The Ernest Thompson Seton novel “The Preacher of Cedar Mountain” seems unusual at first reading, but, as it turns out, more for its format than its content. Published in 1917 while Seton still had a contract with Doubleday, it was an attempt at publishing a conventional novel with a human protagonist who overcomes his adversaries by wit and by physical strength (also characteristic of his animal heroes). The preacher, Jim Hartigan, is, like Seton, almost more pagan than Christian, choosing to baptize his infant son at a Native American nature shrine rather than in a church.
This format was not, in my view, an especially strong one for Seton. He seemed more comfortable – and was certainly more successful from a literary standpoint – in writing long stories about wildlife, e.g. Monarch, The Big Bear and Krag, the Kootenay Ram. There is here not so much narrative arc as vignettes from Jim’s lifetime, although the courtship of Belle does take center stage.
Not About Plot
Therefore, the story is not really plot driven. And, it is only sort-of character driven: Jim is more an amalgamation of the white-hatted hero typical of 19th and early 20th century Western novels, Seton’s version of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. But if not plot driven and not compellingly character driven either, then what are we to make of it?
My notes on the book reminded me that it is theme-driven, that is, ideas and positions taken in Seton’s other published fiction and non-fiction works are gathered here in one grand conglomeration in the novel form. There is not much in the way of coherence, but instead is a collection of attitudes arising from the turn of the century Progressive Era of which he was such an important part – outdoor youth education and Scouting.
I was not looking for these when I first read the book and no doubt there are more to be discovered, but I can present a few examples here. First, and most evident, is Seton’s stated admiration for the values and mores of traditional Native American and First Nations peoples. Their honesty, perseverance, and dedication to the common welfare greatly appealed to Seton. He made clear his preference for Indian culture over the one he was born into – from The Book of Woodcraft to The Gospel of the Red Man. As examples of Native superiority in the novel, Indians outwit inept whites in two different horse races. Indian society represented for Seton an ideal socialism, eschewing greed in favor of resource sharing, cheerfully giving service to the community, putting others above oneself, etc.
The Relation of Man to Society
There is also a socialist basis in Christianity for the proper relationship of man to society. One character (while disparaging Saint Paul!), says,
“…if you take the trouble to read a publication called the Bible, and in particular the early numbers of the second volume, you’ll find that the Big Teacher taught socialism – and the real disciples did too…If this yere [sic?] government of ours was what it pretends to be and ain’t, it would arrange so every man could get enough work at least to feed him and his folks and save himself from starvation when he was sick and old…That’s my opinion; and I tell you it was that way the Big Teacher preached it in the beginning…”(247)
Feminism gets a part here as well. When Jim is asked his opinion about “Woman Suffrage,” he is not sure what to think,
“It was indeed a poser for Jim; a shock to a deep-set prejudice. Notwithstanding the fact that his mother had been a woman of power, the unquestioned and able head in a community of men, he had unconsciously clung to the old idea of woman’s mental inferiority.” (122)
The Strength of Women
Women in the harsh lands of the West had developed exceptional strength,
“There were women who boldly proclaimed that sex and mind had little bearing on each other; that women should train herself to be herself, and to stand on her own feet; that when woman had the business training of men, the widow and the unmarried woman – half of all women – would no longer be the easy prey of every kind of sharper. These new teachers were, of course, made social martyrs, but they sowed the seed and the crop was coming on. That every woman should prepare herself to stand alone in the world was the first article in their creed.” (85)
And also, for men and women, the West as Seton saw it was a place for optimism. No doubt this entered into his decision to make the move west himself.
“One must remember that the West has always been the land of boom. It is filled with the energetic and enterprising who, by a natural process, are selected from the peoples of the East; and the stuff such booms feed on, grow on, and grow mighty on as they feed, is Hope. Every Westerner knows that the land is full of possibility, opportunity – free, equal opportunity multiplied; and he hopes that his name will be the next one called by fortune. To respond to the call at whatever cost – to be ready to respond – that is the condition that is worth while. A dozen bad defeats are passing trifles if the glad call only comes and one fail not to rise to it. So it is ever easy in a land of such undaunted souls to start a boom. Hope never dies in the West.” (254)
It goes on like this with statements against animal cruelty and for religious tolerance – although not for racial tolerance. (There is of course no way to know, but I suspect that if Seton had lived long enough to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s arguments for economic justice for all persons, his attitudes about race might have shifted.)
Jim, like Seton’s “Gorm, Giant of the Club,” is a hulking man/boy, an innocent who gradually learns that a morally driven life – and a good wife – make it all worthwhile. While Jim preaches the Gospel, Seton seems not to have been a practicing Christian for all that he admired the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. He occasionally refers to Jesus in his writings, although never by name.
The big difference I see in The Preacher of Cedar Mountain, differentiating it from the two earlier non-animal story titles, Two Little Savages and Rolf in the Woods, is that the earlier books were skills-oriented, while this one is message driven. It is basically “liberal” in a political sense, and by chance or not, came into being not long after political “conservatives” won the battle for control over the Boy Scouts of America, forcing Seton out.