At Home in Paradise

The Abstract Wild

by Jack Turner
University of Arizona Press, 136 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Daniel Boone was a man,

Yes, a big man!

And he fought for America

To make all Americans free!

What a Boone, what a do-er

What a dream come-er true-er was he!

This irksomely catchy faux folk song, together with Fess Parker’s earnest portrayal of the frontier hero for Disney, cemented an image of Daniel Boone in the minds of two or three generations of Americans. The TV show first appeared in the early Sixties, when its American audience was innocent in the scariest sense of that word. Disneyfied Daniel Boone represented the unpretentious, forthright, steadfast, and homespun style with which we were going to civilize the entire world.

Forget the coonskin cap,” Robert Morgan’s biography begins; “he never wore one.” Though this headgear was imposed upon him by image-fabricators well before Disney, Boone considered it “uncouth, heavy, and uncomfortable.” He preferred a beaver felt hat—just as appropriate for his impressive career as a hunter and trapper, and far more practical. Morgan’s Boone is not a debunking biography, though. While remaining an admirer, Morgan sees his subject as “more complicated…, stranger, and far more interesting” than the tales most commonly told of him.

Never so physically large as the folklore would have it, the real Boone is in some ways even bigger than his legend. Beginning in Quaker Pennsylvania (where he was born forty-two years before the Declaration of Independence), he reached Yellowstone before the end of his days. Though at different times of his life he had claims on hundreds of thousands of acres of Kentucky and Missouri, he died, in the ruefully caustic words of his nephew Daniel Bryan, “not owning as Much land as would make his grave.”

Morgan understands very well that Boone cannot be extricated whole from his mythology as an expert and archetypal frontiersman. The problem is complicated by the fact that Boone was a very large celebrity during his lifetime (rating among other things a substantial passage in Lord Byron’s Don Juan). That situation caused him some serious problems over the years, but more often than not Boone cooperated, rather enthusiastically, in promoting his own larger-than-life image. By carefully drawing on many different accounts, Morgan works toward as clearly focused a picture of the real man as possible, while at the same time (and quite openly) reworking the legend better to suit his own tastes, and maybe ours. Emerson declared, “All history resolves itself very early into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” Morgan’s Boone can be read as an illustration of this principle.

George Boone III, Daniel’s grandfather, brought his family from England to Philadelphia in 1717. The Boones had become Quakers fifteen years before. Daniel’s father, Squire Boone, was quite likely a Freemason as well—so Morgan argues on the basis of a Masonic symbol carved on his tombstone, probably by Daniel himself. Expert as Huckleberry Finn at avoiding school, the boy Daniel must nevertheless have logged a fair amount …

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Letters

Correction February 14, 2008