Stories of Ohio
by William Dean Howells.
Belt Publishing, 2019.
Paperback, 256 pages, $14.95.

Reviewed by Jacob A. Bruggeman

The year 1860 was a predictably good one for William Dean Howells, an up-and-coming man of letters from Ohio. In the four years prior, Howells had been elected as a clerk of the Ohio House of Representatives and took up an editorial post at Ohio State Journal. In 1860, he completed a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln and acquired a consulship in Venice, but perhaps more important than either of these considerable achievements was Howells’s pilgrimage to his “holy land”: Boston.

Residing within that famed and fabled city, the seat of New England’s industrial and political power, were all those whom Howells admired. Luminaries like Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James all lived in Boston, the literary epicenter that Howells had adored from afar. While visiting, James Russell Lowell—then the editor of The Atlantic Monthly—invited Howells to dine with him and two other friends of The Atlantic, James T. Fields (the publisher) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (a frequent contributor). As Howells would later write to his father, at that dinner both Lowell and Holmes “took [him] by the hands,” a de facto acceptance of Howells—a twenty-three-year-old journalist from “the west,” Ohio—into New England’s literati.

What followed was an astoundingly productive literary career which included a lengthy editorship at The Atlantic Monthly, forty-odd novels, countless essays and poems, and a remarkable nickname: “the dean of American literature.” One of Howells’s volumes, Stories of Ohio, originally published in 1897, has found new life in Belt Publishing’s reprint, released earlier this year. What readers encounter in Howells’s book are indeed stories from “the annals of Ohio”: bite-sized biographies of chiefs, generals, and statesmen, histories of conflicts and tragedies, and, no doubt, a healthy dose of fables and fictions.

Although they are loaded with rich historical detail, Howells’s Stories is not what modern readers would consider capital-H “History”—their contents can be as apocryphal as they are, at times, factual, based as much on fables as on newspaper clippings or other histories. What the “dean of American literature” delivers was common among late nineteenth-century popular histories, and is today discredited and dwindling: a volume conveying the facts of the matter through flashy prose prone to erudite embellishment; a history committed to the truth but confined by the author’s openly displayed biases and prejudices; a work based on sources unknown to the reader. In short, a style of historical writing out of fashion today.

This is neither to pooh-pooh Howells nor subject his oeuvre to what E. P. Thompson called “the massive condescension of posterity,” but to contextualize his Stories so that we can meet him where he stood and attempt to breathe, see, and walk with him there. Howells hoped his volume would serve as a frame for Ohio’s history, an outline of the “main features of the picture” which the “imagination” might fill in.

Those reading Howells’s Stories today may be doing so out of interest in regional literature or the ongoing renaissance in Midwestern history, but early on Howells points to a more enduring reason to engage with his book: “I should like my young readers to remember that the Ohio stories which I hope to tell them are important chiefly because they are human stories.” The stories themselves are indeed human in all the beautiful and horrible ways, as was the author himself. Howells’s human fallibility is never clearer than in his attitudes towards Native Americans and the lands they once inhabited. Encountering the bleak, comfortless, and regrettable aspects of Howells and his Stories, however, is to put ourselves up the challenge harbored in any old book: attempting to understand, to borrow a phrase from Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, “the language that history has put at [Howell’s] disposal.”

Although he was no farmer’s son—his father was a Whig newspaperman of some prominence in the state—Howells was born in 1837 into an Ohio whose mise-en-scène was populated by more hayseeds and clodhoppers than cultivated and lettered intellectuals. However learned he became, Howells’s Ohio childhood made him conscious of the cultural chasms that separated his home from New York’s high society, the neighbors of his youth from Cambridge’s elite academicians.

It was perhaps fate, then, that Howells would dedicate his life to incorporating his native Ohio and the Midwest into American literature. As Belt’s founder Anne Trubek writes in her introduction to the new edition, Howells’s broadest goal, the backdrop to all his editing and writing, was to “widen American literature,” to extend it beyond New England’s landscapes, to push the literature’s edges closer to home, Howells’s Ohio, and thereby include the region’s authors.

Howells did, in fact, “widen” American literature, especially while editing at The Atlantic, first by pushing at the peripheries of New England’s literary world, making them porous enough for the entrance of “provincial” authors. Howells would go on to envelop authors from other regions, publishing and promoting their work, making known authors (including Mark Twain and Henry James) who wrote of the nation’s middle and westernmost parts.

