who had gathered from their sports and antics about the court-house green, crowded around, and now breathless, their attention riveted by the eloquence of the speaker. Every niche of the building was crowded, and every window and doorway filled with absorbed listeners. As with imperative and heart touching power the speaker described the helpless loneliness of the orphan maiden his client, her sad isolation within the broad busy world, judge, and clerk, and jury, and audience, were subdued with irrepressible emotion. And again, as he assailed the man who attempted to defile her reputation, it seemed as if a tornado of fire was drying up all the streams. As the hot and scorching wind of his sarcasm and invective swept through the audience, their eyes flashed and their bosoms heaved; he carried their very souls captive, and every man of them made the orphan’s cause his own. So utterly did the assembly pass beneath the influence and into the spirit of that indignant and terrible denunciation, that had the slanderer been on the spot it is very doubtful whether he would have left the place alive, and when the words of this backwoods counsel were ended, the jury, without retiring from their seat, brought in a verdict for heavy damages.

Some years thereafter, and just subsequently to the war of 1812, this same writer had occasion to be in the State of Indiana, and was near one of Harrison’s battle-grounds. Early in the morning he rose and rode out to see the scene of the fight; and first he repaired to a spot where, underneath a broad and noble tree, was a little mount of earth without paling or defence, and with no stone to mark the head of him who rested there--for he had come to visit the grave of the eloquent advocate whom he had heard in Kentucky. Here lay the successful lawyer, the all-powerful orator, the brave soldier, the noble and upright man, the husband of the sister of Chief Justice Marshall, the man who had held Aaron Burr at bay, and who opposed and exposed the plots with which that arch seduced was wiling away honest citizens to treason and death; the equal antagonist of Henry Clay, and who, if instead of falling at the battle of Tippecanoe, he had lived as long as Clay, would have won as high, if not a higher place, than did even that great orator of the West. Such was he who is yet familiarly spoken of and cherished in memory throughout all the West as Jo Hamilton Daviess, one of the noblest, most lofty minded, loftily and daringly ambitious, and yet one of the most simple-hearted and truthful of all the eminent men that the fruitful border land has yet produced.

I have mentioned the name of him who was then the rival of Daviess. No two men are more perfect representatives and ideals of that Western mind whose qualities and productions I have feebly endeavored to describe. They came from the people, and were rocked in the cradle of adversity. Their eyes were disciplined in the rights, and their ears to the sounds of the forest. They were ready and sensitive and diligent students of nature, in all her stern and harsh and rugged forms, and in all her sweet sylvan beauties. Waterfalls and the quiet voice of placid streams, the vivid verdure of the spring and the warm luxurious breath of summer; the cold and the rigid frosts, the white still snow and the bitter furious storms of winter; the sound of the battle too, and the alarms and perils of war--all these had trained them. They bore throbbing hearts, often vivid with excitment and wild with passion; and their audiences were men of like mold and hearts, and like passions with themselves. Thus they found congenial materials to be worked upon; tree, open, sensitive and truthful souls, ready to receive the impress of their burning genius; and for men like them, starting in any professional career, either as lawyer, statesman or divine, no nobler or fitter materials could have been found.

Thus did Henry Clay embark upon the career of a lawyer’s life, his heart in his hand; his nature in full and free sympathy with that of the masses; always true to freedom and justice, and no respecter of persous; enforcing as occasion served that perilous duty of the emancipation of the negro race; serving a writ for the keeper of a dram-shop, upon a distinguished lawyer, for drinks and liquor unpaid for, and so securing the undying hostility of an influential man. At one bound he springs into the foremost rank of the legal talent of the day. He is little learned in books; he has not moved even in the graceful society of his own native Virginia; it must be the movements of the trees bending in the wind that have taught him his grace and dignity of attitude and gesture. He has spent little time over the great works of Greek and Roman orators; it is his own earnest convictions, his piercing intelligence, his true sympathies and keen perceptions and instincts, that reveal to him what are the thoughts required, and words in which they should be clothed. Thus profoundly true, and wondrously adapted to that community, he becomes the master of the intellect of the West. Stepping by a transition so natural and common, from law into politics, he enters the United States Senate, and either there or in the House becomes the head of the party who advocated the last war with Great Britain; and boldly and determinedly leads the van in upholding the Government, in the face of many bitter adversaries and with many faint friends, and against the whole embodied opposition of New England. Sent to Europe as commissioner to conclude the treaty of Ghent, together with Adams, Bayard, Gallatin, and Russell, he is a controlling spirit in the negotiations; and Lord Castlereagh, one of the most polished and finished of the courtiers of Europe, from youth familiar with the most refined and aristocratic society of the Old World, pronounces this untutored child of the wilderness the most elegant and accomplished gentleman he had ever seen. Returning home, he passes from one post of honor and distinction to another, receiving almost every office in the gift of the people except the highest; and links his name, together with one or two others, to every great event and epoch in our history from that date almost to the present. 1820, 1832, 1850 found Clay and Webster standing side by side; foremost in withstanding every storm. Against each onset, they stood, like some colossal monumental forms, breasting the full tempest and malignity of its fury, sometimes so utterly hidden in the darkness and rage of the elements that they [unclear] to atoms far below. But they not only outlast, but govern the wild elements that assault them; they “ride the whirlwind and direct the storm.” And as they thus stood so often, so shall stand for hundreds of years to come the names of the two great men, one from the West and one from the North; the graceful Ash of Kentucky, and the massive Granite Block of New Hampshire.

Henry Clay had not the culture, the profound legal lore, the thoroughly disciplined logical faculty, of Webster; nor his broad and dome-like brow, or the deep and cavernous eyes from which flashed forth such profound and mighty fires when he stood before Bench or Senate. But Henry Clay, graceful, agile, dextrous, full of fire and passion, yet with a will fixed as fate, a born commander of men--the joy and light of every social circle he entered; loved by women as no man on this Continent has ever been; and for whose defeat in 1844 I suppose more women’s tears were shed than for any single event before--stands before us the illustrious type and representative of the eloquence of the Western country. And, take him for all in all, as man of the people and orator of the people, whatever his short-comings or failings, it will be many a long year before we look upon his like again!

I cannot conclude without a brief reference to a few writers whose works embody most of the peculiar traits and oddities, fun, humor, and wit, of the Southwestern United States. These are, Col. T. B. Thorpe, now of New York, Johnson Hooper, of Alabama, and Judge Longstreet, of Mississippi. Thorpe’s “Bee-Hunter” is an unrivalled sketch of the times of the first pioneers in Arkansas. Judge Longstreet, whom I am half sorry, half glad, to own as a fellow Methodist preacher, is the author of “Georgia Scenes;” and Johnson Hooper wrote that famous and most characteristic book, “The Adventures of Simon Suggs.” These, and other works of these three gentlemen, contain the fullest and most characteristic delineation of the ways of thinking, acting, and speaking, in those distant regions, anywhere to be found in print.


Notes:

Source: New York Spirit of the Times 30.17 (2 June 1860). p. 195. University of Virginia Alderman Library.

Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.

[1] "is is" in original. Probable reading "there it is."

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