QUAINT #18 Assowaum from “The Regulators of Arkansas” by Friedrich Gerstäcker

Image from the Gerstäcker Magazine from the Gerstäcker Museum, featuring his illustrated Westerns. Click for source (in German).

Assowaum was created by Friedrich Gerstäcker and appeared in Die Regulatoren in Arkansas (“The Regulators of Arkansas, 1845”). Gerstäcker (1816-1872) was a German who went to America in 1837. For six years he lived a checkered life in America, working as a schoolteacher, chocolate maker, silversmith, fireman, woodcutter, hotel manager, and, for the majority of his time, a hunter in the Arkansas wilderness. He returned to Germany in 1843 and began writing novels for children and novels for adults set in the American frontier and in the South Seas. The Regulators of Arkansas remains his best known novel. It was first published in English as “Alapaha the Squaw,” “The Border Bandits,” and “Assowaum the Avenger,” in American Tales 67-69 (23 July-16 September 1870).

The Regulators of Arkansas is set in Arkansas in the early years of statehood, in the 1830s, when murder was common and bad men more so. Opposing them were local vigilante groups, the “Regulators.” The main characters of The Regulators are searching for a particularly violent gang of thieves who are involved with Rawson, a sociopathic Methodist minister who marries and then kills women. Rawson is engaged to Marion Harper, a sweet woman who only knows him as a devout Methodist. Rawson and his gang steal a band of horses, and when the Regulators pursue them, aided by Assowaum, a native warrior, Rawson murders Alapaha, Assowaum’s wife. The Regulators pursue Rawson and the horse thieves and corner them in a farmhouse, where they are holding hostages, including Marion. Assowaum helps the Regulators break into the farmhouse, and the gang is captured. All of the thieves are hanged with the exception of Rawson, who is burned alive by Assowaum. Marion marries Brown, one of the Regulators, and they live happily ever after.

Assowaum is known as “the Feathered Arrow.” He is relatively friendly to white people, and even risks his life to prevent Marion from marrying Rawson. Before the death of Alapaha, Assowaum is outgoing; he becomes reserved and even taciturn after Alapaha is murdered. (Gerstäcker implies she was raped as well). Assowaum greatly loves his wife, the “Flower of the Prairies,” even though her conversion to Christianity conflicts with his own religion, and her death turns him into a vengeful man, willing to work with the Regulators to find Rawson. Assowaum is a member of “one of the northern tribes of the Missouri” and is a former Sioux fighter. He has a typical skill set for a dime novel Indian; he is strong, fast, a good fighter, and an excellent tracker. He speaks in a stereotypically “Indian” way, relying heavily on animal metaphors: “But does my brother believe that the bear returns to his den when he scents the track of the hunter at his entrance?”

Gerstäcker was not a great literary talent, and in many ways The Regulators of Arkansas is a typical dime novel: in narration, content, and style it is indistinguishable from its contemporaries. But Gerstäcker was a better writer than most dime novel authors, and as a reading experience The Regulators of Arkansas is closer in quality to the average, mediocre 19th century adventure novel than it is to the average, mediocre 19th century dime novel. The Regulators has a satisfying number of thrills and lacks the tiresome one-line exchanges of dialogue that betray the paid-bythe-
word context of the times.

Its racism is usual for the day but no worse, with blacks portrayed as negatively as one would expect and with “Indians,” like Assowaum, portrayed as Noble Savages and their culture fictionalized. And throughout the story Gerstäcker includes small bits of characterization and cultural detail of the sort that can only come from personal experience; the reading experience is enhanced due to Gerstäcker’s knowledge of the personalities and milieu he was writing about. The end result is not Art, but it is superior to most other dime novels.

One unusual note is the doomed hero following the frontier as it moves west, a staple of 20th century Westerns. This convention originally comes from James Fenimore Cooper and also can be found in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). The classic example is in Alan Le May and Frank Nugent’s The Searchers (1956). The doomed hero is one of the basics of the essential tragedy of the Western: the cowboy hero is called upon to civilize the untamed frontier for society, but once the frontier is tamed the hero has no place in it and is forced to continue moving west, too wild to be a true part of civilization.

At the end of The Regulators Assowaum is invited to stay with his white “brother,” but Assowaum declines, saying that he remembers the days when his people could hunt and fish freely and that he goes in search of a land where he could still do that. While the doomed hero did become a genre convention, it was not common when Gerstäcker wrote The Regulators.

What might be most interesting to modern readers about The Regulators of Arkansas is the fact that Gerstäcker was writing a Western at all. There is a long tradition in Germany of writing and reading what is today thought of as Westerns but which might more properly be described as “frontier fiction.” Frontier fiction, whether by German authors or Americans, has been popular in Germany for over 170 years, and even today there are Western festivals held in Germany, such as the Karl May Festival held in Bad Segeberg in Schleswig-Holstein. Cowboy heroes were a staple of German pulp magazines beginning with Buffalo Bill, der Held des Wilden Westerns (Buffalo Bill, the Hero of the Wild Westerns) in 1905 and continuing until the beginning of World War Two.  Several 19th century German authors were successful writing primarily frontier fiction.

Along with Gerstäcker, the most significant writers were Karl Postl, a.k.a. “Charles Sealsfield” and Karl May, the most popular of the three. Karl Postl preceded Friedrich Gerstäcker and was an influence on him, but it was Gerstäcker rather than Postl who influenced succeeding German writers. Gerstäcker’s frontier was a far more realistic place than Postl’s or Karl May’s, again reflecting the Gerstäcker’s personal experience on the frontier and Postl’s and May’s lack of same. Gerstäcker’s physical frontier (if not his characters) are recognizable to modern readers, with realistic terrain, traditions, and historical detail. Gerstäcker took the traditional German interest in stories about bandits  and the more recent German interest in the New World, which was heavily populated by German immigrants, and created a naturalistic picture of the frontier, one which, despite the dime novel conventions of bloodshed and melodrama, still rings true today.

Gerstäcker’s frontier stories have a fair claim to being the first “realistic” Westerns. One aspect of this realism was shocking and titillating to Gerstäcker’s German audience. In The Regulators the frontier is an ungoverned area overrun with violent outlaws, and lynch law, the “law of hemp,” is the only means by which order can be kept. Gerstäcker’s European readers, accustomed (in the pre-1848 Revolution days of Metternich and Kaiser Frederick William III) to viewing laws as nearly sacred things, were both appalled and thrilled to read about a part of the world, populated by German immigrants, in which the rules of civilization were so lacking. What should also be kept in mind, in understanding Gerstäcker’s popularity, is that the idea of the historical novel describing something happening contemporaneously, rather than long ago, was a relatively new innovation. Until Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels , historical novels were set centuries ago, and in the case of Gothic novels the setting was an indeterminate and often ahistorical past. Gerstäcker, like other dime novelists, was writing stories set in the present.

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