Thursday, August 09, 2007

`Some Boundless Contiguity of Shade'

On my brother's shelves I found a series of heavy, compact, anonymous-looking volumes published in 1966 by Readex Microprint as part of their Great Americana project. These are reprints of early volumes of discovery and exploration in North America. For instance, sitting on the table beside me are two volumes by Pierre de Charlevoix, Journal of a Voyage to North-America, published in French in 1744. He was a Jesuit who first visited Canada in 1705. The first chapter, "Preliminary Discourse on the Origin of the Americans," begins memorably:

"After reading almost every thing that has been writ on the manner in which America might have been peopled, we seem to be just where we were before this great and interesting question began to be agitated; notwithstanding, it would require a moderate volume to relate only the various opinions of the learned on this subject. For most part of them have given so much into the marvellous, almost all of them have built their conjectures on foundations so ruinous, or have had recourse to certain resemblances of names, manners, customs, religion and languages, so very frivolous, that it would, in my opinion, be as useless to refute, as it is impossible to reconcile with each other."

Not much has changed. Americans are still squabbling over who we are and what our job in the world might be. Of more interest than the Charlevoix volumes, however, especially because I'm back in my home town, Cleveland, visiting my brother and his family, is Two Years in the New Settlements of Ohio, by D. Griffiths Jr., published in London in 1835. Griffiths was English and, according to the Foreword, shipped out of Liverpool in 1832. From New York he took a steam packet up the Hudson River to Albany, caught a canal boat and traveled to Buffalo on the Erie Canal. From there he proceeded by steam boat to Cleveland, where I am now sitting.

Griffiths' book is designed as a primer on the Western Reserve, aimed at his fellow Englishmen who might be considering a move to the United States. Griffiths is eminently practical. He notes his surroundings, natural and human, with an eye for utilitarian detail. He's sympathetic to the former colonists, even finds good things to say about Mormons, and his only irritation seems to be our impertinent celebration of Independence Day, which he describes as an "annual repetition of injuries, sustained during the Revolutionary War, [that] is too well calculated to keep alive the bitter feeling of Americans towards the British Government...and on this account is to be lamented."

What I most enjoy are Griffith's descriptions of the very place where I grew up and where I am revisiting this week:

"That part of the Western Reserve lying along the shore of Lake Erie, between the rivers Cuyahoga to the east and Huron to the west, may be termed a level country properly enough, yet, strictly speaking, it is undulatory....If the house on each side of these roads are a quarter of a mile apart, the road is called a street; and those the houses be scattered so thinly, that but two or three can be seen from any given point, it is called a town..."

Only rarely does Griffith wax poetically, and even cite the work of better-known poets:

"The sound of an axe however told me at some distance that I was approaching the habitable parts of the earth;; and the musquitos [sic], which haunted me like ghosts through the wood, like ghosts also disappeared with its shades, and I arrived in safety at the log-house of my friend Mr. D. Now if you know any one who sighs with Burns for

"`A cave on some wild distant shore,
Where the winds howl to the waves dashing roar.'

"send him over here, and if he can make shift with a log-hut, instead of a cave, why I'll warrant him a situation to his mind. Or if you know any one who would rather with Cowper have

"`A lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade.'

"I can suit him to a hair."

Compared to Charlevoix's accounts, Griffith's New World was already Old, and ours in ancient, but I love his excitement. Griffith's persona is part huckster, part poet, and thus very American.

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