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The Oregon Trail. Francis Parkman Jr. originally released in 1849 as The California and Oregon Trail. The book reviewed is from Oxford University, Oxford World’s Classics edition. Oxford and New York. 1996, reissued in 2008. 346 pp.

Parkman’s original report of his 1846 spring through autumn trip along the Oregon Trail was originally serialized in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1847. Compiled and released in book length form in 1849, it found no less of a reviewer than Herman Melville whose blurb “The book, in brief, is excellent and has the true wild game flavor” appears on the back of this edition.81OeKsQxvCL

Melville raised some concerns about the book in his review which I share. First, Parkman really covered less than half of the Oregon Trail, making it only as far as eastern Wyoming, thus missing the most arduous portions of the Trail, across driest deserts and through the mountains. And so Melville questions the title. I’m OK with the title; it just seems Parkman only got started toward other difficulties the pioneers faced which I might have expected to read about based on the title. Still, he wasn’t intending to move to the west, he was only out on a youthful devil-may-care adventure, so the stakes (except of course for the potential of dying) weren’t as high.

Melville’s other concern was Parkman’s blanket takedown of Indians, not only the Ogallala Sioux with whom he stayed for a number of weeks but basically every Indian he encountered, whom he described in general with condescension: “…a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian…[and] having breathed the air of the region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and if expedient, he could shoot them with little compunction. ” As he repeatedly re-issued his book until 1896, he re-wrote and edited out some of the more obnoxious of his reflections, which are generally referred as “not politically correct.” Such an understatement. While I might have cut him some slack as a product of his times, Melville, his contemporary, set me straight. He too was offended by Parkman’s narrow, stereotypically racist views.

Parkman’s disregard for the buffalo was also problematic from my twenty-first century viewpoint. While killing male buffalo merely for the sport of it (the trophy was the animal’s tail!) may have reflected the 1846 environmental worldview, it is interesting to note that Parkman presciently predicted the collapse of the great buffalo herds with the Indian cultures that relied on the animals quickly following.

But for all the negatives, The Oregon Trail is a rip-roaring adventure story, told by a 23 year old Boston Brahmin on the trip of a lifetime. Between thirst, dirt, rain and ongoing dysentery Parkman retains his wonder at the prairie in all its guises. As an early description of the west, it was a great booster for others to follow, for a unique experience and perhaps a new home. For all its quirks, it remains one of the great personal histories of the frontier.

And it definitely has a “true wild game flavor.”

Want to read Melville’s original review? Go to: http://melvilliana.blogspot.com/2012/03/mr-parkmans-tour-text-of-melvilles-1849.html

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