Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ernest Hemingway: Another Seton Fan

The following essay, published in The Hemingway Review, documents Seton's influence n Hemingway. Read the whole essay at

From: The Hemingway Review Date: September 22, 2000 Author: HELSTERN, LINDA LIZUT

Given Hemingway's personal interest in Ernest Thompson Seton's writing, and his familiarity with the tenets of Seton's hugely popular youth organization, the Woodcraft Indians, it is not surprising that the Nick Adams stories frame the discourse of boyhood in terms of the discourse of the Indian, or more specifically the Woodcraft Indian. Hemingway's stories showcase the progressive evolutionist philosophy of the Woodcraft Movement, echoing Seton's notions of the evils of assimilation for Indians and the import of "reverse assimilation" for whites.
INDIANS, TO USE THE COMMON BUT PROBLEMATIC TERM, captured Ernest Hemingway's imagination at a very early age. His first full sentence--"`I don't know Buffalo Bill'"--was duly recorded by his mother in 1901. He would soon assert, "`I not a Dutch dolly, I Pawnee Bill. Bang. I shoot Fweetee'" (cited in Baker 4-5). The little boy, who also acted out scenes from Longfellow's Hiawatha with his sister in the role of Minnehaha, had already seen his first wild west show--Pawnee Bill's Historical Wild West and Indian Exposition--by the time he was two (Baker 4-5). The fantasy of becoming "the White Chief of the Pawnees" was one the young Hemingway undoubtedly shared with many of his generation, for the number of Wild West shows touring as family entertainment reached its all-time high in the first years of the 20th century (Russell 11, 68). Here, in fictional re-creations of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the massacre at Wounded Knee, Indians were both the savage enemy and, with their values but not their warrior instincts restructured, scouts who joined the cavalry to save civilization from the Indians (Russell 53).
Given their mass audience appeal, it is perhaps not surprising to find Indians at the heart of the decade's purported solution to the "boy problem": in prototypical American youth organizations, Indians were formally implicated in the construction of white masculinity. Hemingway follows the trend of American popular culture when in the Nick Adams stories he frames the discourse of boyhood in terms of the discourse of the Indian. Indians appear as major characters in four of Hemingway's canonical short stories--"Indian Camp," "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," "Ten Indians," and "Fathers and Sons"--all stories of the very young Nick Adams or his very young son. And in "The Light of the World," the only other story published during Hemingway's lifetime where Indians appear, the putative Nick admits to being just seventeen (SS 387).
The idea of turning American youth into American Indians, but only "the best Indians," was conceived by naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton in 1901, the same year Hemingway saw Pawnee Bill, "the White Chief of the Pawnees." Determined to protect his estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut and its wildlife from marauding teenagers, Seton invited the local boys for a weekend of camping. They readily embraced Seton's offer to teach them Indian ways, and so began both the restructuring of their personal values and the Woodcraft League of America. In 1902, Seton began to refine his idea in a series of monthly columns for the Ladies Home Journal called "Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys," directed primarily at readers under the age of fourteen (Keller 163-65; Seton, July 1902, 17). By 1910, when the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated, the Woodcraft Indians enjoyed a nationwide membership of 100,000 and had already become the basis for Robert Baden Powell's British Boy Scouts, as well as several American boys' organizations (Keller 169-70).(1)
Seton originally targeted boys between twelve and twenty for the Woodcraft Indians. Tribes were run democratically with the assistance of older boys, who could become Guides at age eighteen, and adult advisors, known first as "Medicine Men" and later as "Head Guides" (Seton, Manual 10-11; Seton, Woodcraft 20). Seton formulated his original program of activities in consultation with Dr. Charles Eastman, a Lakota graduate of the Boston University Medical School (Keller 164). One of the most visible examples of the "civilized Indian" and a prime spokesmen for Indian assimilation into white culture, in 1902 Eastman published his first book, Indian Boyhood. A testament to Eastman's pride in his Lakota heritage, the book had already been serialized in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks (Wilson 131).(2)
Although no evidence suggests that Ernest Hemingway was a member of the Woodcraft Indians, his personal library did include the 1917 edition of Seton's organizational bible, The Woodcraft Manual for Boys,(3) and the 1918 British pamphlet, Woodcraft, in which Seton and unnamed editors delineated the progressive evolutionist philosophy of child development at the heart of the Woodcraft movement (Reynolds 180-81).(4) The date of the manual may be significant. In 1917, Hemingway could have qualified as a Guide, although ultimately, it was his sister Marcelline who, as a Camp Fire leader in the early 1920s, would follow her father and grandfather's footsteps in youth work (National Portrait Gallery).
Altogether, Hemingway owned six individual titles by Ernest Thompson Seton, published between 1909 and 1921, and a set of collected works published in 1927 as The Library of Pioneering and Woodcraft. The total ranks Seton among Hemingway's favorite writers, a company including Turgenev, Mark Twain, Ezra Pound, and naturalist William Henry Hudson. Hemingway's books by Seton span the range of his writing--children's fiction, animal lore, and practical woodcraft--and together provide important insight into the anti-nationalist and anti-materialist value structure that grounded the Woodcraft organization. Seton's philosophy, placing true civilization in the realm of the primitive, is most succinctly stated in his signed Preface to the 1915 edition of The Woodcraft Manual: "It was Woodcraft that originally constructed man out of brutish material, and Woodcraft may well save him from decay" (v).

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