This portrait of Johnny Appleseed restores the flesh-and-blood man beneath the many myths. It captures the boldness of an iconic American life and the sadness of his last years, as the frontier marched past him, ever westward. And it shows how death liberated the legend and made of Johnny a barometer of the nation’s feelings about its own heroic past and the supposed Eden it once had been. It is a book that does for America’s inner frontier what Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage did for its western one.
No American folk hero—not Davy Crockett, not even Daniel Boone—is better known than Johnny Appleseed, and none has become more trapped in his own legends. The fact is, John Chapman—the historical Johnny Appleseed—might well be the best-known figure from our national past about whom most people know almost nothing real at all.
One early historian called Chapman “the oddest character in all our history,” and not without cause. Chapman was an animal whisperer, a vegetarian in a raw country where it was far easier to kill game than grow a crop, a pacifist in a place ruled by gun, knife, and fist. Some settlers considered Chapman a New World saint. Others thought he had been kicked in the head by a horse. And yet he was welcomed almost everywhere, and stories about him floated from cabin to cabin, village to village, just as he did.
As eccentric as he was, John Chapman was also very much a man of his times: a land speculator and pioneer nurseryman with an uncanny sense for where settlement was moving next, and an evangelist for the Church of the New Jerusalem on a frontier alive with religious fervor. His story is equally America’s story at the birth of the nation.
In this tale of the wilderness and its taming, author Howard Means explores how our national past gets mythologized and hired out. Mostly, though, this is the story of two men, one real and one invented; of the times they lived through, the ties that link them, and the gulf that separates them; of the uses to which both have been put; and of what that tells us about ourselves, then and now.
Former Washingtonian editor Means (Colin Powell: A Biography) employs extensive research to dig out facts buried in the mythic past about Johnny Appleseed, "not only the best-known walker in American history but also one of its most notable loners." John Chapman was born in 1774, grew up on a Massachusetts farm, but left in the 1790s, sowing seeds and planting apple nurseries while spreading Swedenborgian spirituality. Means considers conflicting claims on Chapman's family tree, then traces his treks through Ohio orchards; looks at Appleseed pop culture; and considers the theory that Chapman's fame came from inferior seedlings and scrub apples used for hard cider that kept the frontier in an "alcoholic haze." Tracing the roots and routes of this American folk hero, Means concludes that Chapman "almost certainly was insane," yet this nature lover's life was a critique of industrialization: "The nature he loved and gave himself over to vibrated through his entire being." Due to scant records, much is speculative, but Means's considerable skills as a wordsmith and historian produce a bountiful harvest. 15 b&w illus.; 7 maps.