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William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
North American Review

(Vol. V No. XV, September 1817)

  • Illustration

  • Original Text

  • Contemporary News Item

  • "The Prairies" (1832)

  • Transcriber's Comments


    Mormons, Mastodons & Mound-Builders   |   The Conneaut Giants


    Asher Durand: "Scene from Thanatopsis" (1850)


    338                                    Original  Poetry                                      [Sept.



    NOT that from life, and all its woes
    The hand of death shall set me free;
    Not that this head, shall then repose
    In the low vale most peacefully.

    Ah, when I touch time's farthest brink,
    A kinder solace must attend;
    It chills my very soul to think
    Of that dread hour when life must end.

    In vain the flatt'ring verse may breathe,
    Of ease from pain, and rest from strife,


    1817.]                                     Original  Poetry.                                      339

    There is a sacred dread of death
    Inwoven with the strings of life.

    This bitter cup at first was given
    When angry justice frowned severe,
    And 'tis th' eternal doom of heaven
    That man must view the grave with fear.

    -------- Yet a few days, and thee,
    The all-beholding sun, shall see no more,
    In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
    Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
    Nor in th' embrace of ocean, shall exist
    Thy image.  Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
    Thy growth, to be resolv'd to earth again;
    And, lost each human trace, surrend'ring up
    Thine individual being, shalt thou go
    To mix forever with the elements,
    To be a brother to th' insensible rock
    And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
    Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
    Shall send its roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
    Yet not to thy eternal resting place
    Shalt thou retire alone -- nor couldst thou wish
    Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
    With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings
    The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
    Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
    All in one mighty sepulchre. -- The hills,
    Rock-ribb'd and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
    Stretching in pensive quietness between,
    The venerable woods -- the floods that move
    In majesty, -- and the complaining brooks,
    That wind among the meads, and make them green,
    Are but the solemn decorations all,
    Of the great tomb of man. -- The golden sun,
    The planets, all the infinite host of heaven
    Are glowing on the sad abodes of death,
    Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
    The globe are but a handful to the tribes
    That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
    Of morning -- and the Borean desert pierce --
    Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
    That veil Oregon, where he hears no sound
    Save his own dashings -- yet -- the dead are there,
    And millions in those solitudes, since first


    340                                    Original  Poetry                                      [Sept.

    The flight of years began, have laid them down
    In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone. --

    So shalt thou rest -- and what if thou shalt fall
    Unnoticed by the living -- and no friend
    Take note of thy departure? Thousands more
    Will share thy destiny. -- The tittering world
    Dance to the grave. The busy brood of care
    Plod on, and each one chases as before
    His favorite phantom. -- Yet all these shall leave
    Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
    And make their bed with thee! -----



    136                                  Intelligence  and  Remarks                                    [Nov.

    North American Review
    Vol. VI. No. I, November 1816


    Indian Antiquities. -- The following account, which we take from the Western Gazetteer, adds something to our former knowledge of those hitherto inexplicable wonders, that are found in such abundance in our western country. We have not room to examine any of the speculations, which have entered the heads of our philosophers and antiquarians on the subject; and if we had, we should hardly expect, where all is conjecture and uncertainty, to afford much amusement or profit to our readers. There is something, however, extremely curious in the inquiry itself; although we cannot hope, that any very important or certain results can be drawn from the few facts, which have as yet been given to the world. We can safely infer from them nothing more, than that this immense tract


    1816.]                                  Intelligence  and  Remarks                                    137

    of country, which has every mark of having been for centuries past a desolate wilderness, has been thickly inhabited at some former period by a warlike people, who had made much greater advances in the arts of civilized life, than any of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America, who have been. known since its discovery by Europeans. The mounds described below are situated in the town ot Harrison, Indiana Territory.

