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November 19, 2012

Michael Berthold

My current research focuses on nineteenth-century literary representations of Johnny Appleseed, the iconic alter-ego of real-life nurseryman John Chapman. The cultural exaltation of Johnny Appleseed stands as a sustained exercise in American hagiography that since the nineteenth-century has transfigured Chapman the man (in the words of various commentators) into a “patron saint of the American orchards” and “one of America’ half-dozen favorite folk heroes.” But the legend has been mainly inscribed in children’s literature and sweetened and attenuated in the process. 

My intention is to recover the irreducible strangeness of Johnny Appleseed and argue for the adult importance of the figure by examining his earliest appearances in American literature. In an essay I published earlier this year in The Journal of American Culture I examined Appleseed’s literary debut in James M’Gaw’s little-known 1858 novel Philip Seymour. I am currently working on an article about Denton J. Snider’s extensive revision of the narrative. Snider, one of the St. Louis Hegelians, recasts Appleseed as both a neo-Hegelian World Spirit and orphic poet—a “new-World fate-compeller” in Snyder’s words. I think Snider’s Appleseed might be the most ambitious (and possibly bizarre) rendering of the figure that American literature has witnessed.

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