Saturday, October 22, 2016

James Fenimore Cooper on Steamboats colliding with Folklore

This would have made a nice footnote in the book, though of course it is a narrative one and not a historical source in the strict sense of the word.

Hugh C. MacDougall, who edited the Gutenberg copy of The Lake Gun,  the short story where the following paragraph appears in, dates the story to 1850, gives it a decidedly political context, and points to a visit of Cooper in Geneva College (now Hobart College) on Lake Seneca sometime between 1840-1844, when Cooper's son Paul was studying there, as the origin of the "local knowledge" such as it is.
"I haven't seen that ere crittur now"—Peter always spoke of the tree as if it had animal life—"these three years. We think he doesn't like the steamboats. The very last time I seed the old chap he was a-goin' up afore a smart norwester, and we was a-comin' down with the wind in our teeth, when I made out the 'Jew,' about a mile, or, at most, a mile and a half ahead of us, and right in our track. I remember that I said to myself, says I, 'Old fellow, we'll get a sight of your countenance this time.' I suppose you know, sir, that the 'Jew' has a face just like a human?"
"I did not know that; but what became of the tree?"
"Tree," answered Peter, shaking his head, "why, can't we cut a tree down in the woods, saw it and carve it as we will, and make it last a hundred years? What become of the tree, sir;—why, as soon as the 'Jew' saw we was a-comin' so straight upon him, what does the old chap do but shift his helm, and make for the west shore. You never seed a steamer leave sich a wake, or make sich time. If he went half a knot, he went twenty!"
Two ideas that I find curious here are that the novelty of the steamboats, which rubs oddly with this American form of the legend of the "Wandering Jew", is expressed narratively as a form of resistance to be encountered. Nevertheless, when encountered, the supernatural remains superior, going faster than the engine-powered boat.

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