Posted by: zhiv | September 27, 2011

Drums Along the Mohawk, Walter Edmonds

This is an impressive book, and I want to know more about it. What I do know is that it was published around the same time as Gone With the Wind and lived comfortably under that blockbuster’s shadow for a couple of years on the best seller list. And it was made into a movie, starring the perfectly cast Henry Fonda and the badly miscast Claudette Colbert, which was directed by the masterful John Ford, apparently in one of his less than masterful efforts. I’ve said elsewhere, I think, that I first got around to this book in June and read 75 pages and I knew then that it was well-written and ambitious. More recently I was going to jump ahead and watch the movie, but after looking at just a couple of scenes I realized that I wanted to know the book first, so I went back to it.

The book is long, and it has something like an epic quality. I read it in two additional sequences–first, about 200 pages on vacation at the end of August, and then finishing the last 200 pp. (466 total) last week after taking a break and reading a couple of Janet Malcolm books and going back to work. Gone With the Wind is probably not a bad model for the structure and method here, although I’ve never read it. The fact that the GWtW movie was a definitive blockbuster slightly obscures the commercial achievement of Margaret Mitchell’s book. Was it the most popular novel of the 20th century? Of the first half of it, at least? Is it weird how it repeated the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin almost 100 years later?

Drums tells the story of pioneers in Central New York’s Mohawk Valley, setting up the challenge and prospects of their lives before the coming of the Revolutionary War, and then tracking them through the five years of conflict and struggle that followed, just as GWtW does with the Civil War and the South. Making movies is a funny thing, and my own peculiar job and approach is even more amusing. I keep it separate from the blog here for the most part, preserving this literary backwater as a quiet and sleepy refuge that’s more about books and authors and related notes and thoughts, and less about me and what I do–the zhivblog is about doing nothing, of course, about zhiving. But time marches on and things change even in the blog world. I’m not so good at keeping up, but I like to have at least a rough idea about what’s going on out there in the world, and if I’m hurtling towards the end of a 4th year of blogging I’m not going to be scared by a little bit of overlap with my professional and personal life.

So as it turns out, I spent the summer trying to make a movie based on the very same subject, the Revolutionary War in the Mohawk Valley. My own project–and I call it my own because, despite all of my squirming and hesitation and denial, I found myself to be the producer and prime mover and something of the key man, certainly bearing much of the burden and frustration of its failure to thrive–was meant to tell the story from the perspective of the Oneida Nation and the Iroquois Confederacy, tracking the civil war (Iroquois) within the civil war that was the Revolution (British vs. Colonials). And that’s why, perhaps, I was sensitive here just last week, going off on a tangent about The Help and The Blind Side, and white movie stars anchoring productions about civil rights struggles and race. My movie–still feel dicey saying that, with all of the people who worked hard on it, and my ambivalence is profound–was intended to be an American Indian Braveheart or Gladiator, with Indian lead actors, with lots of production value at a relatively low budget. Think Dances with Wolves without Kevin Costner, or more specifically Last of the Mohicans without Daniel Day Lewis.

Movie production, or the lack thereof, and its twists and turns is not the topic here. The movie and its script were based on a history book about the Oneida Nations and the American Revolution called Forgotten Allies, a good story and certainly esoteric enough in its own right. Using that as a starting point, it was challenging just to learn the basics about the Iroquois Confederacy and the essentials of the Northern Campaign in the Revolution. I have to say that I didn’t know much about any of this, only the broadest strokes. So I was learning and gaining more background as we went along. It’s funny, what you don’t know and don’t understand, in this chase characters and geography and history. A screenplay doesn’t tell you very much, and as you work on it you want to address its internal problems and inconsistencies, working from the inside out. I’d like to say that I started by working carefully from the book on which the script is based, but I didn’t even do a very good job of that, and the book has its own perspective and approach. The other thing you can do is look at other movies, like Michael Mann’s Mohicans, Terence Malick’s New World, Gibson’s Apocalypto, and Ford’s Drums. I could keep going, tracking what I didn’t know and the slow growth of my understanding of the history and trying to wrestle it into not just a script, but a film production, but I won’t do it here. Let’s just say I fell short, but it’s never over ’till it’s over.

I learned a lot from reading this book. It’s quite a leap to go from trying to grasp and portray the Indian perspective (and failing), to reading a successful and carefully studied view of the pioneers in the region. The approach of my project was to illuminate an untold, forgotten and neglected perspective on the story, to work upwards from the history of the Oneidas and the Iroquois, to understand the impact of the settlers on them and their established culture, and where things stood as the winds of war were gathering. But this book takes the view of the victorious and dominant white and American culture and works backward to its tipping point, a period when its inception and original sources were still fresh. It’s a basic story of both dramatic and stalwart heroism, a compelling iteration of the mythic roots of white Anglo-Saxon American culture.