Of Howells’s own contributions to the project of expanding American literature, Stories of Ohio is one of the most enduring. Beginning with Ohio’s original inhabitants, whom the author calls the “Ice Folk,” or the group “worthy” ancestors “which still roams the Arctic snows,” Howells recalls with enchantment and verve the history, however fabled, of his home. Throughout the text, Howells regards Ohio’s ancient history as sacred and shrouded in mystery. Take the earthworks across Ohio left from ancient cultures. The Serpent Mound, well-known among Ohioans as a National Historic Landmark built by the ancient American Indian cultures, is an effigy mound shaped like a snake with a curled tail. Nearby, one can find burial mounds dating back to the Adena culture (800 B.C.–A.D. 100) and the Fort Ancient culture (A.D. 1000–1650). Howells wrote of similar earthworks dotting the landscape in the nineteenth century. “The works of the Mound Builders,” he wrote, “except such as were too large to be destroyed by the farmer, have disappeared almost as wholly as the Mound Builders themselves,” a “mole-like race” that seemingly “ceased from the face of the earth as utterly as if they had burrowed into its heart.” This was part of the early history that animated Howells’s writing.

More than the Mound Builders, though, Howells was interested in the development of settler communities, or “the flower of home springing up wherever the ax let the sun into the woods.” To Howells, Native Americans were a people with “harmless pleasures” whose “wild life was so free that those who once knew it did not willingly forsake it,” and they were “not bad-hearted so much as wrong-headed.” And yet Howells thought of the Native Americans as relics—a people who “belonged to the past”—while “the white men belonged to the future.” More often than not, however, Howells writes of the Indians as ruthless villains or “the drunkards and the vagrants of their neighborhoods, living by a little work and by the contemptuous charity of the settlers.” All the violence that transpired between the two races “had to be,” for European civilization had “outgrown the order which [Native Americans] clung to helplessly as well as willfully, and it was fated that we must found our homes upon their graves.”

When in the late eighteenth century British Colonel Henry Boquet was sent into Ohio to secure settlers held captive by “the savages,” his recruits from Pennsylvania and Virginia “looked upon the land with covetous eyes […] longing to plant their homes in it.” From that moment on, writes Howells with no shortage of theatrics, “the savage was doomed” to lose his land. Interestingly, Howells acknowledges that which far too many American still ignore: “If [the land] belonged to any people of right, it belonged to the savages, who held it in their way before the whites came, and who now had to choose which nation should call itself their master.” Here again, a tension emerges: it was “fated” that white homes would be built upon Indian “graves,” and yet the land “belonged to the savages.” Howells deferred, however, to those who would build their homes upon graves:

“The invaders were from New England, from New Jersey, from Pennsylvania, and from Virginia, and with their coming, nearly all in the same year, there began the mingling of the American strains which has since made Ohio the most American state in the Union, first in war and first in peace; […] We have to own, in truth and honesty, that the newcomers might be unlawfully and unrightfully in the great territory which was destined to be the great state, but it is consoling to realize that they were not unreasonably there. It was not reasonable that the land should be left to savages who must each keep fifty thousand acres of it wild for his needs as a hunter. The earth is for those who will use it, and not for those who will waste it, and the Indians who would not suffer themselves to be tamed could not help wasting the land.”

Despicable as Howells sounds in the passages above, it is worth noting that Howells recognized before most of his contemporaries that, of the opportunities squandered on the American frontier, most significant was that of cultural cohabitation and exchange with Native Americans. “The life of the border was often such as to make men desperate and cruel,” Howells writes, and upon it “wherever the two races touched they seemed to get all of each other’s vices, and very few of each other’s virtues.” For this loss, Howells assigns some blame to the “white renegades” who harassed the “savages” throughout the early days of settlement and the Indian wars that punctuated it. One of the earliest, and cruelest, such acts by the “white renegades” recorded by Howells is a March 1782 massacre of Christian Indians in which 450 American horsemen set out to murder Moravian converts living among the Wyandots on the Sandusky River. According to the author, the cavalrymen had “openly avowed their purpose of killing all Indians, Christian or heathen […] We must therefore call them murderers,” although acknowledging that these men too had suffered: “we must make allowance for men who had seen their wives and little ones tomahawked and scalped or carried off into captivity, their homes burnt, and their fields wasted.”

After all, Howells writes, this was a time in which frontier life “was so much ruder than now” and “as fierce, if not as cruel, among white men as among red men.” Unfortunately, massacres like these were common, and they represented only the beginning of a long, sorrowful history. Indeed, when in the late eighteenth century a Delaware chief remarked with agony and horror that “We cover the bones that have been buried, that they may never more be remembered,” he spoke only at the outset of a slow, steady process of settler colonialism which would lead, eventually, to Indian Removal.

