Hugh Glass, Frontier, Environment, American West
Jon T. Coleman’s Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation traces, dissects, and deconstructs one of the most enduring stories of survival in the American West. Hugh Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear while part of a commercial hunting expedition in the Rocky Mountains during the summer of 1823. Left for dead by his companions, Glass survived his horrific injuries and managed to crawl and then walk more than two hundred miles over thirty-eight days to confront those who had abandoned him. The incredible saga of Glass’s survival and ultimate forbearance in exacting a measure of physical revenge has served as fodder for countless storytellers, writers, poets, and, more recently, filmmakers. Glass has been cast and recast by his many chroniclers as a preeminent example of what Coleman terms environmental Americanism. [End Page 174]
Although Coleman, a cultural and environmental historian best known for his justly celebrated book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, never provides a single, neat explanation of what he means by environmental Americanism, readers will certainly recognize the interpretive framework that Coleman complicates and inverts to great effect. Glass is the American frontiersmen whose encounter with the dangers and hardships of the cruel American environment breaks him physically and emotionally so that he can be forged into a new sort of man. Like Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontiersmen, he is reborn in the wilderness as the uniquely democratic American prototype, part of the familiar story about the birth of American nationalism and exceptionalism.
Here Lies Hugh Glass is not a biography. Glass left behind a single letter and is largely absent from the documents upon which historians normally depend. Even the earliest written accounts based allegedly on Glass’s own oral narrative of his survival are second- or third-hand recreations of questionable reliability. The many gaps and holes in the story have, Coleman suggests, proved more boon than hindrance to those who have sought to explain the creation of the American nation through the broken body of Glass. That Glass is a blank slate is clearly part of his appeal to Coleman. Coleman uses the many stories of Hugh Glass to reexamine the myth of the environmental American and then, taking his own turn at resurrecting the hunter’s gnawed corpse, offers a new reading. If the old story of the frontier and environmental Americanism in the hands of Turner, James Hall, and numerous Glass interpreters recounts the building of something noble through the elision of uncomfortable issues like race and the softening of the rough types who did the work of the frontier, Coleman returns many of the grubby particulars to the tale.
Coleman explains how the stories of people like Glass were used to produce an American nationalism built upon an idealized version of the western experience and the people who lived and worked on the frontier. Storytellers and nation builders wanted heroes and so slaves, servants, Indians, and disreputable men like Glass and his fellow hunters were pushed aside and made to vanish once their work was done. Yet, as Coleman notes with great pleasure, Glass has a way of sticking around in all of his ornery, grizzled glory to afflict those figures of authority that profited from his labor and appropriated his experiences for their own ideological purposes. Coleman attributes much of this endurance to the way in which Glass crafted the tale of his mauling as a satire on the [End Page 175] anitized story of America being drafted even as the hunter plied his trade in the 1820s.
While Coleman argues that Glass was a self-aware cultural critic consciously telling his story as a challenge to a West made safe for polite society, there is no real evidence to support this romanticized vision of Glass turning the tables on those who profited from his suffering. It ultimately does not matter—as I...