    'We examined from fifteen to twenty. In some, whose heights was from ten to fifteen feet, we could not find more than four or five skeletons. In one, not the least appearance of a human bone was to be found. Others were so full of bones, as to warrant the belief, that they originally contained at least one hundred dead bodies; children of different ages, and the full grown, appeared to have been piled together promiscuously. We found several scull, leg and thigh hones, which plainly indicated that their possessors were men of gigantic stature. The scull of one skeleton was one fourth of an inch thick; and the teeth remarkably even, sound and handsome, all firmly planted. The fore teeth were very deep, and not so wide as those of the generality of white people. Indeed, there seemed a great degree of regularity in the form of the teeth, in all the mounds. In the progress of our researches, we obtained ample testimony, that these masses of the earth were formed by a savage people. Yet, doubtless possessing a greater degree of civilization than the present race of Indians. We discovered a piece of glass weighing five ounces, resembling the bottom of a tumbler, but concave; several stone axes, with grooves near their heads to receive a withe, which unquestionably served as a helve; arrows formed from flint, almost exactly similar to those in use among the present Indians; several pieces of earthern ware; some appeared to be parts of vessels holding six or eight gallons; others were obviously fragments of jugs, jars, and cups: some were plain, while others were curiously ornamented with figures of birds and beasts, drawn while the clay or material of which they were made was soft, and before the process of glazing was performed. The small vessels were made of pounded or pulverized muscle shells, mixed with an earthern or flinty substance, and the large ones of clay and sand. There was no appearance of iron; one of the sculls was found pierced by an arrow, which was still sticking in it, driven about half way through before its force was spent. It was about six inches long. The subjects of this mound were doubtless killed in battle, and hastily buried. In digging to the bottom of them we invariably came to a stratum of ashes, from six inches to two feet thick, which rests on the original earth. These ashes contain coals, fragments of brands, and pieces of calcined bones. From the quantity of ashes and bones, and the


    138                                  Intelligence  and  Remarks                                    [Nov.

    appearance of the earth underneath, it is evident that large fires must have been kept burning for several days previous to commencing the mound.

    'Almost every building lot in Harrison village contains a small mound; and some as many as three. On the neighbouring hills, northeast of the town, is a number of the remains of stone houses. They were covered with soil, brush, and full grown trees. We cleared away the earth, roots and rubbish from one of them, and found it to have been anciently occupied as a dwelling. It was about twelve feet square; the walls had fallen nearly to the foundation. They appeared to have been built of rough stone, like our stone walls. Not the least trace of any iron tools have been employed to smooth the face of them, could be perceived. At one end of the building, we came to a regular hearth, containing ashes and coals; before which we found the bones of eight persons of different ages, from a small child to the heads of the family. The positions of their skeletons clearly indicated, that their deaths were sudden and simultaneous. They were probably asleep, with their feet towards the fire, when destroyed by an enemy, an earthquake, or pestilence.'


    Mound excavation detail from April 1853 Harper's Monthly

    Historical Footnote:
    The North American Review and William Cullen Bryant

    It is one of those seemingly insignificant facts of history that the father of William Cullen Bryant happened to be acquainted with Mr. Phillips, an editor at the North American Review. The father, almost by chance, answered a solicitation from Phillips by submitting young William's "Thanatopsis" and "Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood." Richard Henry Dana, then an associate editor with North American Review, was particularly impressed with the quality of the two poems, submitted for publication without the knowledge (must less the intent) of their relatively unknown creator. Dana reportedly remarked that "no one on this side of the Atlantic is capable of writing such verses." Their publication (without attribution) in the Review marked a turning point in the creative career of William Cullen Bryant.

    Given the circumstances by which Bryant's "Thanatopsis" ended up being published in 1817, there is little likely connection between the theme of that masterpeice and the content of the "Indian Antiquities" piece that ran in the November 1816 number of the Review. The news report and the poem both include the idea of long-vanished ancient Americans, however, and it is not impossible that Bryant read this or similar reports and was influenced in his thoughts by their unusual subject matter. An alert poet of 1816 might easily have seized upon the story of ancient warriors -- "men of gigantic stature" -- who were "killed in battle, and hastily buried" in great mounds on the Indiana prairies. Such stuff did not require the silver tipped pen of a William Cullen Bryant to be worked into some lines of popular verse. Here were the makings of an American epic, had any writer cared to develop on paper the romantic setting and tragic storyline.

    In his 1986 book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, writer Dan Vogel juxtaposes the "Indian Antiquities" report with Bryant's "Thanatopsis," which he says "is thought to be about the 'millions' of ancient mound builders who slumber in American mounds." Vogel's aim is to establish a database of early American published works that might have directly or indirectly inspired the writing of the Book of Mormon, with its earthworks-building "Nephites" and savage, conquering "Lamanites." Given the provenance of the "coming forth" of the Book of Mormon, it seems unlikely that any of its initial promoters and devotees were habitual readers of the North American Review. Even Solomon Spalding -- who might have read the journal if he could have afforded a copy -- was very much deceased when both the 1816 news report and the 1817 poetry appeared in the pages of the Review. If reports on "Indian Antiquities" and lines from "Thanatopsis" inspired the imaginations of any of the early Latter Day Saints, it was likely a few of the literate readers of the Book of Mormon much more than any of its writers.


