Ecocritical Analysis of Apess

In his largely unprecedented work, A Son of the Forest, William Apess creates a strange juxtaposition of Native American and Christian views of nature. As a man born into the Pequot tribe, I would argue his most basic worldview—wherein a spiritual connection to one’s natural surroundings is highly valued—was implanted in him early on, living as a member of this native tribe in heated conflict with a colonizing force. Although his grandparents were abusive, he chooses to view the way they treated him as attributable to liquor brought to the Pequot by European colonizers, “inasmuch as they…seduced them into a love of it and, when under its happy influence, wronged them out of their lawful possessions—that land, where reposed the ashes of their sires” (7). This is perhaps an act of scapegoating, as alcohol can hardly be considered an active force of evil all by itself; however the fact of his compulsion to explain their abuse as a product of European influence points to a larger system of oppression operating in Apess’s cultural moment. He depicts Native Americans as having in this way been disenfranchised by Europeans, yet he overlooks the reality that Europeans also brought Christianity to his native land and impressed that diametrically opposite religious view upon his people as well.

The biography clearly depicts how throughout his life, his early life particularly, Apess shifts in and out of phases of devotion to his Christian faith and, conversely, phases of significant doubt. The text is riddled with internal conflict. Apess seems to struggle to reconcile his ethnic background (one frequently ignored, if not degraded in Christianity) with what he views as the saving grace of his Christian faith. He goes so far as to posit “that the natives of this country are the only people under heaven who have a just title to the name [“Natives”], inasmuch as we are the only people who retain the original complexion of our father Adam” (10). It appears that upon embarking on his missionary travels, Apess is able to find some comfort and strength in the pursuit of knowledge. But very little seems to be resolved in the end because of an emphasis in Christianity on observing the Sabbath, confining religious enlightenment to a designated indoor space, while Apess’s spiritual instinct seems to be that spirituality and worship are tied up in ancestry and one’s connection to nature at large.

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by thelorist on September 30, 2011 at 2:47 am

    I’m glad you brought up Apess’ ties to and sympathies for his Native American heritage. In class, the general consensus seemed to be that he had no real connection to the forest, or to his ancestors. Perhaps he was not cut out to live out in the bush, but Apess was very wrapped up in a number of personal philosophical struggles. I felt that one of his most compelling arguments appeared in the very first paragraph of Chapter VI, soon after he described all of the money / property he was promised by the army and never received. He began straight away with a powerful logical and emotional stance on the nature of land ownership, entitlement and incentives: “Let the poor Indian attempt to resist the encroachment of his white neighbors, what a hue and cry is instantly raised against him. It has been considered a trifling thing for the whites to make war on Indians[…]But let the thing be changed. Suppose an overwhelming army should march into the United States[…]how quickly would they fly to arms, gather in multitudes around the tree of liberty[…]” (31).

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