A large part of Edmonds’ goal was to rewrite James Fenimore Cooper, and get it right. Cooper, of course, was in close proximity to this story, both geographically and chronologically, but he wasn’t especially accurate in his depiction of the Iroquois and the frontier, from what I can tell and the little I remember. Next stop could be some time on Cooper and his project and accomplishment, and it would be fun to have a year and a couple of professors and some youthful energy in order to work towards broad expertise on the topic. I know I read more than one of Cooper’s novels back in the day, besides Mohicans, but I remember very little about any of it. The important thing is that the historical novel evolved quite a bit in the century between Cooper and Edmonds. Reading Drums you get a sense of the impact of Tolstoy on the popular and bestseller side of the genre, as he provided a blueprint and a baseline of realism and accuracy, with the structure of how to show representative characters caught up and transformed by the flow of history and war. Gone With the Wind, if the movie is any indication, must have followed the model quite closely: it would be interesting to review War and Peace and then look at GWtW to see just how the adaptation works. It would also be worthwhile to track the evolution of the historical novel between Tolstoy and Mitchell and Edmonds, as I can’t think of clear examples off the top of my head. I know that part of Mitchell’s (and Edmonds’) success was that war was gathering once again as these books were published, with the rise of the Nazis, and Mitchell and Edmonds had experienced WWI firsthand. Edmonds goes much further, I think, than Mitchell in working on the myth and character of the American citizen soldier. Drums is, by the way, a superb militia and Tea Party book of fundamental and conservative, wellspring American values, if you happen to like that sort of thing. The schoolteacher character Tom Hanks played in Saving Private Ryan definitely would have read it.

Edmonds, unlike Mitchell, combines the Tolstoy blueprint with his rewrite of Cooper, telling an 18th century story. This puts it in other subcategories, those of early American pioneer days and the Revolution, as well as the 18th century in general. My guess is that the American Revolution is a robust category for historical fiction, and I wonder what the best of those books might be. There are no shortage of pioneer stories either of course, and I suppose a strength of this book and its subject is that you get both, a story of war and a time when “the West” was Utica, New York.

Staying on the Cooper rewrite, it’s easy to see that Edmonds’ goal was to place more realistic characters into a specific and pivotal time frame of events that shaped the future of the Mohawk valley. He shifts the focus to a pioneer farmer, Gilbert Martin, who brings his bride Lana from the Albany area to his simple homestead. The heart of the story is Gil’s movements as a Citizen Soldier, as he fights in the battle of Oriskany in 1777 just before the book’s midpoint, and then he and Lana struggle to hang on with the other settlers through the series of incursions by “the destructives,” British and Indian raiding parties, that strike at random and loom as a threat throughout the remaining five years of the war.

This makes Edmunds’ hunters and woodsmen, his realist version of Natty Bumppo, secondary characters, which is probably some sort of statement in itself. Again, you would have to know a lot of things that I don’t know, starting with a strong familiarity with Cooper’s work, to get all of this right. Edmonds’ splits his outdoorsmen across generations. The elder, Joe Boleo, seems detached and anti-social, as most of the actual men really must have been. Edmonds stops the story for a time to allow Joe to relate his tale of marriage to an Indian woman, and the episode has a strong tint of Edmonds’ effort to get it right, to use historical sources and cultural knowledge about Indian women and the frontier experience. This effort is constant and painstaking throughout the book, and I must say that I learned a ton from it, but it’s also notable that it never gets in the way of the narrative, and never bogs things down.

The other outdoorsman, younger, is Adam Hartman (?–check last name), and Edmonds seems to be doing something odd and interesting with him. Adam is a free spirit, and he’s continually described in glowing romantic and heroic terms: he’s tall and golden-haired, and there’s an exciting, major set piece where he outruns a group of Indians. Adam is funny and easy-going and a ladies man, and perhaps he’s something of a fantasy for Edmonds of white dominance, strength and independence. He’s a foil for the domesticated Gil Martin, who is tied to the land and to his wife. Perhaps it’s significant that Adam is a simple frontiersman, and he’s not raised by Indians like Bumppo.

Another important element, which goes along with Adam’s character, is that the story is consistently frank and rather realistic about sexual matters, with a conscious effort not to sugar coat or overly romanticize male-female relations in the pioneer setting. Women are vulnerable and sometimes readily violated, although the narrative simply nods and doesn’t linger over these scenes. Teenage girls are sexualized, because that’s their function, and a major part of the book is Lana Martin’s coming of age, going from teenage bride to wife and mother during wartime. Again, this is part of Edmonds’ effort at realism, a highly successful calculation that must have boosted popularity and sales. My guess is that the frankness must be refreshing relative to the pervasive elements of hothouse romance that have to be in Gone With the Wind. Drums makes its nods at historical romance, but it is truly a novel, more interested in history and character and trying to capture its specific setting and the tumultuous events that unfolded within it. It is of course more than a little obscure these days, but this book is well-done and worth reading if you like the genre or have a connection to the region or an interest in the lesser-known stories and impacts of the Revolutionary War. As I have so many connections to it myself, I expect I will be saying more about it.

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Responses

  1. My knowledge of this part of American history and the details of the Revolutionary War, until that “recent Northern adventure”, was quite sketchy and colored by the spin of my post-Tolstoyan, definitely Marxist early education. Besides the official rants, Cooper was really the only approved author and Edmonds was unread. Cooper’s novels, exotic and “fantastic”, were the fertile ground from which the spinners extrapolated tons of badly needed anti-imperialist propaganda. Drums Along the Mohawk might be just what I need to get another insight into the period and judging from your entry, most likely I will enjoy the read.

  2. […] to read Esmond, and who will read In The Valley? Especially when I say that Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk is a clearly superior […]

  3. […] that carried over well into the 20th century, and probably up to today. Edmunds’ big book Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was a strong and steady bestseller, a classic silver medalist that was completely […]


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