    "The brown vultures of the wood flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres"
    (illustration for "The Prairies" from Poems, 1876 edition)



    The  Prairies.

    THESE are the gardens of the Desert, these
    The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
    For which the speech of England has no name --
    The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
    And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
    Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch,
    In airy undulations, far away,
    As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
    Stood still, with an his rounded billows fixed,
    And motionless forever. -- Motionless? --
    No -- they are all unchained again. The clouds
    Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,
    The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;
    Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase
    The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!
    Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
    And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,
    Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not -- ye have played
    Among the palms of Mexico and vines
    Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks
    That from the fountains of Sonora glide
    Into the calm Pacific -- have ye fanned
    A nobler or a lovelier scene than this?
    Man hath no power in all this glorious work:
    The hand that built the firmament hath heaved
    And smoothed these verdant swells, and sown their slopes
    With herbage, planted them with island groves,
    And hedged them round with forests. Fitting floor
    For this magnificent temple of the sky --
    With flowers whose glory and whose multitude
    Rival the constellations! The great heavens
    Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love, --
    A nearer vault, and of a tenderer blue,
    Than that which bends above our eastern hills.

      As o'er the verdant waste I guide my steed,
    Among the high rank grass that sweeps his sides
    The hollow beating of his footstep seems
    A sacrilegious sound. I think of those
    Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here --
    The dead of other days? -- and did the dust
    Of these fair solitudes once stir with life
    And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
    That overlook the rivers, or that rise
    In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
    Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
    Built them; -- a disciplined and populous race
    Heaped, with long toil, the earth
    , while yet the Greek
    Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
    Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
    The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
    Nourished their harvests, here their herds were fed,
    When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,
    And bowed his maned shoulder to the yoke.
    All day this desert murmured with their toils,
    Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed
    In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
    From instruments of unremembered form,
    Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came --
    The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
    And the mound-builders vanished from the earth
    The solitude of centuries untold
    Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie-wolf
    Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
    Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
    Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone --
    All -- save the piles of earth that hold their bones --
    The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods --
    The barriers which they builded from the soil
    To keep the foe at bay
    -- till o'er the walls
    The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
    The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped
    With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
    Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,
    And sat, unscared and silent, at their feast.
    Haply some solitary fugitive,
    Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
    Of desolation and of fear became
    Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.

    Man's better nature triumphed then. Kind words
    Welcomed and soothed him; the rude conquerors
    Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose
    A bride among their maidens, and at length
    Seemed to forget -- yet ne'er forgot -- the wife
    Of his first love, and her sweet little ones,
    Butchered, amid their shrieks, with all his race.

      Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise
    Races of living things, glorious in strength,
    And perish, as the quickening breath of God
    Fills them, or is withdrawn. The red man, too,
    Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long,
    And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought
    A wilder hunting-ground. The beaver builds
    No longer by these streams, but far away,
    On waters whose blue surface ne'er gave back
    The white man's face -- among Missouri's springs,
    And pools whose issues swell the Oregon --
    He rears his little Venice. In these plains
    The bison feeds no more. Twice twenty leagues
    Beyond the remotest smoke of hunter's camp,
    Beyond remotest smoke of hunter's camp,
    Roams the majestic brute, in herds that shake
    The earth with thundering steps -- yet here I meet
    His ancient footprints stamped beside the pool.

    Still this great solitude is quick with life.
    Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers
    They flutter over, gentle quadrupeds,
    And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man,
    Are here, and sliding reptiles of the ground,
    Startlingly beautiful. The graceful deer
    Bounds to the wood at my approach. The bee,
    A more adventurous colonist than man,
    With whom he came across the eastern deep,
    Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
    And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
    Within the hollow oak. I listen long
    To his domestic hum, and think I hear
    The sound of that advancing multitude
    Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
    Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
    Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
    Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
    Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
    Over the dark brown furrows. All at once
    A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
    And I am in the wilderness alone.

    Title-page to the 1836 edition of Bryant's Poems.

    Historical Footnote:
    Edgar Allen Poe's remarks on the poem "The Prairies"
    as published in the 1836 edition of Bryant's Poems

    Mr. Bryant's poetical reputation, both at home and abroad, is greater, we presume, than that of any other American. British critics have frequently awarded him high praise, and here, the public press have been unanimous in approbation. We can call to mind no dissenting voice. Yet the nature, and, most especially the manner, of the expressed opinions in this case, should be considered as somewhat equivocal, and but too frequently must have borne to the mind of the poet doubts and dissatisfaction. The edition now before us may be supposed to embrace all such of his poems as he deems not unworthy his name. These (amounting to about one hundred) have been "carefully revised." With the exception of some few, about which nothing could well be said, we will speak briefly of them...

