"Here Lies Hugh Glass" by Jon T. Coleman
NONFICTION: The mesmerizing legend of a real-life mountain man
- Article by: STEPHEN J. LYONS
- Special to the Star Tribune
- May 22, 2012 - 2:29 PM
The American frontier has always represented an escape hatch, a reboot on life and a celebration of wilderness. Huck Finn's famous quote still echoes for many Americans who want to flee urban constraints: "But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."
In Huck's time, the territory was anything west of the Mississippi River, and the men who prowled the backwaters and plains were tough guys like Hugh Glass who, in the late summer of 1823 was attacked by a grizzly sow and left for dead by his companions. Trouble is, Glass, as tough as hardtack and as ornery as that bear, did not die.
As Jon Coleman writes in his richly told "Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation" (Hill and Wang, 252 pages, $28), the mountain man, fueled by his own anger at being abandoned, gave birth to the great nationalistic, Western myth of the rugged individualist. He "crawled and hiked two hundred miles to Fort Kiowa to kill those who had left him to die."
Coleman, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, masterfully mines what scant life poor Glass left behind (one letter to the parents of a companion killed by the Arikara Indians) to argue convincingly that the bear attack story is one of the contributing factors in how Americans have come to think of themselves. Glass' story was carried forward in multiple versions by a variety of writers, some literate, most not. A medicine show style of exaggeration was the common literary thread.
"Hugh Glass helped them make sense of the physical transformations they endured while laboring in the West," he writes. "Like Herman Melville, James Hall and Timothy Flint, the working-class verbalizers snatched the body of an environmental American to understand the spectacle of men remade by western nature."
Men of Glass' ilk, the uncouth trappers, the hunters and the "fur laborers" of the time did not necessarily have the power to propel American notions of racial superiority and national exceptionalism forward. They were simply pawns in the great game of Manifest Destiny.
Still, their behavior did nothing to alter those notions. Today, in a mostly settled nation of non-bear-hunters, Coleman writes that Glass "now belongs to a tribe of cannibals; a club of highly publicized, extreme pro-lifers who swig urine, hole up in animal carcasses, amputate their own arms, and on occasion, eat their dead friends in order to stay breathing, on earth, in their bodies."
Despite the supporting footnotes, this theory seems a stretch, another instance in which the myth of Hugh Glass is still searching for its proper resting place.
Stephen J. Lyons' latest book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." He is currently at work on a book about the Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest.
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