An American Cakewalk
Ten Syncopators of the Modern World
Zeese Papanikolas


Chapter 1

Ghost Dance

The curing of a sick soul is a complicated and dangerous process. Often the shaman, the great doctor, must die a kind of spiritual death himself, must go on his own dark journey to bring back the soul that has lost its way. In 1870, about the time of his twenty-eighth birthday, William James suffered his own dark night of the soul. He had been in a state of general depression and philosophic pessimism. Then one evening, he went into a dressing room to retrieve some item.

Suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human.

The image and James’s own fear “entered into a species of combination with each other.” The thought was horrible. Nothing James possessed, not his intellect, not his training, not his social position, could defend him against such a fate should the hour for it strike as it had struck the idiot boy. Under everything, he thought, “that shape am I.”1

The vision gradually faded. Yet while its effects lasted James wondered how other people could live, how he himself had ever lived, so unconscious of the pit beneath the surface of life.

William James, who had experienced the terrifying vision of his own potential nullity, was responding not only to his own crisis of vocation, but to a world whose religious foundations and intellectual assumptions had been shattered by steam and capital, by the end of a culture built on villages and age-old rural traditions, shattered by Darwin and by violence and mass migration. Cultures in states of anxiety, finding their old systems of meaning challenged beyond their capacities to incorporate new historical and social situations, either create new mythologies or invest the old ones with new meanings. New messiahs arrive, bearing in their teachings, in their histories if not in their very bodies, the solutions to these contradictions, the language that will speak these new mythologies.

As in the curing of the sick soul, the curing of the soul of a culture involves the translation of reality into a set of symbols, a narrative which the patient, the doctor, the community of souls themselves all accept, a tacitly and often unconscious agreed-upon fiction of representation.2 Like William James, the intellectuals of post–Civil War white America keenly felt the contradictions of their society, felt themselves increasingly marginalized in an age of money and power. They were the shamans who were entrusted with the burden of creating the new mythology or the saving rejuvenation of the old symbols.

The power of science alone could offer little comfort to those caught up in the spiritual crisis of the age. Indeed, it offered only its own terrors. “Fed on recent cosmological speculations,” James wrote, “mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake,

surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.3

Twenty-some years after William James’s horrible vision, in an isolated valley of the Great Basin among villages of reeds and sagebrush, in a world that was crumbling more profoundly and for many of the same reasons as that of James, another man was undergoing such a crisis of the spirit.

The Prophet

On New Year’s Day in 1889, in the midst of an eclipse of the sun, a Paiute Indian, named Wovoka—Woodcutter—lay dying. As a young man Wovoka lived with a white rancher and learned the hymns and prayers of a Presbyterian house. But Wovoka’s father had been a shaman, an unassimilated Paiute, and Wovoka, like many Indians in those days, lived in two worlds. As he lay sick with fever, and near death, he heard a great noise. He imagined he had gone to heaven, to the green place beyond the Dusty Path that white men called the Milky Way. God took him by the hand and showed him the people of heaven, white and red both, and they were all young, for when they died God had made them young again. There the people stayed, in that place where the meadows were always green, dancing, gambling, playing ball and the other old Indian games, among all the different kinds of animals that were good to hunt and beside rivers that were full of fish. Wovoka saw his own mother there, and many others that he had known on earth. Then God told Wovoka that he would give him great power and the authority to cause it to rain or snow and to do many other things. And God gave Wovoka dances and told him that on his return to earth he must teach these dances to his people and that they must meet often and dance five nights in succession. And God said that he must tell all the people that they must not fight, that there must be peace all over the world, and that the people must not steal from one another, but be good to each other, for they were all brothers.4

