ALAN v28n3 - For(e)knowledge of Youth: Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter
For(e)knowledge of Youth:
Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter
Charles H. Frey
Once upon a time, long ago in our country's colonial past, a group of settlers lived in wilderness between New York's Catskill mountains and the mighty Hudson river. The settlers considered the neighboring tribe of Mohawks to be "savage Indians," but a roving hunter in the region, William Danforth, had befriended the tribe's chief and then taken to wife the chief's beautiful daughter, Malaeska.
Malaeska loved William Danforth passionately and bore him a son in gladness, but, when war broke out between the settlers and the Mohawks, Danforth fought on the side of the settlers. In the course of the fighting, he was mortally wounded even as he killed Malaeska's father. Malaeska came to the dying Danforth. He enjoined her to love the white man's God and to take their son to the home of Danforth's parents in Manhattan. Armed with a sealed letter from Danforth, Malaeska made her way down the Hudson with her baby boy and managed to find the home of Danforth's parents.
So shocked was Danforth's father at the news of his son's death and of his biracial marriage and issue, that at first he wanted nothing to do with Malaeska or the baby. Slowly, however, John Danforth's wife, together with the pleading Malaeska and her bright-eyed babe, softened the old man's heart, at least partly. Malaeska and the boy were permitted to stay, she as a menial servant and he as grandson, but Malaeska was forbidden to reveal her identity to the child, called William.
The child grew from baby to boy, attended by a white nurse, and watched lovingly by his mother, Malaeska, who managed only casual and sporadic contacts with him. After enduring several years of this torment, she could stand it no longer and, dressing in her Indian finery, and promising a grand adventure, she lured young William Danforth into a small rowboat she had secured. Together they rowed up the Hudson. After a day or two of play in the woods, William asked to go home. Malaeska momentarily dissuaded him, but the Grandfather, with some other men, had tracked them down. The men took the boy ruthlessly away from her and back to Manhattan. Soon young William was sent abroad to study in France for several years.
Though her tribe had moved away, Malaeska went back to her old wigwam near the Catskill settlement of whites. For years she lived by selling her handiwork to the settlers. One of the settlers, Arthur Jones, had been a close friend of Malaeska's husband, and Jones's daughter, Sarah, now fifteen, befriended Malaeska. For two years, Sarah made daily visits to Malaeska who taught Sarah many refinements of natural graces in bearing, movement, and domestic skills and also an appreciation of natural religion.
At eighteen, Sarah was sent to Manhattan to the boarding school of Madame Monot. Sarah's school happened to neighbor the property of the elder Danforths, young William's grandparents. One day, when Sarah looked down from her room into the Danforths' garden, she saw the old man fall to the ground, afflicted by a stroke. She rushed downstairs, out of her house, and into the neighboring garden where she called for help and ministered to Danforth. Thereafter, she came under the wing of Mr. and Mrs. Danforth, who arranged for her to live in their home and go over to the boarding school only for day-lessons.
When young William Danforth returned home from his stay abroad, he and Sarah were delighted with each other's company and soon fell in love, to the anxious approval of the grandparents. Before William and Sarah could bring their love to the altar, however, the elder Danforths died, so that William and Sarah decided to marry at Sarah's home in the Catskill settlement.
A day or so after the engaged couple had been joyfully welcomed to Sarah's home, Sarah invited William to come visit Sarah's beloved Indian friend. Sarah did not mention the woman's name. William angrily refused to go, citing the extreme antipathy to Indians that had been bred into him by his grandfather. Sarah was forced to visit Malaeska alone.
Upon learning from Sarah that her fiancé's name was William Danforth, Malaeska, in extreme agitation, sent a note by Sarah to the youth asking him please to visit her and writing her name. William recognized the name of his boyhood servant and came to Malaeska at her prescribed meeting place, atop a cliff jutting out high over Catskill Creek. Malaeska there embraced him, called him "son," and proclaimed herself his mother. She told the whole adventure of her love for his father, his own birth, his father's death, and her journey with the boy to Manhattan. Aghast at this discovery of his true heritage and enraged by "the deep prejudice which had been instilled into his nature," William then broke from Malaeska, rushed to the cliff's edge, and leaped to his death in the stream below.
