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JOHN RICHARDSON'S KENTUCKY TRAGEDIES Dennis Duffy I If we use the term "tragedy" as the colloquial equivalent of great misfortune ("His test just came up positive. What a tragedy!"), then John Richardson found himself involved, at least potentially, in more than one Kentucky tragedy. The first of these happened in his "real" life, and almost featured him in the leading role. He had been taken to Kentucky as a prisoner-of-war after the defeat of the British-Indian side (and the Indian cause in the Old Northwest) at Moraviantown in October 1813. There--as he records in his personal memoir--he found himself subject to stringent conditions as a prisoner-of-war in a state whose militia had paid dearly for their enthusiasm about the invasion of Canada. And when those initial conditions lightened, he managed to land himself in a romantic rivalry that nearly earned him a severe beating or worse. The chase by an offended rival in love that concluded the whole business taught him the ease with which a man running for his life can smash through a locked door. That burst of energy he was to recall decades later, in his 1851 Preface to Wacousta, and cite it as proof of the credibility of the feats of strength-under-pressure he had attributed to his protagonist in the novel.1 Professional writers never let embarrassment and anxietyprevent them from acquiring material. Twenty-five years later, twenty-five years that had first witnessed a shift from half-pay soldier to writer that had culminated in Wacousta (1832), and then a misstep back into soldiering in a disastrous venture as a mercenary during a vicious Spanish civil war (1835-1837), the material of Kentucky came back into use. His time as a prisoner had given him a sufficient feel for the manners of that state to provide him with the emotional center of his 1840 sequel to Wacousta, The Canadian Brothers; or, the Prophecy Fulfilled. To put it more precisely, that actual period in Kentucky (with its personal "tragedy" that had never happened) appears to have given him the confidence to appropriate for his new novel a crimepassionel that he could never have witnessed, since it took place more than a decade after his forced sojourn in the state. 2 Dennis Duffy That 1825 material, known as the Kentucky Tragedy in its day, may seem in our eyes to fulfill Marx's aphorism about the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Nonetheless, it has proven to be the most enduring of U.S. murders as far as imaginative literature is concerned, producing a stream of fictional treatments from almost its date of commission down to (at its most recent) 1951. "One of the three great historical events, matters, or themes which American writers have drawn upon," a critic states; "only Pocahontas and Merry Mount rival it."2 My aim in this essay is to locate the differences between a Canadian writer's and his U.S. counterparts' handling of this material. Not a study in source criticism (an enterprise already carried out by Carl Klinck in his introduction to The Canadian Brothers), this essay instead largely ignores chronology. 3 The treatments surveyed here are wheeled into an achronological circle designed to enhance the distinctiveness of Richardson's project. This distinctiveness, we must note, sometimes endures despite the actions of the author, who hacked his Canadian original into a semblance of the American grain. Moving to the U.S. in search of the success that eluded him here, he carefully expunged from his novel about the War of 1812 any material that could be construed as anti-American. The Canadian Brothers underwent a sex change when it switched its citizenship and appeared in 1851 in New York as Matilda Montgomerie. Its skeleton survived those cosmetic alterations. Matilda the villainess retains her designation as "the American" in both versions. The implications of Richardson's retaining that designation merit the attention we will later pay it. Understanding Richardson's treatment requires background information, as well as some brief discussion of those other treatments of the Kentucky Tragedy. Ultimately my examination reveals the historical vision behind his novel...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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