    The Prairies. This is a poem, in blank Pentameter, of about one hundred and twenty-five lines, and possesses features which do not appear in any of the pieces above mentioned. Its descriptive beauty is of a high order. The peculiar points of interest in the Prairie are vividly shown forth, and as a local painting, the work is, altogether, excellent. Here are moreover, evidences of fine imagination...

    January 1837 Southern Literary Messenger,


    Transcriber's Comments

    Two Poems of William Cullen Bryant

    The Poet, William Cullen Bryant

    In his 1961 article "Mound-Builders, Mormons, and William Cullen Bryant," literary critic Curtis Dahl quotes these verses from Bryant's "Thanatopsis:

    ... All that tread
    The globe are but a handful to the tribes
    That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
    Of morning -- and the Barcan wilderness,
    Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
    Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
    Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there,
    And millions in those solitudes, since first
    The flight of years began, have laid them down
    In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone.
    "These 'millions,' too, are evidently Mound Builders," says Dahl. He gives as his reason for this identification, that it is "most strongly supported by Bryant's emphasis on the great numbers of dead in American ground." Dahl also remarls on the differences between these verses in the 1817 original and in later editions, noting that "Bryant at this stage may have intended to make his poem wholly American."

    The critic is very likely correct in his reasoning on this point. William Cullen Bryant recreates the melancholy sentiments of these passages in his 1832 piece, "The Prairies," where his identification of the ancient American dead as the Mound-Builders is clearly spelled out. Both poems focus upon "the great tomb of man," though the later work more fully indulges in the Romantic poets' typical concern with the ancient past and the fate of "lost nations."

    Assuming the correctness of Dahl's interpretation, Bryant's writing of "Thanatopsis" marks the first mention of America's "lost civilization" in the poetry of her latecomer sons and daughters of European descent. "Thanatopsis" and "The Prairies" are among the poet's most highly acclaimed writings: both point the reader westward -- they are sunset poems and it is no coincidence that Bryant's friend, the artist Asher Durand depicts a late afternoon's fading light upon a practically deserted landscape in his mysterious 1850 painting "Scene from Thanatopsis." The death of the unknown past opens wide the early 19th century American frontier to both the hardy pioneer and the dreamy idealist. The "red men" of Bryant's "the Prairies" are thin upon the land, compared to the "millions" who once filled the continent. They are but a shadow of the "disciplined and populous race" who reared "the mighty mounds." Of course Bryant, like most of his contemporaries, got it all wrong -- the "red men" were the supposedly extinct "Mound-Builders."

    Perhaps a romantic poet could have picked up that truth and colored it with the literary shades of pleasurable remorse, but the effect worked better upon the reader if the living Indian tribes could be ignored and hazy images of noble civilizations, who "heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek was... rearing on its rock the glittering Parthenon" presented in their stead. Bryant was a notable master of wordsmithing -- who used his verbal imagery to move the reader from one feeling to another, much like a composer carries along an audience in a moving stream of musical genius. Perhaps he was the first American poet to master this art -- at least he was one of the first writers recognized on the western shores of the Atlantic, as possessing these rare abilities. It is not surprising that he chose a Mound-Builder theme for some of his work, but it is, perhaps, regrettable that he never undertook to write the much needed epic of America's missing classical past.

    Mound-Builders and American Literature

    In summarizing William Cullen Bryant's contributions to a mythic view of the American past, Mr. Dahl offers the readers of his "Mound-Builders" article (published in The New England Quarterly XXXIV:2, June 1961) these insightful thoughts:

    One of the best examples of an artistic treatment of the Mound Builders that is almost exactly parallel to early nineteenth-century archaeological theory is William Cullen Bryant's account of them in "The Prairies" and in "Thanatopsis." In lines 35-85 of "The Prairies" Bryant attributes the construction of "the mighty mounds" to a "populous race" that founded "swarming cities" on the prairies. The Mound-Builders he implies, were not red men, for it was the red men who massacred them. They were an agricultural people who used bison as draught animals. Their mounds were erected for three purposes: as tombs, as platforms for worship and as fortifications. This "disciplined" or civilized, race was beleaguered in its "strongholds" by "warlike and fierce" "roaming hunter-tribes" of red Indians who "butchered" them without mercy and caused their whole race to "vanish from the earth." Only a "solitary fugitive" was left at first "Lurking in marsh and forest" but later spared by the conquerors, to mourn in secret his exterminated people.

