The American: A Middle Western Legend

The American

A Middle Western Legend

Howard Fast

CONTENTS

Part One

PASTORAL PROLOGUE

Part Two

THE STATEMENT

Part Three

THE FIRST VARIATION

Part Four

THE SECOND VARIATION

Part Five

THE THIRD VARIATION

Part Six

THE RESTATEMENT

Part Seven

THE CODA

Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley
,

His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes
?

Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time
,

And the flame of that summer's prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform

Read from the party in a glorious hour
?

Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman
,

And sledgehammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bull dog Hanna
,

Low-browed Hanna, who said: “Stand pat”
?

Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.

Gone somewhere … with lean rat Piatt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy
,

Who hated Bryan, then aped his way
?

Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell

And tall King Saul, till the Judgment day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth
,

Whose name the few still say with tears
?

Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown
,

Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

N
ICHOLAS
V
ACHEL
L
INDSAY

PART ONE

Pastoral Prologue

The father was a hard man; he was like flint. If he had ever been anything else, weak or sentimental or loving or kind, there was no trace left now, no trace at all. Between him and the boy, there was fear. And when the boy did wrong, or what the father conceived to be wrong, there was punishment. You would have to have a sheet of paper as long as the Ohio River to write down all the hard, bitter things which had left their mark on the father, and a little of each of those things went into the punishment. The father didn't drink—except beer—but anger let things out of him and relieved him, the way drink lets things out of some men. And anger went into the punishment.

On the wall in the kitchen, there was a piece of an old harness, and when the father got angry, he would walk toward it, and the expression on his lined brown face would tell the boy all the boy had to know. There was a special expression for the boy, a singularity of rage that would indicate his guilt as separate from that of his two brothers and his three sisters.

“Come,” the father would say: “Come!”

And the boy would understand. If it were the turn of one or another of the others, they might flee or whimper or plead; not the boy. For the others, sometimes, the mother would plead, although she knew that pleading only increased her husband's anger; but she didn't plead for the boy, at least not until he cried aloud.

And that point came. The boy, on his short, solid legs, was hard too, and ugly and mean, as the neighbors would point out, but the harness strap was heavy, and the father's arm could lift a hundred-pound sack of meal at stiff length.

The father would take down the strap, and the boy would walk ahead of him out to the barn, and there was something in the boy's walk, each step he took, that added fuel to the father's rage. The father would beat him with even, merciless strokes, and the boy would grind his pain under his teeth. The flesh would seam, welt, and then raise up, and then the blood would drive through in pinpoints. And through the father's brain, down his bloodstream, into the nerves and muscles and tendons of his arm would come the pain he had suffered, the wrongs he had bent to, the injustices of life which had made him what he was—and all of them would pour into the harness strap.

Until it snapped, until the father realized what he was doing to his son. Then it was over. Then the punishment was through and finished, and the half-naked boy could stumble away, and the father could walk stolidly back to his house, purged.

II

It was not long before the great War Between the States, and at that time much of the State of Ohio was still forest land, the tall virgin forest which climbs up to the sky, making a house where the pillars are eight and twelve feet through, where inside there is no underbrush, no saplings, nothing but the dead leaves, the wet sod, the moss, and the silence. The forest meant something to the boy, who was eleven years old, whose name was John Peter Altgeld. He was a good worker, but when there was no work for him to do, he ran to the forest. People said, “What else could you expect, when he looks like a thing from the forest?”

And that was so. He was nothing at all to look at. His hair was black and stiff, and it stood up from his head like a bird's nest. His legs were too short. His body was not misshapen, nor was it shaped right; looking at it was like looking into one of those cheap mirrors which place objects just a litile out of focus, but so little that you can never put your finger on the fault. He had a very slight harelip, but it was enough to make speech harder for him than for the average child. His jaw was too big; first, you thought, this is a child who has never been young, but after a while you saw that it was only because his jaw was too big, giving him an older and more melancholy look than he was entitled to. His blue eyes were pleasant, but with the rest of him the way it was, who went so far as to examine his eyes? The more so since he hardly ever looked straight at you.

It was no wonder that he went into the forest.