Thirty years before that dream, the Indians of that far-western basin suffered their last defeat at the hands of the whites. Now, traveling through the sparsely peopled desert land, a person would see in isolated spots at the edge of the few lakes or along the streams, or huddled beyond the hayfields of the ranches, or at the edges of the railroad and mining towns, or on bleak reservations, the Indians’ tule lodges and brush windbreaks or the shacks made of scavenged boards and stained canvas and flattened tin cans. These were the homes of Paiute, Shoshone, Bannock. By the 1870s the Indians had become workers in the fields and houses of the white invaders, laundering, cooking, irrigating the fields, making hay, herding cattle and sheep. The streams they lived along had been poisoned by the effluents of the mines and mills, diverted to irrigate fields of wheat and alfalfa in valleys where once they had harvested seeds and crickets and held huge rabbit drives. The salmon no longer came upstream to spawn, the piñon forests whose nuts they gathered in the fall had been cut down to fuel the charcoal kilns of the silver mines. In late summer the Indians gathered to do the old harvest dance and to ride boxcars over the mountains to Oregon and California to pick hops. They spent the money they earned on white men’s clothing—rough denim pants and canvas jackets, broad-brimmed hats, shapeless cotton dresses and colored bandanas. Many still slept on the bare dirt floors of their rush houses. These were the people out of whom Wovoka sprang and to whom he gave his vision and the dances he learned in the spirit land.

Years before Wovoka, when the whites first came to the desert valleys, there had been another dreamer, a shaman named Wodziwob, whom the whites called Fish Lake Joe. He too had dreamed such a dream, and had instituted such a dance. When he was old, Wodziwob decided to travel back to the land he had seen in his dream one last time. He sent his mind to the Land of the Dead, but he discovered there only a shadow world, not a green land of abundance. There were no flowers, no game, no dead ancestors restored to their strength and youth. He called out to the shadows but there was no answer. Then Owl responded, blinked his blank stare, and turned away. Wodziwob lived on, but he no longer believed in his dream.5

These were years of great trial for all Indian peoples in the West. The Apache, the Nez Perce, the Cheyenne, the Sioux had all suffered final defeats and were now on reservations. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened their lands to settlement. Those vast tracts of prairie and desert range on which bands of hunters and women with gathering baskets and digging sticks once roamed with the seasons, white men in Washington now deemed “surplus” and offered for sale to other white men—farmers and ranchers and speculators. The passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 was the final defeat of a way of life: henceforth Indians were to hold their land in individual allotments like white men, farming them like white men. In the white men’s plans the tribes were to dwindle away, become mere legal fictions, and Indian children would learn to sit in school like white boys and girls and to sing Christian hymns in churches.

On the Sioux reservations of the Dakotas conditions were particularly bad. Many of the Sioux—the Lakota, as they called themselves—had only lately come down from Canada to surrender themselves to reservation life. They still smarted under their defeat and tried to defy the breaking up of their land or raised futile obstacles. Drought had ruined their poor crops and the government reduced their beef ration—two million pounds at Rosebud, a million at Pine Ridge, less elsewhere. In the rough wood cabins and stained canvas teepees along the Grand and the Missouri, along Cedar Creek and the Cannonball and the White River and on the Rosebud, it was a starving time.

A Cheyenne named Wooden Leg remembered how fourteen years before, on a stream the Indians called the Greasy Grass and the whites the Little Bighorn, he had gone among the dead soldiers of George Armstrong Custer’s command and found in the pockets of the corpses wads of green paper. He had not known what they were until another Indian explained it was money, and that you could take it to the traders and buy things with it. Other Indians had found ticking pocket watches and compasses whose arrows pointed always to the north. They thought these must have been the soldiers’ medicines. Now in bleak military forts and on starving reservations these same Indians heard the tolling of bells in churches and schoolhouses and the brass calls of trumpets that jumped to the white men’s clocks. They knew what money was, and the women made fancy beaded pouches to hold ration tickets, pouches of the sort a man might once have worn to keep a charm for love or gambling or war. The old medicine bundles had become lost, their contents dispersed from disuse. The children were taken, sometimes by force, to the Indian schools and the Indians sat in mission chapels. The Lakota had become a sedentary people.

The great hunts were over. The buffalo herds had been systematically exterminated by railroad builders and soldiers. Now the people’s meat was given to them by the government and on ration day braves on horseback whooped and hollered as they chased some cow or steer cut loose from the chute at the agency. There was no sun dance. The young men, those who were not hardened against the whites, aspired to wear the tunics and buttons of the agency police.