    The modern connoisseur of early 19th century American Literature can only lament that a writer of Bryant's caliber did not undertake to compose a lengthier rendition of the "solitary fugitive" story. James Fenimore Cooper managed to fictionalize the story of the "last" of the Mohicans; Joseph Smith gave the world Coriantumr, last of the Jaredites and Moroni, last of the Nephites; but the American equivalent of a James MacPherson never arose to tell the Children of Columbia the epic narrative of the last of the Mound-Builders. Perhaps it is all for the best -- there were plenty of Delaware braves in America long after Chingachgook passed on to the heavenly hunting-grounds and the Mound-Builder blood still flows in the veins of native tribespeople today (albeit with no little or remembrance of their ancient glories). Had some Solomon Spalding of earlier years completed a vast saga of America's legendary past it would read probably today as uncomfortably as does Robert Southey's antiquated tale of Welsh warriors battling native Americans in pre-Columbian Aztlan.

    When the early investigators of America's hidden past got it into their fertile imaginations that great and powerful nations once inhabited the New World, they were soon forced to come up with some explanation of their demise. The fading of the southern Indian civilizations could be attributed to conquerors like Cortez, Pizzaro, and their ilk -- but what became of the supposedly pre-Indian, greay civilization of North America? Curtis Dahl relates the contributions of some of the leading early theorists in this speculation, men whom he uniformly calls "archaeological writers," though few of them would ever have qualified for a degree in that scientific discipline. He then adds:

    In relation to 'The Prairies,' however, the most striking aspects of the archaeological writers' accounts of the Mound-Builders are the vivid and graphic imaginative descriptions of the final catastrophe that overtook the doomed race. Though instinct with terror and drama, the accounts by Clinton, Mitchell, and Delafield are general. These writers imagine the bloody extirpation of the Mound-Builders by floods of barbarians from the north of Asia. Fortifications (the mounds) stem the torrent for a time, but the defenders are eventually worn out and destroyed. Bradford's and William L. Stone's Indian legends make the scene more specific. According to them, in ancient times the Iroquois and other Indians conquered 'a numerous and civilized people... who lived in fortified towns.' After bloody wars, 'the last fortification was attacked by four of the tribes, who were repulsed; but the Mohawks having been called in, their combined power was irresistible, the town was taken, and all the besieged destroyed.' Harrison, setting the scene at a fort at Miami, Ohio, dramatically describes a last feeble band of the Mound-Builders in their ultimate stronghold making their final effort for country and gods before being exterminated by warfare in its most horrid form. [Josiah] Priest, too, is dramatic. He imagines 'the remnant of a tribe or nation, acquainted with the arts of excavation and defense; making a last struggle against the invasion of an overwhelming foe; where, it is likely, they were reduced by famine, and perished amid the yells of their enemies.'

    Having placed William Cullen Bryant within a supposed literary stream which he calls a "tradition of writings about the Mound-Builders," Curtis Dahl goes on to demonstrate that Bryant was not the only American bard with the fate of the ancient people on his mind. The conceivable assemblage of such writers is, however, far too small to constitute a "tradition." By mid-century the identification of the builders of the prehistoric earthworks with the eastern tribes of North America was so complete that only the writers of admitted fantasy could satisfy an audience keen to hear the story of the mounds told in the old fashioned way. Dahl himself limits his choice of authors and poets to the first half of the nineteenth century, and he only manages to come up with a handful of them. His introduction to the second and third members of this select group is worth quoting at length:

    When the archaeological writers themselves were so imaginative and grandiloquent and dramatic, it is no wonder that Bryant's "The Prairies" and "Thanatopsis" were only two of a number of contemporary literary works based on the archaeological theories concerning the Mound-Builders. It is striking, moreover, how often the themes and situations already discussed in relation to Bryant's poems recur in the poems and tales by the other authors in this tradition of Mound-Builder literature.

    One of the earliest of these works is by the English poet Robert Southey. Inspired by a number of legends and a large body of literature purporting to prove ancient Welsh settlements in America, Madoc (1805) tells the adventures of an exiled Welsh prince and his followers who settle in North America, Christianize many of the natives, and war with the Aztecs, who then lived much farther north than they did when conquered by the Spaniards. Drawing largely on the stories of the Spanish conquest of Mexico but setting them back in the twelfth century, Southey fills his long poem with battles, abductions, human sacrifices, maidens in distress, hand-to-hand duels, young women dressed as boys, and the other usual paraphernalia of what may be called the "Aztec" novel. The mounds, he believes, are the remains of cities reared by Welsh and Aztecs before the Aztecs, defeated in battle, headed south toward Mexico.

