"'Asking, and Listening': T.B. Thorpe's Positive Vision for National Unity in 'The Big Bear of Arkansas'": This article investigates how Thorpe's sketch works to heal two divides within the American imagination: that between wilderness and civilization and that between the North and the South. The humorous piece has received much critical attention, but most readings treat the tall tale as anything but funny. While these interpretations cite convincing evidence to support their analyses, their tendency to elide the light-hearted nature of the story misses a crucial—and no less serious—element of the tale. Despite the tragic overtones of the bear's death, Thorpe offers readers a hopeful vision for the future of the nation, one that maintains unity while respecting state and regional differences. As Jim Doggett interacts with the steamboat's "heterogeneous" passengers, he catalyzes this unity by enacting and describing a method by which strangers can become friends and enemies can become brothers. Doggett has integrated himself into a foreign environment by "asking, and listening," and he offers this strategy as a way for his countrymen to do the same. The Big Bear carries politically symbolic weight, but, in the end, the scales are tipped in a hopeful direction.


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pp. 102-120
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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