In the winter of 1889 a group of Lakota went out from their reservation to find out the truth about the Indian prophet they heard had risen up beyond the Rocky Mountains. Not much is known of their trip, but a year later, in the winter of 1889–1890, a second Lakota delegation went west. They traveled by train on their Indian passes to Mason Valley, in western Nevada, where they found other Indians gathered to hear the Prophet. There they saw the man the Indians called Wovoka, or Woodcutter, and the whites, Jack Wilson. He was a tall man, an imposing man, and he had done much magic. Once, they heard tell, he made ice come out of the sky on a clear summer day; another time, on a rabbit hunt, an Indian had shot at him and the bullet had fallen from his clothing harmlessly onto the ground. He was a weather prophet, a visionary who had had a great dream with glad tidings for all the Indian people.

The Prophet gave the Lakotas paints and green grass and told them that he had gone to the white people, but they had killed him—you could see the marks of the wounds on his feet and hand and back. Then he had gone to the Indians. He told the Lakotas that there would be a new land coming. It would slide over the old land and any Indian who sided with the whites would be covered by it. In the spring, when the grass became green, the dead would return, for the Indians would have heeded the Prophet’s call.

That winter the dances began. The Arapaho were the first to dance for the ghosts to return as the Prophet had taught them. Now many Lakota were dancing too. The men and women held hands and shuffled in a great circle, singing as they danced. Dust rose from the dancing grounds and they sang the Ghost Dance songs.

Father, have pity on me.
Father, have pity on me.
I am crying for thirst.
I am crying for thirst.
All is gone—I have nothing to eat.
All is gone—I have nothing to eat.

They danced for hours, until they dropped with exhaustion, their skins slick with perspiration. Some foamed at the mouth. They said they had died, and in the trance of death they saw visions. They saw the new green earth and the eagle that was coming to carry them away to where the Prophet was with the ghosts.

The spirit host is advancing, they say.
The spirit host is advancing, they say.
They are coming with the buffalo, they say.
They are coming with the buffalo, they say.

They sang:

We shall live again.

With the arrival of the dance and the promise of the coming spring, the old ways began to revive. Medicine bundles long out of use came out of their storage places and the magic paraphernalia—the feathers and sacred paint and stones, the bone whistles—were gathered and restored. As if in a foretaste of the Prophet’s promise of paradise, the old games revived too, and once more the Pawnee were gambling, playing the hand game, now to gain not wealth but spiritual strength, to determine who would be saved. In their log shacks and canvas teepees, the women made shirts and dresses of white muslin for the dance and painted them with pictures of the sacred eagle and other images from their visions. Some of the shirts were peppered with holes to indicate the marks of the bullets that could not penetrate them. The shirts made the wearers invulnerable.

On the reservations the Indian agents grew alarmed at the dancing. They called for troops and ordered the dance suppressed. Frederic Remington, the artist friend of Theodore Roosevelt and Owen Wister, was a great believer in the Indians—as picturesque savages. At Pine Ridge on the morning of the nineteenth of November there were three troops: one hundred seventy men of the Ninth Cavalry—the black cavalry men the Indians called the “Buffalo Soldiers”—and two hundred infantrymen with a Hotchkiss cannon and a Gatling gun. At Rosebud there were one hundred ten Buffalo Soldiers and one hundred twenty infantrymen with a Hotchkiss gun. More troops were yet to come, four companies of the Second Infantry, another troop of the Ninth Cavalry, and the entire Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old regiment, accompanied by Light Battery E of the First Artillery, with more soldiers on the way.

On December fifteenth, Indian police tried to arrest Sitting Bull at his cabin on the north bank of the Grand River. Once he had been a warrior, a shaman, and a political leader of such exceptional skills that for a few years he had forged a great federation of tribes that had never known any but the most temporary and local leadership. But now this man, Tatanka-Iyotanka—Sitting Bull—had become a farmer on the Standing Rock Reservation around Fort Yates. When he heard of the Prophet’s words, Tatanka-Iyotanka established a dance circle on his land, with a ring of brush shelters and a sacred prayer tree. One day he went out to the prairie to tend to his horses. He heard a meadowlark calling him. The meadowlark spoke his own language. “Lakotas will kill you,” the meadowlark said.