    Another poet, Sarah J. Hale of New Hampshire, in her "The Genius of Oblivion" (1823) writes of the founding of the Mound-Builders' cities by fugitives from Tyre. As in the evening a poetic young man named Ormond sits on one of the great mounds of the West and longs to know who built them, the Genius of Oblivion appears to him, and he hears a song about the countless millions of men of bygone empires who are now quenched in eternity. Suddenly he sees a vision of a splendid wedding in a gorgeous city -- Tyre -- but in the midst of the celebration the bride and the bridegroom flee in a ship because the tyrant king of the city suspects the bridegroom's loyalty and lusts for the bride. Like Longfellow's Norse couple in "The Skeleton in Armor," the lovers fly westward over the Atlantic and found a city in America. Mrs. Hale intended to carry on her poem to tell of the destruction of the Mound Builders, but a hostile critical reception and a scarcity of babysitters prevented her.

    From Bryant to the Book of Mormon

    Robert Southey and Sarah J. Hale fit into Mr. Dahl's 1961 paper, along with William Cullen Bryant, rather comfortably. At least all three writers share a certain kind of overlap in some of the themes they chose to wax poetic upon, though their differences might easily be shown to outweigh whatever it was that have in common. Bryant and Southey were professional men of literature, well known and honored in their respective countries. Sarah Hale also became a woman of letters, though today she is probably remembered for little more than having written "Mary had a little lamb..." Only the dedicated student of long forgotten Mound-Builder lore would ever stumble upon her "Genius of Oblivion." Writer Dan Vogel, in seeking out possible connections between the mythic American prehistory and the origin of Mormonism, gave her footnote status in the sixth chapter of his 1986 book Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon. There he merely points out that Hale represented the views common to her day (that the builders of the mounds were "a different race than the Indians") and that she provided explanations wherein "she describes mounds and fortifications... mentions that some fortifications had 'pickets'... [and said] mound builders had metallurgy, including a knowledge of how to make steel." In all of these remarks Vogel is trying to illustrate the narrow tract of common thematic ground occupied by Mrs. Hale and the writer(s) of the Book of Mormon. He does not try to make a case for the latter volume having in any way been dependent upon Hale's 1823 poetic offering. In the same chapter Vogel notes that Bryant's "'Thanatopsis" is thought to be about the 'millions' of ancient mound builders who slumber in American mounds," but Vogel passes over the publication of the poet's "The Prairies" without a mention of its more substantial parallels with Book of Mormon themes. The problem being, of course, that the poem was not written until months after the Mormon book was published and therefore could not have influenced the thoughts of the book's supposed author, Joseph Smith, Jr. Instead, Vogel points out that Mrs. Hale, in a book she wrote in 1835, relates a story about a man's search for a hidden silver mine -- an activity obviously more typical of Joseph Smith the money-digger than of the writers who depicted the Mound-Builders in early American literature.

    Vogel was not the first student of the Indians to mention Sarah J. Hale and the Book of Mormon practically in the same breath, however. Robert Silverberg, in his 1970 book The Mound Builders, first talks about "The Genius of Oblivion," then devotes a few lines to discussing "A much more important New England poet, William Cullen Bryant," who "also fell under the spell of the mounds..." Silverberg's reporting offers no direct link between poets Hale and Bryant, but he associates their names with the writer of the Book of Mormon by juxtaposing them with the following words:

    One imaginative young man who was fond of reading and theorizing about the Mound Builders was a farm boy named Joseph Smith, born in Vermont in 1805. 'During our evening conversations,' Smith's mother wrote many years later, 'Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.' What is important about Joseph Smith's fascination with the Mound Builders is that it led him to found a religious movement that is still very active in the United States: the Church of. Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church.

    The subject of the origin of the Mormons is a delicate one. Those who accept the religion regard Joseph Smith as a divinely inspired prophet who ranks with Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed; those who scorn it look upon Smith as a fraud and upon his writings as long-winded fantasies... By some two million Americans today the Book of Mormon is considered at least as reliable a work of history as the Gospels or the Five Books of Moses. They believe it to be true that America was twice populated by emigrants from the Near East, that the mounds and embankments discovered by later European explorers are the cemeteries and fortifications of these vanished peoples, and that the Indians are descendants of ancient Israelites. But to those hostile to Mormonism, the sacred Book of Mormon is just another literary expression of the Mound Builder mythology.

    Opponents of the Mormons have argued for more than a century that Joseph Smith was merely an over-imaginative youth who became carried away by the fiction of the Mound Builders, and that he may have lifted much of the Book of Mormon from one or more books or unpublished manuscripts of Mound Builder fables that he happened to come across...