The brutal conditions recorded by Howells in his Stories were not a literary man’s abstractions about a rugged past, but a reality for those who lived on the frontier—Native and settler both. Perhaps no group in Howells’s volume better personifies the grinding unpredictability of violence on the frontier than the “Indian Fighters,” men whose “spirit, both lawless and fearless,” was made in the crucible of chaos and savage struggle that characterized the territory in the late eighteenth century. One such fighter was Captain Josiah Hunt, well known from his time as a hunter supplying General Wayne’s officers while they camped at Greenville in 1793, whom many Indian warriors respected. “Great warrior—good hunting man—Indian no can kill,” said one warrior of Hunt upon suing for peace in Greenville after Fallen Timbers.

Dwelling too much on these anecdotes, however, obscures the destructive reality of conflict. Between the “red and white borders,” sparing a man was a rarest of exceptions—and rarer still was the respect offered Captain Hunt—for the prevailing instinct on the border was that a “life granted on either side meant perhaps many lives lost.” To be sure, cultural exchanges and battle-bound moments of warrior-to-warrior regard did occur, but this unmerciful rule of thumb meant that Indians and settlers “vied with one another in being the first to shed the blood which seems […] to stain every acre of the beautiful Ohio country.”

Bones, too, littered the land; they were too many to bury. Indeed, Howells writes of a detachment of General Wayne’s forces camping upon a former battleground and having “to scrape away the heaps of bones and carry them out of their tents before they could make their beds, and they buried six hundred skulls on the field.” Howells continues: “Such is war, and we cannot look too closely on its hideous face, which is often so alluringly painted that we forget it is the face of a pitiless demon.”

The Ohioans occupying the space between the covers of Howells’s book are more diverse than today’s readers might think. Ranging from the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone to the great Miami chief Little Turtle who defeated St. Clair on the frontier, Howells recounts captivating stories about the American and Indian generals and statesmen whose names are memorialized on monuments recited in history classes. These are the famed figures Howells cannot help but admire: “such soldiers as Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, McPherson; such presidents as Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, McKinley; such statesmen and jurists as Ewing, Corwin, Wade, Chase, Giddings, Sherman, Waite.” Of the military leaders featured in Stories, perhaps none is as captivating as Commodore Perry, who defeated the British at Put-in-Bay (now a destination known more for its bachelor’s parties than its history) at the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Resounding like a gunshot in Howells’s pages is the line Perry wrote to General Harrison upon defeating the British: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Howells’s near-equal interest in Native Americans of great stature is captured in the chapter “Indian Heroes and Sages,” which features the famous Shawnee war chief, Tecumseh, and a Mingo chief of lesser fame, Logan, whose “unselfishness,” “piety,” “common sense,” “wisdom,” and “noble spirit” Howells praises. Howells was not alone in his admiration of Logan—who, despite the murder of his father, brother, and sister at the hands of white men, became a steadfast advocate for peace. Lord Dunmore of Virginia, governor of the state during Dunmore’s War of 1774, and Thomas Jefferson both thought well of Logan; William Brown of Pennsylvania, a pioneer and judge, called Logan “the best specimen of humanity he ever met with, white or red.”

Little Turtle, or Moshokonoghua as he was known to the Miami Indians, who traveled in the Eastern United States after the peace that followed the battle of Fallen Timbers, is also featured at length. To one crowd in Philadelphia, Little Turtle lamented the incomprehensibility of city life and his customs: “To learn what is done here would require a long time.” Today, one must say the same about the age in which the chief fought, traveled, and lived.

Ultimately, reading Howells today reveals how the musket preceded the ax in settlement, and that the land settlers would come to cultivate was not theirs for the taking, but rather belonged to a different culture whose complexities the settlers themselves could not or wished not to comprehend. If these Stories distill into two hundred pages what Ohio was, they also suggest what Ohio could have been if compassion and a desire for intercultural exchange had superseded conquest as a motivating force on the frontier. That intercultural understanding and peaceful coexistence failed on the frontier is a legacy embedded in “our Ohio valleys” and bone-deep in those of us living in the Buckeye state today. If Ohioans and, indeed, Americans can confront the cruelties of our history just as we celebrate its crescendos, then perhaps we might make something meaningful out of the miseries etched in “the annals of Ohio.”  

Jacob A. Bruggeman is an associate editor of the Cleveland Review of Books.