In the fight to apprehend him four of the police were killed outright and two more would soon die of their wounds. Eight of Sitting Bull’s followers were killed, including his teenaged son, and over Sitting Bull himself, dead of a bullet in the chest, his wives raised a great howl of rage and woe. The body of the great chief was taken to the agency, thrown into a hole, and covered in quicklime.

Wounded Knee

Not that the Red Indian will ever possess the broad lands of America. At least I presume not. But his ghost will.
—D. H. Lawrence

After the battle was over, a photographer came out to Wounded Knee Creek and set up his tripod. In the three days since the massacre, a blizzard had driven across the prairie. Where there had stood the rows of the white and brown tents of the army and the grimy canvas teepees of the Miniconjou, now there were only bent willow frames and shattered poles. The corpses of the dead Indians lay under the mounds of snow like wheat raked into windrows. In the center of the field four men lay together. One of them had fallen face down. The photographer turned him over. The dead man’s arms were frozen stiff, the fists clenched. Someone laid a rifle next to the corpse for the sake of the picture. Later on, when he touched up the plate for sale, the photographer would paint over the exposed genitals of the dead man.

Down in the ravine, where fleeing Miniconjous had been trapped, there were more bodies—men, women, children—shot to pieces by the cavalry’s Springfields and the Hotchkiss cannons. The agency doctor found an old woman, blind, helpless, under a wagon. He came across a four-month-old girl lying beside her dead mother under a hummock of snow. The girl was still alive, barely frostbitten. On her head was a cap beaded with the American flag. Chief Big Foot lay where he had died, his head wrapped in a scarf, his arms pushed back as if by the blows of the bullets that had killed him. When the fighting started he had already been dying, wracked with pneumonia. The photographer framed the dead chief in the midst of the snowy field, opened the shutter of the camera, and moved on. His partner, the agency barber, went among the corpses, stripping the dead of moccasins, beaded ornaments, the painted ghost shirts the Indians believed would protect them from the soldiers’ bullets. At the edge of a mass pit that had been dynamited in the frozen ground, the corpses lay heaped up, their limbs stiff and contorted. It was here that the photographer posed the burial crew. His shadow fell across the steep side of the grave.6

The battle of Wounded Knee Creek had lasted an hour. For another hour along the creek shooting had continued here and there. Then the last great resistance against the whites was finished.

The revolt of the Ghost Dancers ended where all Indian revolts ended—where the Wampanoag’s and the Shawnee Prophet’s and the Nez Perce’s and the Apache’s had—in utter defeat. The last great uprising of what was old and powerful and primitive, of what stood in the way of the great engine of American progress, had been snuffed out. In the Great Basin, isolated bands of Indians strove to continue their old communal life and migratory patterns until, in 1911, the last of them was shot to pieces by a Nevada posse.7 The Indian pueblos of New Mexico, their own history of failed revolt against the Spaniards long past, and situated in desert land no one else much wanted, simply did their best to ignore the white world that surrounded them and to continue their intense ritual life. But on the Great Plains the resistance only appeared to be finished. It had simply taken other forms. It had moved from the battlefields in canyons and snowy plains to the realms of the mind. Henceforth, it would be played out in the Indian imagination. For this is the remarkable thing: the Ghost Dance songs continued to be sung in the meetings of the Indians. They entered the realm of the purely symbolic. The songs were still there, and the ghosts were there too.

Jack Wilson lived on long after Wounded Knee. He lived through the first flight of an airplane, and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. He lived through the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles. He lived through Prohibition, and women’s suffrage. He lived into the heart of the Great Depression when Okies crossed the great desert in Model T Fords on the way to an imaginary California. He lived on, in Nevada. He continued as a healer and shaman and sent packets of red pigment and the feathers of eagles and magpies and even his broad-brimmed Stetsons as magical artifacts to Indians who wrote him from all over the West. Sometimes he charged five dollars, sometimes twenty. It was his living. In the movie theater at Yerington he saw a lantern slide of his face projected on the screen before the show; it was a kind of white man’s joke on a local celebrity and in the darkness he watched the black-and-white horses gallop across the screen. But what was this white man’s cleverness to someone who had died and gone to heaven and seen the ghosts of his ancestors? And in fact, when the limousine that had brought him across the state line to watch Tim McCoy filming some horse opera was about to take him home, he told the cowboy star, “I will never die.” For many years after that, and perhaps even now, he has not really died. The songs he inspired are still sung, because they had never been so much about what would come as about the human imagination’s capacity to reorder the world.