    Exactly who might have authored these purported "unpublished manuscripts of Mound Builder fables" here conjured up, Mr. Silverberg does not bother to say, but he leaves his readers with the impression that the "unpublished manuscripts" might have been the discarded output of a writer like William Cullen Bryant or Sarah J. Hale, both of whom first wrote and were published years before the Book of Mormon first went though the press in Palmyra, New York in 1830.

    Solomon Spalding

    The ideas and examples presented by Curtis Dahl in his 1961 paper predat Mr. Silverberg's very similar reporting by nearly a decade. Like Silverberg, Dahl does not confine his discussion simply to examining the content of a few sheets of early American poetry. Having exhausted his supply of poets fascinated with the mounds, Dahl has nowhere left to turn but to an examination of their prosaic contemporaries. He manages to find three of these -- actually, Dahl implicitly concedes that the number may only be two, depending on whether or not Solomon Spalding was the author of the Book of Mormon. The critic's words on this topic are:

    Even less skilfully written was the Rev. Solomon Spaulding's unfinished story, Manuscript Found, probably written in 1808 or 1809 but never published by the author. The story pretends to be a partial translation of twenty-eight rolls of elegant Roman writings on parchment discovered in an artificial cave covered by large flat stones on top of a mound, evidently an old fort, near Conneaut, Ohio. The carefully hidden rolls contain the story of a group of Christian Romans who in the time of Constantine while sailing for Britain are blown westward to America. There amid 'innumerable hordes' of savages they found a colony and hope to rear a new Italy. But driven by concern lest their children will degenerate into savages, they travel westward in the hope that they can return home in that direction. They soon come upon the great cities of the civilized Mound-Builders, who are taller and lighter than the other natives and who manufacture iron and lead, keep flocks and horses, domesticate mammoths, and have an extensive written literature. Spaulding goes on to reconstruct the cities, culture, society, polity, and lives of the Mound-Builders as he imagines them from the evidence of the mounds, and he tells the history of the two great Mound-Builder empires which during five hundred years of peace extended over much of the middle of the continent. Finally, however, for a frivolous reason the two empires begin a deadly war of extermination, and though Spaulding's story breaks off before the end has come, one knows that the millions of Mound-Builders will kill each other off and leave only the remains of their fortified cities and the huge mounds heaped over their myriad dead. Under the American soil, Spaulding says, lie multitudes of the slain. Then he continues in much the same tone as Bryant: 'Gentle reader, tread lightly on the ashes of the venerable dead. Thou must know that this Country was once inhabited by great and powerful nations considerably civilized & skilled in the arts of war, & that on ground where thou now treadest many a bloody battle hath been fought, & heroes by thousands have been made to bite the dust.' What happened to the noble Romans we never learn.

    Mr. Dahl's connection of the abandoned scribblings of would-be author Solomon Spalding with the polished verse of William Cullen Bryant is a most improbable one. The two men (one hesitates to call Spalding a "writer") share practically nothing in their respective styles and accomplishments. Perhaps Spalding's plea for modern man to "tread lightly on the ashes of the venerable dead" might be matched to Bryant's horse, trampling upon "the dead of other days," but the comparison is an odious one. There is little here to equate, other than the obvious fact that both Bryant and Spalding bought into the notions of their day and age, respecting the identity and fate of the Mound-Builders.

    The writer of the 1961 article passes along the sadly mistaken idea that the Spalding text he reports upon is the very same "Manuscript Found" cited by the old critics of Mormonism as being the true basis for the text of the Book of Mormon. Dahl can be forgiven in this misidentification -- after all, he is merely taking the RLDS Church leaders at their word when they say their 1885 publication of Solomon Spalding's "Oberlin manuscript" is that same noteworthy production. In fact, it is not, and in believing the RLDS claims Mr. Dahl strays slightly from the path to establishing a much more substantial connection for the extant writings of Solomon Spalding. In one of his notes the critic remarks: "Spaulding's story was published only after it was asserted to be the true source of the Book of Mormon. Controversy raged over it. Though it contains striking parallels to the Book of Mormon, instead of attempting to prove it the source of Smith's book the critic can more profitably study both as outgrowths of a common tradition of writings about the Mound Builders." More likely the "common tradition" meriting examination here is the one that links Spalding's story on file at Oberlin College, his long lost "Manuscript Found," and the very first draft of the Book of Mormon. But that is an investigation best conducted entirely aside from any consideration of the poems of William Cullen Bryant. As for "striking parallels," the Mormon apologists generally deny that the Oberlin manuscript contains any such thing. On the other hand, certain investigators have uncovered and reported scores of resemblances in theme and vocabulary, between the Mormon book and Spalding's known writings.

