Ethnicity Studies

Brief Musing on Francis Parkman

I’ve been desperate to write this week, but I haven’t had the time. I keep trying to read all the things (necessary, since I have exams coming up in a few months) but I also want to write. I haven’t had the time, so this will just be a short post since I still don’t really have the time.

I’m reading Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (no, it’s not about the computer game–although a book about that game would be fun). A wealthy white male, deciding to go adventuring on the frontier in the mid-1800s when everyone else was going onto the frontier to make a living, writes about his experience in order to give an accurate portrait of the American Indian before they vanished from the face of the earth. Yeah. Accurate. That’s not the word I would use. More like racist, narrow, and pompously obnoxious.

What’s interesting to note, though, and what I learned from reading Bernard Rosenthal’s introduction, is that some of the more blatantly racist passages were edited out of the later editions of the text. I’ve been thinking about this, and wonder if Parkman, later in life, felt like the harsh views he expressed were mistaken, or if he just realized that they would be offensive to some of his potential readers?

Rosenthal suggests it was for marketing; every once in a while, throughout the text, though, Parkman seems aware of the humanity of the Other for a moment, aware of his position and aware of the damage whites have wrought. The moments are brief, though, and not frequent or explicit enough to warrant any kind of redemption for him, and frequently followed up by something so heinous as to blot out any hope. Perhaps this is something for further study, in his letters, or notes from editors.

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