Amidst the despair and privation of the end of the old life the Indians themselves refused to surrender to the role of victimhood, to be fabrications of white guilt or white sentimentality as they refused to be fabricated savages. For scholar and novelist Gerald Vizenor, the term Indian itself (always spelled in his work with a lowercase i) is a white simulation, the sign of an absence. “The indian” says Vizenor, “has no native ancestors.” For all that remains and that remains to be created by the native peoples of this continent he is forced to coin a new term: not survival but—and like all neologisms it clangs on the unaccustomed ear—survivance, an “active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.”8 The motive force of this repudiation is found deep in what makes us human, the art of play.

For the shaman who takes upon himself the dangerous journey to the other world to bring back souls besotted by death is not only a soul-catcher, but a trickster as well. Fated to suffer the loneliness of exile from the daily world, he is a sideways person, an artist of the world of possibilities. Dancing on the borders of society, he is the hunchback, the crazy man, the sacred transvestite, drunk with sex or celibacy, a visionary and jester, a quack and a magician. Just so the shaman dances on the borders of the spirit world as well. He walks among the shadows of the dead, but he teaches us how to live. If he dances alone, he has following in his train an invisible community, for he leads us to the places between the world we find and the world we desire, where we can live and dance.

The Year 1890

In the years after the trauma of the Civil War that collection of cultural assumptions and their symbolic representations which the anthropologist Dan Sperber calls a “community of interest” was, in the United States, falling apart. The Civil War had been in part an expression of a process of economic rationalization, an industrial war fought for railheads and steamboat landings on inland waterways and ports along the coast. It was a war of material production and the vast and careless use of men in bloody carnage. When it concluded, the great moral sore in America, the slave system of the South, had been expunged; but the country had not been healed by that, nor by that other war which had been raging since the third or fourth decade of the nineteenth century, that industrial war of attrition which had eaten up village by village and farm by farm the old Jeffersonian vision of a pastoral and independent America.

Twenty-three years after the end of the Civil War, in 1888, in the holy city of Concord, Massachusetts, Amos Bronson Alcott, friend of Emerson and Thoreau, of Brownson and Ripley and Margaret Fuller, and more uneasily of the elder Henry James, died the death of the flesh. The New England of Alcott’s youth was dying too. Concord was a museum, Walden an accident; more typical were the factories on Fall River, with their whirling spindles and their time clocks and the constraints and disciplines that were molding the new America, an America no longer of small towns and farms, but of metropolises that pulled American lives together in great webs of economic complicity. Against the cannons of Gettysburg and the clamor of the industrial world, against the awful specter of class warfare in cities and mines and factories and the growing control of economic life in this country by increasingly remote and ruthless corporations, the spiritual language of transcendentalism, the language of Hegel and Kant as it passed through Emerson and Channing, had turned into a kind of dim gibberish; nor had the language of science, the language of Darwin and Lyell, provided any acceptable substitute, any cure for the doubt and anxiety and fear that seemed to lie just under the strident optimism of the Gilded Age and its myth of Progress.