Young William was buried beside the grave of his father. Sarah came there and found the lifeless form of Malaeska stretched upon the new-made grave. Thereafter, Sarah lived a lonely but useful life and even came to Manhattan once to see the Danforth home demolished to make way for commercial progress. Thus ends the story of Malaeska, Indian wife of a white hunter.
Ann Stephens, who lived in New York City and wrote many extremely popular stories and novels of romance, penned this tale in 1839. In 1860, a slightly revised version of the original magazine story was taken up by the firm of Beadle and Adams as the first of their soon-famous series of dime novels ( Stephens, Ann S . Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter , New York: I.P. Beadle, 1860). Malaeska sold several hundred thousand copies and arguably sparked the enormous popularity of dime novels that became the favorite reading fare of American teenagers for four decades.
Malaeska is thus significant in the history of books read by youth, yet that historical significance might not itself qualify Malaeska to be read by youth today. One could argue that Malaeska possesses neither the literary merit nor topical relevance to vie with modern bestsellers. Still, in contexts other than bookstore competition, Malaeska deserves strong consideration for reading by young adults.
In schools and colleges, teachers of language arts and social studies may wish either to teach Malaeska directly or to recommend it as supplementary reading. Here are some reasons:
1. For boys and girls it's a "good read" in the conventional sense: offering suspense, dramatic action, some but not too much romance, varied characters, strong emotions, stylish writing, and issues of interest to youth today.
2. Malaeska shows that young adult literature is a real "subject" of study, a kind of literature appealing to youth through not necessarily about youth and neither high-brow nor low-brow in appeal, a literature reaching back over a century and a half, if not further. Such a work lends the subject of young adult literature greater range, integrity, historical depth and worth than is often granted by non-experts in the field.
3. In particular, certain issues raised in Malaeska should interest youth between ten and twenty. These issues can be discussed with reference solely to Malaeska , or the issues raised through Malaeska can be compared with analogous issues raised in contempoary young adult novels. What are those issues?
Issues in American History of the Colonial Period
Malaeska is set in the early to mid 1700's after the British had defeated the Dutch throughout New York. The Catskill settlement is vaguely Dutch in character and Dutch terms are still applied, for instance, to geographical areas about the settlement.
Sarah's mother, Martha Fellows, and her then fiancé, Arthur Jones, both emigrated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with Martha's family, the year before the story opens. There are thus three tiers of cultures superimposed here: Indian, Dutch, and British-American. In Malaeska , the Mohawks are first termed, by the narrator, "a savage Indian tribe" (7) who, despite their alleged savagery, are noted to have left the settlers' "unmolested" (7). When Danforth and Jones come upon the Mohawk camp near the white settlement, they see a peaceful scene where "three or four halfnaked Indian children lay rolling upon [the grass], laughing, shouting, and flinging up their limbs in the pleasant morning air. One young Indian woman was also frolicking among them, tossing an infant in her arms, caroling and playing with it. Her laugh was musical as a bird song, and as she darted to and fro, now into the forest and then out into the sunshine, her long hair glowed like the wing of a raven, and her motion was graceful as an untamed gazelle. They could see that the child, too, was very beautiful . . . . "(12). Four pages later, however, "a half-naked Savage" tries to shoot Jones, for no discernible reason other than inveterate hatred. Jones kills the "savage" and, in "an impusle of fierce excitement" (18) scalps his victim and runs off in a "fearless spirit of a madness" (18). Stephens may be suggesting that white claims to superior civilization were a fragile veneer.
Stephens says the Mohawks, angry over the death of their brave, give signs they are about to attack the settlement, but then the male settlers go to the woods seeking battle with the Mohawks. In general, Stephens seems to depict the Mohawks as savage but also in tune with sublimity in nature, and Stephens' comparisons of Indians to whites also invoke certain gender issues (discussed below).
Malaeska , then, invites students to imagine colonial life along the Hudson, a nearly rural Manhattan, the effacement of Dutch settlements as well as Mohawk/Iroquois nations, the early commingling of fur trade with farming and town commerce, colonial emulation of French manners, and, finally, colonial attitudes toward race, class, gender, and religion as seen through eyes of a nineteenth-century American author. Not merely a gripping tale, the book has something to teach youngsters today about their colonial past. (Please see Figure One for samples of schematic handouts that can help students grasp generational and historical contexts of the action in this novel.)
