28 November 2022

Literary Land up for Grabs

There comes a time in life when the phrase, "if only I was younger," comes all too readily. A smooth sheet of ice on the state forest pond, a foot of new snow in the field, and, occasionally, an idea of a topic that might once have been perfect, all elicit the same nostalgic cry: "if only!"

That was my reaction recently when I made my way through Peter Cozzens'

Tecumseh and The Prophet, a detailed history of the two remarkable Shawnee brothers who tried to stem the tide of American settlers, land speculators, and soldiers into what had been Indian country in Ohio and the rest of the Old Northwest.

Brave, handsome, personable, and multi-lingual, Tecumseh impressed nearly everyone who met him, Americans and British as well as the chiefs and warriors of the various tribes whom he tried to convince to make a united front against the newcomers. What he didn't know, and what his scapegrace, but charismatic, brother, The Prophet, only realized late in life, was that not intelligence, not courage, not even weaponry was against the native peoples, but demography.

While European diseases and internecine warfare had greatly weakened the Shawnees, Creeks, Cherokees, the Iroquois Nation, and the rest, it was the unstoppable tide of European immigration, combined with the high Colonial and early Federal American birthrates that tipped the scales against the tribes. 

With ever-accelerating speed, land-hungry settlers and ambitious speculators crossed supposedly sacred treaty lines, cut down the forests, and killed the game. When they were met with violence, they called for troops to push the tribal people back to yet another temporary treaty line. It's a sad story and one that does not reflect well on our early days as a nation.

And that is perhaps one reason why, despite a surfeit of possibilities for crime, skulduggery, scams, heroism, betrayals, daring raids, and eccentric characters, the early Federal period on the frontier rarely appears in mystery fiction. Indeed, except for James Fenimore Cooper's works featuring the Colonial period in what is now New York State, the abundant possibilities of guerrilla warfare, militias, land speculation (Cozzens points out how many of our Founding Fathers were engaged in this dubious art), plus the machinations of politicians Indian and American, arms dealers, fur traders, and liquor purveyors has gone virtually untapped by writers.

But historical squeamishness may not be the whole story. After all "cowboys and Indians" plot lines kept Hollywood in cash for decades, so it may be as simple as the fact that current mystery writing is still very much in thrall to three models, two of them British: the beloved cozy with the amateur detective, the Victorian prototype immortalized by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, and our own 20th century tough guy PI in deepest Noir territory.

So ingrained are these prototypes that our own Michael Bracken stipulated in a recent anthology call: All, or a significant portion, of each story must be set in the 21st Century. And he added, for those mathematically challenged, (That’s 2001 to the present day.)  

A story set in Ohio in 1812 clearly wouldn't fit the bill for Michael at the moment, but considering that we regularly see short stories set in Greece or Rome or early Britain, it is too bad that such a fertile and virtually untouched literary landscape is neglected.

If only I were younger!


  1. Elizabeth Dearborn28 November, 2022 12:15

    Here in upstate New York, 15 or 20 miles east of Buffalo, is Town Line, N.Y. which seceded from the Union & never rejoined until 1945! I don't know if there would be much of a story there. But until recently the patch on the police uniform included a Confederate flag!


  2. Well, there's also the little fact that one of the largest land speculators in the late 1700s early 1800s was George "I cannot tell a lie" Washington himself.

  3. You bet, Eve, and the recent Washington at the Plow gives a good account of his forays into land deals.

    Town Line sounds like a interesting place!


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