The year 1890, which saw the publication of William James’s Principles of Psychology, and which ended with the massacre of the Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, contained in itself enough of the emblematic events of the Gilded Age to stand for all that era’s contradictions. The Civil War’s end led to the linking of the steel rails that were the very emblem of the Soul Journey linking East to West which concluded the long pilgrimage back to primal Eden that Walt Whitman had embarked upon in his imagination so many times. Those same rails led to the termination of a kind of mental frontier in the mind of white America. In 1890, the supervisor of the federal census looking over his reports, found that there were no more major tracts of land available for white settlement and declared the frontier finally closed. Now that that imaginary territory of virgin land no longer existed, the transcendent purpose white America imagined as its vocation would turn in upon itself and find expression in towering cities and the violence of foreign and industrial war.9

That same year brought into the Union the frontier territories of Idaho and Wyoming—this last a state, it should be noted, where women had the vote. In that year New York City saw its first moving picture and Chicago the first entirely steel-framed building. William Dean Howells published A Hazard of New Fortunes, whose title tells much of its purview, and Ignatius L. Donnelly his disturbing novel of an oligarchic dystopia, Caesar’s Column. The records of the United States Immigration Service show that in 1890 9,249,547 immigrants entered the United States. In 1890 Jacob Riis published his shocking book of photographs of urban poverty, How the Other Half Lives. In those same tenements another immigrant, a Jewish anarchist from Vilnius named Abraham Cahan, was looking more deeply into the lives Riis photographed and found not only despair and endless toil, but possibilities of self-realization and the human material that would create artists and scholars, great businesses and the unions that would contend with them. In the South the hopes of black men and women for a share in their land had received a lasting wound fourteen years earlier with the removal of federal troops, and white supremacists had carried on their war against their fellow citizens with poll taxes, hoods and the noose, and a sharecropping economy that condemned both poor whites and emancipated blacks to lives of grinding poverty. 1890 saw eighty-five lynchings of African Americans in the country, an off year, it appears: the next year would bring one hundred thirteen, a number more typical for the last decade of the nineteenth century, including the lynching of a black man in the town of Port Jervis, New York, that the brother of an aspiring novelist named Stephen Crane tried to prevent. At Harvard one of William James’s students, a young African American who would look deep into the soul of both black and white made his debut in white America with a commencement address to his graduating class, a coolly dismissive appraisal of Jefferson Davis. And in 1890 a newspaperman and novelist from New Orleans named George Washington Cable published a book called The Negro Question that would put him further at odds with fellow white Southerners; while in the Faubourg Marigny another New Orleans denizen, a Creole named Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, who would become Jelly Roll Morton, was born. The war between labor and capital would continue: 1890 saw the founding of two of the most militant of American labor unions, the United Mine Workers of America and Eugene V. Debs’s American Railway Union. In New York, newly organized Jewish garment workers won a major victory after a seven-month strike. 1890 would also see the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Yet as both conservative and radical thinkers agreed, the great trusts were an inevitable consequence of economic evolution and the real use of the Sherman Act, as it came to be seen, was not to break up corporations, but like the Hotchkiss cannons that had raked the Ghost Dancers on the Dakota plains, to break up collective acts of defiance in the form of strikes, boycotts, picket lines.

In the end, America abandoned its prophets. In 1890 Henry Adams was in Tahiti, a puritan among the pagans, trying to assuage the ache of a private tragedy, the suicide of his wife five years earlier, and his embittered sense that he had no place in the new age. The first volumes of his history of the United States in the Jefferson and Madison Administrations were coming out, and the famous questions he had asked about the future of the American character in the year 1817 with which he ended his volumes were being answered, but the answers were not the optimistic ones his history suggested. Adams had set it down that in the United States the laws of history developed not from the rivalries of European nationalities, but from “the economical evolution of a great democracy.” Yet that evolution had led, increasingly, to violence and finally to economic chaos.

The book, he would write his admired Elizabeth Cameron, belonged “to the me of 1870; a strangely different being than the me of 1890.”10 American intellectuals produced no Wovoka, whose marvelous dream held out a promise of renewed spiritual life; their nostalgia for the older, pastoral America and its vision, for the transcendental certitudes of their fathers, for the faith in a rationalized science, produced in many of them only a profound bitterness or ineffable sense of loss, and it is significant that in 1890, in Camden, New Jersey, the last great poetic optimist, Walt Whitman, the Great Literatus, shaman, and death-singer, signed a contract for the building of his tomb. That awful solitude that Tocqueville saw at the heart of American character, the price of a new land and of democracy itself, had created a terrible gulf between one citizen and the next of which the America of the post–Civil War period was just becoming acutely aware. Still, the language of corporate America proved elastic enough to contain within itself both its own contradictions and the contradiction of its society, and it was able to absorb or to undermine or to subtly change the idealism that once defied it on the part of intellectuals and artists on the one hand and laboring masses on the other. That language, essentially the language of science, of rationalized capital, of imperialist expansion carried on under the cloak of democratic altruism, held the American rostrum, largely smothering the voices of its detractors in its din. In a remarkable kind of symbolic legerdemain the democratic virtues had expanded to take in not only Jefferson’s fictive yeoman farmers but the very bankers and masters of the railroad trusts and corporations who exploited them and the thousands on thousands of workers who labored at factory workbenches and tended steam-powered distaffs for the benefit of “the fittest” of this new world of the Social Darwinian dispensation.

