Thursday, June 22, 2023

Johnny Appleseed by Paul Buhle and Noah Van Sciver

There are twenty or thirty "facts" that most Americans learn in childhood. We don't all remember all of them later. Any one of us maybe didn't learn all of them, and they come in and out of vogue - what my generation learned isn't same as what my sons learned. Many of these "facts" are dubiously true at best - the cherry tree, the log-splitting, the guy with the big blue ox. But we learn them. They're part of the national culture and idea of itself, like any nation.

That a guy named John Chapman called himself Johnny Appleseed, wore a pot on his head, and wandered around what was then the frontier (western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana) in the early 19th century, planting apple trees, is one of those facts. We tend to assume "apples" means Red Delicious, which is totally wrong. We tend to think of Chapman as a kind, nature-loving, open-hearted man and his story fit for very young children, which is basically true. The story is mostly correct, basically - what really happened, seen through the usual haze of hagiography and national myth-making.

The 2017 graphic biography Johnny Appleseed: Green Spirit of the Frontier tells the real story, as much as it can be known two hundred years later, and is pitched at adults, unlike the vast majority of books about Chapman. It was written by historian Paul Buhle and drawn by Noah Van Sciver, a cartoonist with an affinity for projects about the 19th century who usually writes his own material.

Buhle is aggressively putting Chapman in context here, which means that nearly half of the book is about other things - from Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose philosophy was hugely influential on Chapman, to a long list of later ecologists, writers, thinkers, and wilderness-wanderers. But that's OK, since Chapman's life is full of gaps and he seems to have spent several decades doing exactly the same thing: coming to a new area, on the edge of settled America, leasing plots of land, planting apple orchards there, and then selling those plots to new farmers and settlers as he moved on. It might be possible to plot those areas on a map, but Buhle doesn't do so: he's much more interested in the why, the philosophy behind what Chapman did rather than the physical question of how many acres Chapman covered with trees over the forty-ish years he was doing this.

Reading Johnny Appleseed, I wondered a lot about the physical details of Chapman's life: did he build huts to live in, on each successive piece of land? Or did he usually have lodgings in some nearby town? He seems to have done a lot of real-estate transactions, though probably for low values and making minimal profits at best - did he work with banks? Did he have accounts? Or was this all on the honor system with the unofficial mayor of the town or the local big landlord? But Buhle is more of an intellectual historian: he want to tell the story of Chapman's thinking, how he helped to spread a certain type of liberal Christian theology across the frontier, and what that mean for American religious life for the rest of the century.

Van Sciver, as always, draws gloriously detailed panels, framed by clumped leaves outdoors and cross-hatched walls inside, full of grumpy-faced, sweaty men grappling with agriculture and eternity. (There are a few women in the book - I'm sure of it, even if I can't bring any to mind or find them flipping through the pages - but this is a story of men and their intellectual and farming work.)

Inevitably, Chapman is a hole at the center of his own book. We really don't know much about him. We know what he did, and have his Swedenborgian zeal to explain why - but that's awfully thin to explain a whole life. Chapman comes off, here as everywhere else, as one of history's great monomaniacs, devoting his entire life to one narrow activity.

But that's what we have. Buhle and Van Sciver present everything we know and everything we assume and everything we can extrapolate here, in a series of chapters that circle that Chapman-shaped hole at the center of their story. I'm not saying anything here they didn't already know when making this book: that's the point. That's the deal with John Chapman. And, if you ever wanted to know more about that Appleseed guy that you learned about when you were five, this is the place to go.

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