Issues of Race and Culture
Though the relation of Malaeska and Danforth is at one point termed "an unnatural marriage" (253), it is defended as between "two warm young hearts that forgot every thing in the sweet impulse with which they clung together" (241). Malaeska tells her son: "I know that I am an Indian, but your father loved me" (246). In discussing his racial prejudice with his fiancee, Sarah, young Danforth says, "I acknowledge the prejudice too violent for adequate foundation" (222), and Sarah replies, "You would not have me neglect one of the kindest, best friends I ever had on earth, because the tint of her skin is a shade darker than my own?" (223). Of course, the whole book depicts the tragic and unnecessary suffering endured by Malaeska and, at the end, by Danforth and Sarah as a result of racial prejudice. Beyond that, the story explores the phenomenon of racial "passing" from an interesting perspective, for young Danforth does not know until the very end that he is "half Indian," and students may search usefully for points in Stephens's descriptions that would hint at his supposedly racial doubleness.
Then there is the intriguing question of whether the author attributes Malaeska's character, skills, and beliefs to her race, to her culture, to her gender, or to individual distinction. How, for example, would students assess the mix of condescension and admiration in the following description of Malaeska's love for Danforth: "her untutored heart, rich in its natural affections, had no aim, no object, but what centered in the love she bore her white husband. The feelings which in civilized life are scattered over a thousand objects, were, in her bosom, centered in one single being; he supplied the place of all the high aspirations - of all the passions and sentiments which are fostered into strength by society" (31- 32)? It seems to me that Stephens here critiques civilized society for inducing a fragmentation and distraction in affections. Malaeska's purity of heart in willing one thing is not racial in our sense but rather a product of her life close to the natural scene.
Race, in the hands of Stephens, includes not merely our more recently-developed, and questionable, notions of biological difference, but also what we would think of as cultural affiliation. Here we see Stephens' determination to privilege in Malaeska a kind of combined religious and aesthetic appreciation, "a wild poetic faith" (56) that, to Stephens, is a matter of "race" in a more inclusive, cultural sense. Thus, when Malaeska looks on her dying husband and imagines meeting him in the final hunting-ground, Stephens comments: "the wild religion of her race gushed up from her heart, a stream of living poetry," poetry rendered by Stephens as follows:
The hunting-ground of the Indian is yonder, among the purple clouds of the evening. The stars are very thick there, and the red light is heaped together like mountains in the heart of a forest. The sugar-maple gives its waters all the year round, and the breath of the deer is sweet, for it feeds on the gold spire-bush and the ripe berries. A lake of bright waters is there. The Indian's canoe flies over it like a bird high up in the morning. The West has rolled back its clouds, and a great chief has passed through. He will hold back the clouds that his white son may go up to the face of the Great Spirit. Malaeska and her boy will follow. The blood of the red man is high in her heart, and the way is open. The lake is deep, and the arrow sharp; death will come when Malaeska calls him. Love will make her voice sweet in the land of the Great Spirit; the white man will hear it, and call her to his bosom again! (55)
I quote at length in hopes of stimulating your interest in this strangely formulaic yet affecting novel, one that many teenagers would find worth reading and discussing not only for its conventional themes but also for such hints of natural religion as just invoked. Religion of Nature is a perhaps surprisingly common feature of great fiction for youth. Think of The Wind in the Willows , Huckleberry Finn , Sarah Orne Jewett's neglected youth novel, Betty Leicester , and Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables , not to mention youthfavored novels such as Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage . Stephens devotes several paragraphs to the power of natural beauty to affect Malaeska. She says, for instance, "There was something in the sublime and lofty handiwork of God which fell soothingly on the sad heart of the Indian" (67), and Stephens, echoing the nature worship of romantic poets such as Wordsworth, insists that Sarah's "mind had become vigorous by a constant intercourse with the beautiful things of nature" (158) that were shown to her by Malaeska, thus teaching a "pure and simple religion which lifts the soul" (159). Here, I think, is a dimension of fiction for young adults not often addressed but attracting interest among today's youth. Our culture still privileges Nature in many ways, and it can be instructive to help students consider origins and varieties of this privileging by comparing works such as Malaeska to romantic poems, other youth novels, and materials from environmentalists today.