But there were other Americans who could not so easily fit into the optimism and triumphalism of Social Darwinian America. One of these was the son of an immigrant farmer, an outsider who had seen firsthand what had come of that agrarian dream and whose clear eye saw beyond the false fronts of the local village emporium and bank and into the moral pretensions and parade of conspicuous wealth of the larger swindle. I have already introduced the eminent and often troubled scientist and philosopher William James. Yet one more of these outsiders was a many-sided prodigy, a man of science, a philosopher, and a friend of William James’s named Charles Sanders Peirce, who in 1890 was living on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania, near the site of the Port Jervis lynching of the following year. Having quarreled with everyone and scandalized polite academia, Peirce was rebuilding a farmhouse into a grandiose kind of intellectual hotel while developing a philosophical master plan in which the world could understand itself as a system of signs, a system that with his customary hubris he saw as complete in its architecture as Aristotle’s. The American writer with whom I will couple him, a clergyman’s son named Stephen Crane, who saw life as an artist does, was in 1890 miserably misplaced in a course of mining engineering at a Pennsylvania college, but was principally devoting his time to fraternity hijinks and baseball. And in England, an expatriate American writer, the younger brother of Peirce’s friend William James, a novelist and short story writer who took as one of his major themes the complex interplay of two worlds, Old Europe and the young United States, and who himself was of both and neither, had finished a novel about politics, the theater, and the irreconcilability of art and the active life called The Tragic Muse. Another outsider, and the figure we shall take up next, was a New England recluse whose posthumous volume came out in 1890, and who happened to be a poetic genius. Like the other writers and artists we will look at, she was of her age yet beyond it, an uncanny practitioner of a new kind of art that would not so much break with the conventions of her own time as reconfigure them from the inside and in so doing give birth to a poetry of profound and disturbing beauty.


1. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), in William James, Writings 1902–1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York, Literary Classics of the United States, Library of America–38, 1987), pp. 149–150.


This fabulation of a reality unknown in itself—a fabulation consisting of procedures and representations—is founded on a threefold experience: first, that of the shaman himself, who, if his calling is a true one (and even if it is not, simply by virtue of his practicing it), undergoes specific states of a psychosomatic nature; second, that of the sick person, who may or may not experience an improvement of his condition; and finally, that of a public, who also participate in the cure, experiencing an enthusiasm and an intellectual and emotionally satisfaction which produce collective support, which in turn inaugurates a new cycle.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York, Basic Books, 1963), p. 179.

3. James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 133.

4. Michael Hittman, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance (expanded edition), ed. Don Lynch (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. 17.

5. Hittman, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance, p. 173.

6. Christina Klein, “‘Everything of Interest in the Late Pine Ridge War Are Held by Us for Sale’: Popular Culture and Wounded Knee,” Western Historical Quarterly, 30, no. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 55–58; Robert M. Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (New Haven, Conn., and London, Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 1–4; Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 105–113.

7. This event is the subject of Frank Bergon’s moving historical novel, Shoshone Mike.

8. Gerald Vizenor, Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books, 2000), p. 15.

9. The conclusion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” stimulated by the supervisor of the federal census’s 1890 comment, has in retrospect an ominous ring: “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for exercise.” Richard W. Etulain, ed., Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (Boston and New York, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), p. 40.

10. Eugenia Kaledin, The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1981), p. 6.