I was quite pleased to read Steven Stoll’s review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of American History. Stoll is the author of several pathbreaking works in the fields of environmental and agricultural history, including The Fruits of Natural Advantage, (U. California Press, 2003) which examines the emergence of the citrus industry in California, and Larding the Lean Earth (Hill & Wang, 2003) which examines the politics of agricultural reform in antebellum America. You can read the full review below:
Folk heroes are an inviting topic for a historian. Take away the falsehoods and exaggerations from the story of the person, and what remains is someone who came to public attention by some novel or eccentric response to the times. Folk heroes seldom represent progress in an economic or technological sense; instead they symbolize values on the decline. Think of John Henry, Billy the Kid, John Brown, and Joe Hill: folk heroes often stand for alternative visions and are celebrated not only because they struggled and lost but also because what they stood for lived on.
William Kerrigan locates John Chapman—better known as Johnny Appleseed—within historical events and reveals his life and times with admirable style and confidence, linking Chapman to Shays’s Rebellion, the improvement literature of the 1820s, and the career of the American apple. Kerrigan does more than run a microhistory of apples alongside a biography of Chapman. He links the two stories in historically important ways, deriving Appleseed’s mission from a self-provisioning culture under threat at the end of the eighteenth century. The alternative vision and the declining values symbolized by Appleseed turn out to be closely tied to Chapman’s childhood near Springfield, Massachusetts, and his father’s ordeal of debt and foreclosure.
Kerrigan implies that the young Chapman saw the vulnerability of the self-provisioning New England settlement culture and that his itinerant planting came, in part, as a response. The essence of Chapman’s conflict with farmers who wanted to sell apples, rather than eat them, is written into his name: Appleseed. As Kerrigan notes in one of the book’s most effective moments, commercial orchards used grafted branches and trunks to grow marketable apple varieties, while Chapman planted unpedigreed fruit for home use. This account makes Chapman the symbol of an eclipsed American economy. Seedling apples came under attack from temperance advocates during Chapman’s lifetime because that fruit had only one use: distilling. Appleseed emerges as something of a philosopher and something of a crank who resisted wealth and comfort for uncertain reasons and continued to give away apple tree seedlings until he died, gaunt and in rags, but who wrote nothing about why he did what he did.
The book details Chapman’s every known location, movement, and activity, down to items purchased and land owned. It ends with the mythmaking and the sanitized way Appleseed entered the folklore of the twentieth century, stripped of any social cause or alternative vision, as an able salesman for Shell Chemical Corporation in late-1950s advertisements.
The Red Delicious apple makes its appearance in the book and so do the arguments of other historians, some of whom have less sympathy for Chapman than Kerrigan does. Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard lacks argument or commentary, but it tells a richly historical story and ends up a great distance from where it begins. In the end, Kerrigan chooses to link Chapman to urban agrarians who plant fruit trees in abandoned lots for public gleaning, creating a perpetual and public source of food for the poor and dispossessed.