But what he found in the forest was his business, and he didn't have to talk about it. The farm was work and hate, from before the sun rose until the sun set; maybe there were farms where it was different, he didn't know; maybe there were poorer people than his family, he didn't know that either. His thoughts were simple, uncomplicated. The forest was in opposition to the farm; it was peaceful, and whatever was there left him alone. There were toads and small, scampering animals in the forest; they did him no harm. There was a brook in the forest, and he walked up and down in the bed of the brook.

The road went away into the forest, straight as an arrow down the side of the section. In the summertime, when they let him go to school, he went down that road to the district schoolhouse. He didn't go eagerly; they only let him go in the summertime, and that was all right with him. Those who were educated were natural enemies of his father, but they were not friends of his. For one thing, they spoke a different tongue; they spoke the Yankee tongue, which they made him learn, laughing at his guttural German speech. The schoolmaster whipped him with a birch rod, and the lessons made his head ache. But going to the school gave him a concept of the road, which took its deep-rutted course through the forest to the log lesson house, and then beyond that point over hill and dale into the blue dream of anywhere. So when he was in the forest, he had the road within easy reach, and he knew a time would come when he would go down that road with no coming back.

When he followed the brook through the forest, stepping catlike among the slippery rocks, he eventually came to the place where it emerged and ran across the cleared lands of Ichabod Morrison, the Yankee farmer who was a neighbor of theirs. Morrison had a swarm of children who were all towheaded, and although the boy, John Peter, didn't play with them, he liked to watch them from the edge of the forest and create a life for them that was fine and gentle, although in actuality it was none so different from his own. There was one little girl called Lulubelle, who he thought was the most beautiful creature on earth, and after he learned to read a little, he identified her with the princess in his reader. His imagination, struggling through the sterility of the few concepts open to him, found a place for her in the wonderful life he would have some day. But his concepts were few, and his idea of a wonderful life was mostly negative—not to be beaten, not to be laughed at, not to be hungry.

In the winter, however, the refuge of the forest was denied to him. Cold and snow made it a forbidding place—and the days were very short. Also, there was work for him; there was always work for him.

III

The family moved to a bigger farm, a hundred and forty acres, and the father starved, scraped, haggled, pawned, and somehow bought the place and bought with it an enormous mortgage. There was one whole night when the father was a human being, smiling, even singing a little, and remembering what it meant to have a place like this in the old country, for a peasant and the son of a peasant and the grandson of a peasant. Mulled beer and a pudding made an occasion of it, and the mother wept with pride. The boy, John Peter, had been an infant of only a few months when they came to this new country from the old one, but he had a link of language, legend, and custom with the old country, and from what the father said, he surmised that it was a place one was glad to leave yet also glad to remember, puzzling as that contradiction might be. Yet the separation of old country from new country was never really clear, for always around them were German families, Norwegian families, Bohemian and Lithuanian families, as well as those stranger folk called Yankees. And as for coming to this particular place, Ohio, well, the Yankees were not long here either; only the Indians, the mysterious red folk, who were sometimes dirty and homeless bums in town and sometimes romantic bands passing out of the forest and into it, were native to this region, old to it, accepting it, and not having to struggle against it and break their hearts, as the Yankees and the others did.

But on this night of celebration, which went with the acquiring of the new farm, there was no talk of heartbreak. The father told stories about the old country, and John Peter, who had never heard him tell stories before, listened with open eyes and open mouth. There was a broad world, and as each piece of it became a little more apparent, he tried to fit it into place in his head, and that way dreams came, imagination and longing and hunger for the half formless; a mental change that went along with the physical change in him, the change which brought the budding hair, the swelling glands, the blood coursing, the nervous, wonderful restlessness that made despair and hope play on him like a bow on the chords of a fiddle.

Change was the new theme motif; the ugly became beautiful, as so many of the tales he read told him. The impossible became possible, as this new farm proved, in spite of the broken siding house they inherited, the stump-filled fields, the rotten log barns. His old life where he ran to the forest for refuge was no more; refuge was in the new possibilities; his wirelike hair would be soft and curly; his body would become slim and long and graceful. Even the father, whose anger was so terrible, was not angry, not even granite-like this one night.

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