Mountain Man : Fact and Fiction
Nelson, Solveig Leraas
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The problem. The purpose of this dissertation is to examine representative factual and fictional accounts of the mountain man, a pioneer to the Rockies in the early and mid-nineteenth century. Certain components are examined and weighed against each other in an attempt to ascertain the authentic image of the mountain man. Procedure. Initially the historical mountain man is examined: his motives, his attitudes, his skills, his habits, his relations with the Indians. Next, the disagreement between William Goetzmann ("The Mountain Man as Jacksonian Man") and Harvey Lewis Carter and Marcia Carpenter Spencer ("Stereotypes of the Mountain Man") -is explored, and each image illustrated by examples from both history and fiction. Finally, through analysis of journals, accounts of travelers to the frontier, novels, poetry, and film, the building of this sometime roughneck into an alltime hero is demonstrated. Extensive study is given to Hugh Glass, one of the first mountain men, and to John Johnston, one of the last. The major sources dealing with Hugh Glass are Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man by John Myers Myers, The Song of Hugh Glass by John G. Neihardt, and Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred. Those dealing with John Johnston are Crow Killer: The saga of Liver-eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher, and Jeremiah Johnson, a film directed by Sydney Pollack. Conclusions. In the brief career of the mountain man (1822-1850) America found a culture hero. He was a loner and a wanderer, symbolizing the frontier spirit and American freedom. His thoroughness in trapping nearly exterminated his prey, the beaver. His expeditions led him deep into the Rocky Mountains where he discovered the mountain passes and river routes that would make possible western emigration. These two conditions signaled the end of his days in the Rockies and showed him to be the unwitting agent of his own demise. He left little written record. One must therefore turn to the journals of company men, accounts of travelers to the western frontier, and later research. Four images occur separately and in combination: the Jacksonian man engaging in economic exploitation of the wilderness, the daring degenerate illustrating the effect of Frederick Jackson Turner's "corrosive influences" of the frontier, the explorer probing the Rockies, and the romantic hero moving away from the corruption of civilization to experience a oneness with Nature. Rather than being a new type in American literature, he is an extension of the frontier hero seen in Davy Crockett and in Cooper's Leatherstocking. His life and habits are refined to suit public taste, and he emerges the romantic hero who is, most of all, free.
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