I've more or less emerged from my Michigan rabbit hole (wolverine den?) and I don't see my shadow anywhere around, so it's time to start returning some of those library books. But there was one weird hodgepodge of a book I wanted to mention here before I moved on. You may remember Chase Osborn from a Firmament a few weeks back: the Michigan governor, iron prospector, etc., whose fantastic chapter titles I celebrated. It turns out that the more you read in Michigan literary history, the more you keep seeing his name.
I wanted to get some background on "the shores of Gitche Gumee," the setting of Longfellow's drumbeat of an epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It was a simple question to answer ("gichigami" is the Ojibway word for Lake Superior, as any Gordon Lightfoot fan could tell you), but it led me into a fascinating detour through a century's worth of strange and significant Michigan books and literary personalities. I won't take you down the whole path, but it leads through Henry Schoolcraft (a frontier Renaissance man like Osborn from a hundred years earlier) and Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (his Ojibway-Irish wife), who collected the Ojibway legends that Longfellow based the poem on, to Janet Lewis, poet and historical novelist (and wife of Yvor Winters) who wrote an excellent "documentary novel" in 1832 called The Invasion about the Schoolcraft's crosscultural marriage as well as the one between Jane Schoolcraft's Ojibway mom and Irish dad.
And it also leads back to Chase Osborn. As I mentioned in that previous post, Osborn has an eventful Wikipedia entry, as you might expect, but three nonconsecutive passages are especially intriguing:
- "Osborn met Stellanova Brunt in 1924, and she took a job as his researcher and secretary."
- "In 1931, Chase and Lillian Osborn legally adopted 37-year-old Stellanova, and she changed her last name to Osborn."
- "After his wife Lillian died, Stellanova’s adoption was annulled. On April 9, 1949, at Osborn’s Georgia residence, he at 89 and Stellanova at 54 were married. He died two days later at Possum Poke, his residence in Poulan, Georgia."
To recap: Osborn met Stellanova Brunt (what a name!) when she was 30, she became his secretary, and then seven years later he and his wife adopted her and she became Stellanova Osborn. And then once he became a widow, he un-adopted her and made her his wife, two days before he died. Huh.
Well, a number of tabloid scenarios present themselves, and I hope to do a little research and flesh out that story. But in the meantime, as Wikipedia also reports, Osborn and his secretary/daughter/future bride collaborated on some books, among which is a doozy, with the fabulous name Schoolcraft--Longfellow--Hiawatha. Apparently the accusations that flew soon after Hiawatha became a hit in the 1850s (that Longfellow had basically plagiarized the tale from a Finnish verse epic--not true, by the way: at most he borrowed its rhythms) were still floating around in the 1940s, so the Osborns, following a punchy exchange in the local papers--included in full in the book--wrote a giant (697-page) defense of Michigan's, and especially Schoolcraft's, importance as the source for the legends of Hiawatha.
It's a kooky book that I've only skimmed the surface of, a mix of documents (including the text of Hiawatha and the legends it was based on), biography, and meandering Michigan boosterism. But the bit of it that caught my eye had to do with Henry Schoolcraft, who apparently made a second marriage as singular as the Osborns. Jane Schoolcraft died rather young, in 1842, and five years later Henry Schoolcraft married an aristocratic, slaveowning planter from South Carolina named Mary Howard. Soon after, Schoolcraft became paralyzed for the last 15 or so years of his life, and Howard nursed him while he produced his last opus, his six-volume history of the American Indians. And she wrote a book of her own: The Black Gauntlet, a virulently pro-slavery novel, one of many written in response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, that itself became a bestseller.
No doubt that novel is a historical document worthy of a post of its own, not the least because, as the Osborns demonstrate, it is in part a thinly veiled autobiography in which, among other things, she characterizes Jane Schoolcraft as an opium addict and claims their two children (her stepchildren) were doomed by the amalgamation of races that created them, as all race-mixing, she asserts, is doomed to tragedy. (It's unclear what Henry Schoolcraft, pro-Union and anti-slavery by all accounts, not to mention pro-miscegenation by example, thought of all this, but The Black Gauntlet is dedicated to him.)
But my reason for bringing you here today is both to trace those fascinating lines from book to book, but also to share some choice remarks made by the Osborns about the second Mrs. Schoolcraft. From what I can tell, the book as a whole is not written this pungently (would that it were!), but there must have been something about Mary Howard Schoolcraft that provoked them to sharpen their pencils. Perhaps they were just following her example, since they say she "had a genius for pouring out the cruel truth, even about herself, to the last, bitterest drop." But how's this for a thumbnail sketch of a character?
Perhaps no two women ever were more different. Mary Howard Schoolcraft was, by her own account, as unpopular as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft had been universally beloved. Not gentle nor gracious nor winsome nor delicate nor retiring, she was strong-minded, proud, quick, bitter--a fearlessly outspoken fighter for her cause, her people, or herself, with something from the tortured imaginings of her childhood that drove her to sadistic reiterance of what she thought the truth. She was a handsome woman, intellectual, self-educated, high-minded, and spiritual in a sometimes forbidding way. The Cinderella of her family--and not a patient but a rebellious one--she left her story hidden, for the world to find and ponder and to be rather sorry for her instead of really liking her. Her life reads like fiction, commanding keen interest and admiration, and often sympathy, but never love. The temperamental outbursts growing out of her unhappy childhood doubtless added much discomfort to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's last years. This must have been especially true during the period of the War of the States. Her blazing, heavily-documented conviction regarding the justice of Negro slavery, and the opposed point of view of the three others in the family, probably caused many a taut hour in the Schoolcraft home. But she was tremendously interested in his work, an eager and an able amanuensis, and radiantly devoted to him throughout the long period of his physical affliction.
What a display of both brutal frankness ("sadistic reiterance of what she thought the truth") and understatement ("probably caused many a taut hour in the Schoolcraft home"). I don't know if Chase or Stellanova was responsible for this paragraph, but someone in that odd partnership could write.
P.S. Look at that great dust jacket above: aggh, it's killing me not to order a copy right now. Must be strong. My house is too full already. Must be strong...