Issues Concerning Family and Peer Group
Another cluster of issues in Malaeska , a cluster central to many young adult novels, concerns family feelings and adolescent development towards independence. While Maleska's husband says he's ashamed of fathering a son of mixed races, he nonetheless pleads with his dying breath for Malaeska to take the boy to his grandparents. Blood or familial love here overrules social scorn. But then questions may be raised as to whether the boy would have fared better being brought up as a Mohawk and why Malaeska acceded to the dying Danforth's request. This points in turn toward gender inequalities depicted throughout the book and often implicitly critiqued. Not only are Malaeska and the elder Mrs. Danforth oppressed by their husbands' imperious certainties, but also Sarah Jones's mother, in her courtship with Arthur Jones, mingles adulation for him with resentments at his fault-finding jealousy and his tendency to lecture her. This resentment of male domination could be compared to the same phenomenon depicted in more recent young adult novels.
Another developmental issue raised in many novels for young adults stems from the circumstance that many youth protagonists are either orphaned or semi-orphaned. I think one reason is that adolescence often feels like losing one's family as one moves from a primary identification with family to identification with an outside peer group. In Malaeska , young Danforth is semi-orphaned as he goes to live with his grandparents, does not know his mother is in the house, and soon goes off to France to finish his education. Sarah, too, receives crucial instruction not from her mother at home but from Malaeska in the woods and leaves home for boarding school. How will young readers assess such semi-orphanage?
Young adult literature is filled, too, with portrayals of youths who identify themselves as social outsiders. Adolescents often see themselves as different from all others. In Malaeska , Ann Stephens cleverly creates a situation in which young Danforth is an unknowing outsider, yet he and Sarah share a secret affinity in being so deeply influenced, in blood or training, by the same Mohawk woman. One could argue that, instead of affinity between William and Sarah, there is actually a kind of cross-over in which part Mohawk William has been socialized so as to abhor his Indian self, whereas white Sarah has been socialized so as to love Malaeska and accept Malaeska's "ascendancy over her feelings" (158). I believe that many teen-agers, upon reading the novel, would become intrigued with its challenging depictions of nature/ nurture debates still vital today.
Other interesting issues could be pursued in teaching Malaeska : issues such as how to place the story in traditions of American romance that include Cooper's Leatherstocking tales and their Mohawk hero, or how to assess the attempted tragic exaltation by Stephens of Malaeska's (and later Sarah's) sacrificial love. Is there really a beauty in such love? Would such a beauty help explain why tragic romance can be a pleasure to read, why literary sadness may be gratifying? Then there are the issues of how to assess Malaeska as a dime novel, resembling much young adult literature in being a series book and neither clearly high-brow nor low-brow in its appeals.
I offer two final suggestions: (1) Malaeska is a good companion to teach beside one or more recent young adult novels on related themes (Please see Figure Two for lists of complementary texts); (2) Malaeska offers fine passages for reading aloud or, better, for class dramatization. Few classroom activities can do more to bring a book alive than performance can, especially memorized and rehearsed performance. Students then achieve a physical and emotional memory of the book that can enhance their confidence in understanding and evaluating it.
In summary, Malaeska reveals the deep roots of young adult literature. It can help strengthen claims of young adult literature to serious consideration as literature, and it can help teachers of young adult literature show students that "their" problems have been shared by their forebears in youth, that there is an older foreknowledge of their current knowledge. To help our students discover that foreknowledge and knowledge, let us teach not only contemporary young adult novels but also strong forerunners such as Malaeska .
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Charles H. Frey teaches literature for youth and literature of the early modern period in the Department of English, University of Washington. He is co-author of The Literary Heritage of Childhood (Greenwood, 1987) and Classics of Children's Literature (5th edition, Prentice Hall, 2000).
When I asked Charles Frey about the availability of Malaeska, which was originally published in 1860, he explained that it is still listed among Books in Print and is found in hundreds of libraries, and that it is also available on-line as part of the Dime Novel Digitization Project at Northern Illinois University. Following is the Web address for access to the Dime Novel Digitization Project: http://libws66.lib.niu.edu/badndp/dn01.html .
The novel will also appear as part of an anthology, Classics of Young Adult Literature, that Charles H. Frey and Lucy Rollin are preparing for publication by Prentice Hall.
Reference Citation: Frey, Charles H. (2001) "For(e)knowledge of Youth: Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter". The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 3, p. 19.