Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878)
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128 Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878) A native of Massachusetts, Thomas Bangs Thorpe grew up in Albany and New York City, and at the age of fifteen studied painting with artist John Quidor. Painting would remain a major part of his life even as he pursued other professional interests. He attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut for two years before seeking in 1837 a climate better suited to his poor health. He found it in Louisiana, which would be his home for the next seventeen years. Painting portraits of wealthy patrons, editing at least five newspapers, serving during the Mexican War, and becoming involved in Whig politics kept him busy without making him wealthy. Returning to New York in 1854, painting and writing for several prominent periodicals, such as the Spirit of the Times, Harper’s, Graham’s, and Knickerbocker Magazine occupied his time as he sought a career in political preferment. He worked in the New York Custom House, returned to New Orleans as a federal customs agent during the Civil War, and served in a variety of capacities there and back in New York for the remainder of his life. Less than a year before his death in 1878, he resigned from the New York Custom House under threat of being fired over dishonest transactions. Thorpe’s first story, “Tom Owen, the Bee-Hunter,” was published in 1839 in the New York Spirit of the Times while he was resident in New Orleans. It was widely reprinted in other papers and brought him a degree of popular success as a writer. During his lifetime, Thorpe would publish at least five books and over 150 stories, sketches, and essays. While his humorous character study of Tom Owen in mock-heroic style as an example of the Louisiana backwoodsman was striking, if much in the style of Washington Irving, there was little in his other work to predict the culmination of his talent in“The Big Bear of Arkansas,”published in the Spirit of the Times in March 1841. Myth, symbol, and psychological insight somehow coalesced into a powerful story, written with complex skill, that captured the entire spirit of the American frontier experience and national character. It has remained one of the best pieces of American short fiction ever written and the major example of the humor of the Old Southwest, thus the often applied epithet,“The Big Bear School of Humor.” Thomas Bangs Thorpe 129 The story was collected as the lead piece in William T. Porter’s anthology, The Big Bear of Arkansas, and Other Sketches, in 1845, was reprinted in Thorpe’s own second book, The Hive of the “Bee-Hunter,” in 1854, and has been included in numerous anthologies ever since. Many American writers have acknowledged the power of its influence, including William Faulkner, who said, “A writer is afraid of a story like that,” but went on to create his own version one hundred years later in The Bear in 1942. While none of Thorpe’s other works achieved the rich texture of this one, a constant theme is the passing away of the wilderness and nature in the face of civilization. But he did show a special talent for parody in his series of twelve mock letters about a hunting expedition published as“Letters from the Far West”in the Louisiana Concordia Intelligencer in 1843 and 1844 and subsequently reprinted in the Spirit of the Times. Texts: “The Big Bear of Arkansas,” from The Hive of the “Bee-Hunter,” a Repository of Sketches, Including Peculiar American Character, Scenery, and Rural Sports (New York: D. Appleton, 1854).“Letters from the Far West,”Letters 2, 7, 10, and 12, from Concordia Intelligencer , August 12, 1843; October 14, 1843; December 16, 1843; and February 10, 1844. The Big Bear of Arkansas A steamboat on the Mississippi, frequently, in making her regular trips, carries between places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at“all intermediate landings,”the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarcely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes. Starting from New Orleans in one of these boats, you will find yourself associated with men from every State in the Union, and from every portion of the globe; and a man of observation need not lack for amusement or instruction in such a crowd, if he will take the trouble...


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