The Indian, The Man, and The Canon: A close analysis and examination of Elmer Simon’s “The Indian – A Man”

Elmer Simon | The Indian – A Man (Full Text)

 

Shortly after my first reading of Elmer Simon’s 1896 piece, “The Indian – A Man” (The Red Man), it was clear to me that this was a piece well deserving of a place in the canon of works by students of the Carlisle Indian School. The piece has the heart and authority to expose issues and make statements that were relatively rare at the time of its surfacing. Additionally, if I was to cite more “concrete” terms commonly used to measure the canonical value of a particular work, I would state that it is teeming with merit in all categories; that is, to say, it features an abundance of historical, aesthetic, and cultural value. And so, due both to its showcase of nuanced, advanced ideas for the time period in which it was written and for its strength in the qualities of a traditional canon, “The Indian – A Man” is a piece so rich with value that its absence from this canon would result in a significantly weaker piece overall.  

A significant portion of this piece’s value can be derived from its overall message and the nuances to it. The message of the piece, for instance, is clear within a single reading: Due to their generosity, courage, kindness, and all manner of such privileged traits, the so-called “Red Man” is of no lesser value than the prestigious white man. However, Simon was likely aware that his target audience would not take to this message so quickly, so he aimed it better towards a concept that they would understand: “true virtues thrive and live just as well in rags and patches of poverty and buffalo hides and buckskins of savagery as it does in the purple robes of the throne and the linen and laces of aristocracy” (Simon). Not only does this passage utilize a cocktail of intense imagery sure to appease any readers looking for aesthetic value, it also clearly and simply maneuvers Simon’s message so that it applies directly to American core values. The dichotomy Simon creates through his direct back-and-fourth of “rags and patches of poverty” to “purple robes of the throne” is an indirect way of referencing the idea that “all men are created equal”, a phrase which 1800’s America has been reluctant to attribute to Native Americans (Simon). Additionally, the use of “throne” and “king” imagery as opposed to a more presidential figure may be a jab at British nobility as well. More interesting, still, are the broader calls for equality made toward the beginning of the piece. When discussing the characteristics that God bestows upon humanity, Simon says, “God – being no respecter of persons, and certainly not of races, – has wisely created all men equal” (Simon). The beginning paragraph of the piece, “The Indian – A Man”, is a large branching out and escalation into this eventual statement, which may have proven highly difficult for some of Simon’s potential readers. The use of Christian relgious figures in a speech promoting racial equality would have been a touchy subject during the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, which further stresses the importance of its inclusion here. Most likely, this would either intrigue possible readers into finishing the rest of the work, or enrage them so that they felt compelled to finish the rest of the work. Either way, the stroke of genius is that such a controversial message appears early enough in the piece that it begs the question of what the rest of the work has to offer.

Social controversy has a significant place in canonical literature, and is a large contributor to cultural value. This is explored further in the 1985 book, “Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860” by literary critic Jane P. Tompkins. During this work, Tompkins investigates what significance cultural value has in American fiction, stating that, “I see their plots and characters as providing society with a means of thinking about itself” (Tompkins). Tompkins strikes on the importance of the dramatization of society’s quarrels, and on the importance of forcing a society to reflect upon itself through its literature, which is exactly what happens with a reading of “The Indian – A Man”.

So what else, if not force society to ask itself questions, does “The Indian – A Man” even hope to accomplish? The entire point of the work is to invoke cultural thought within its intended audience, and, although that audience is mostly gone in this day and age, it can still be used as a tool to clear up misconceptions over past times. Specifically, the misconception that before laws enacting equal rights between races were ratified, there was an absence of voices publicly calling for such equality, which Simon proves clearly inaccurate. And thus, the focus shifts once again to the reflection upon society through the eyes of the piece. This piece fills that niche of culturally relevant literature, as described by Tompkins, quite brilliantly in that it is a piece that almost seems to poke fun at the early 1900’s society by comparing it to today’s society. It is a work that directly questions the powers-that-be as to the reasoning behind their methods of discluding or otherwise discriminating against other races, and, in doing so, proves itself to be a work enriched with tremendous cultural value.

Aside from cultural value, the historical and aesthetic values of this work are more one in the same. This piece contains great historical value both due to the time period in which it was written and the historically relevant and unique situation placed upon the individual who wrote it. It contains aesthetic value as a result of the particular historically enriched language that coincides with the same time period, but less so with the position; it is, retrospectively, rather disappointing that Simon’s education in the Carlisle school appears to have been done so well such that his writing is indistinguishable from that of a white man. Still, phrases such as “palefaces”, apparently a term used by Native Americans to refer to white Americans, are aesthetically relevant due to their sheer rarity in canonical literature.

Through inherent aesthetic and historical significance, near-perfect fulfillment of cultural roles for literature, and the uniqueness and rarity of its overall message, “The Indian – A Man” is an easy pick for the canon of works by students of The Carlisle Indian School. Although the identification process for what makes a piece worthy of canonical inclusion can at times seem quite random and difficult to pin down, this piece exhibits such a wide breadth of positive traits and qualities that it would be more difficult to argue against its inclusion to the canon than for it. The cultural talk-back to society, combined with historically-based aesthetic value add up to a work that fits as a solid inclusion to any canon, not just to the canon for works specific to The Carlisle Indian School. And furthermore, if more pieces offering such differential viewpoints on timely topics were to emerge from the archives of The Carlisle Indian School, we would come many steps closer to an accurate estimate of the environment, tone, and overall feel of the school itself.

 

Works Cited

Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs : The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. Oxford University Press, 1986. EBSCOhost, envoy.dickinson.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=143647&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

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