    Like Robert Silverberg (who may have plagiarized Mr. Dahl's 1961 article just a little) Curtis Dahl cannot resist the temptation of moving almost directly from faded visions of "unpublished manuscripts of Mound Builder fables" to the allegedly divine visions of Joseph Smith, Jr. He says:

    Undoubtedly the most famous and certainly the most influential of all Mound-Builder literature is the Book of Mormon (1830). Whether one wishes to accept it as divinely inspired or as the work of Joseph Smith, it fits exactly into the tradition. Despite its pseudo-Biblical style and its general inchoateness, it is certainly the most imaginative and best sustained of the stories about the Mound-Builders.... About 300 A.D., angered by the repeated apostacy of His chosen people the Lord determines to destroy the Mound-Builders' civilization... the final and climactic battle (401 A.D.) takes place at the hill Cumorah. With a few exceptions the still civilized Nephites are exterminated by the savage Lamanites, the ancestors of the American Indians. In 421 A.D., however, just before he dies, Moroni, last of the Nephite scholars and priests, a solitary fugitive among the conquerors carefully buries the records of his people...

    ...[Joseph] Smith was able to translate the abridged Hebrew records written in ancient Egyptian characters and publish them to the world... Joseph Smith, if he was the author, had the basic materials for a good historical novel.

    Back to William Cullen Bryant

    Curtis Dahl provides the name of one last candidate for admission to the Early American Writers' Mound-Builder Hall of Fame, and that is Cornelius Mathews. Strangely enough, an extended examination of Mathews' contribution to the demise of the "lost civilization" cause may eventually lead the reader back to the writings of Bryant. Here is what Dahl has to say:

    The last work on the Mound-Builders that demands mention here is Cornelius Mathews' Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders (1839). Like the other authors, Mathews follows the archaeological writers in picturing America dotted with great cities of civilized Mound-Builders. In his story the terrified Mound-Builders are threatened with utter destruction by a supernaturally powerful mammoth named Behemoth. After several great armies have failed to slay the beast and the Mound-Builders' fortifications have proved ineffectual to restrain him, a great Mound-Builder hero named Bokulla finally pens in and kills the ravaging monster and preserves his compatriots. Mathews spends little space describing the civilization of the Mound-Builders, nor does he tell how they were finally exterminated. But as a member of the Young America group he is even more consciously nationalistic than Bryant in his effort to give America a legend and a tradition. Unlike his contemporaries Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he failed, for his frequently absurd book was quickly forgotten. Similarly, the Genius of Oblivion has gathered to her bosom the works of most of the other authors of Mound-Builder literature with the exception of Joseph Smith, whose book (or transcription) has become famous for other reasons. Of the literary writings on the Mound-Builders, indeed, almost the only ones still remembered are "The Prairies" and "Thanatopsis."

    The tie between Mathews and Bryant is a subtle one, hinted at by Dahl only in a footnote, where he says. "See my "Moby Dick's Cousin Behemoth," American Literature, XXXI, 21-29 (March 1959)." An examination of this obscure and delightful article shows that, at least in part, Herman Melville was probably influenced by Mathews' "Behemoth" story in his writing of the American classic, Moby Dick. The possible lines of linkage between Bryant and Melville is a topic worthy of an extended dissertation, but it is unlikely that Behemoth: A Legend of the Mound-Builders would merit much of a mention in such a report.

    Robert Silverberg also devotes a few sentences to Mathews' 1839 novel, but avoids making any connection between it and Bryant's work. It seems evident (to the current writer at least) that some worthy comparing and contrasting of the dark themes of Bryant, Mathews and Melville might be a productive line of exploration for some aspiring graduate student of American literature. Each of these writers paid attention to the tragedies of death and destruction in uniquely American compositions, spiced with allusions to classical literature. Like Solomon Spalding, Mathews is a lumbering, unpolished, and oft times absurd story-teller, but his ideas merit a better consideration than a mere mention in listing writers of Mound-Builder fiction. Dahl has opened an interesting path to that end in his 1959 paper and it is not unlikely that a further exploration of that literary trail would cross the meanderings of William Cullen Bryant more than once or twice. And, to end on a whimsical note, one can only guess at what wonderous elaborations might have come out of the quaint notions of a Mathews or a Solomon Spalding, had they been picked up and fully developed by a Herman Melville or a William Cullen Bryant.


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    last revised July 15, 2002