Johnny Appleseed and our National Origin Story


Like most Americans of a certain age, I first encountered Johnny “Appleseed”  Chapman in elementary school.  In the story as I remember it, Chapman was a pious Yankee committed to a life of simplicity and benevolence. He determined at an early age to devote his life to one purpose–bringing the blessings of apple trees to the new lands in the developing West. His trees brought sweetness to the hard lives of pioneer families and helped sustain them in their labors. Wandering across the West in bare feet and ragged cast-off clothing, sleeping outdoors, and planting apple seeds wherever he went, Johnny Appleseed took pleasure in denying himself the most basic human comforts in order to carry out his mission. He asked for little in exchange for his trees—some old clothing, a simple meal, or from the truly destitute, nothing at all.  He radiated a spirit of peacefulness and both Indian and white man trusted him completely. He loved all of God’s creatures and was loath to harm any of them. One story recounts that he doused a fire and slept in the cold when he discovered that mosquitoes were flying into the flames to their destruction.  In the elementary school myth, Johnny Appleseed’s energy for planting trees was super-human. Nearly all of the orchards in the new west were the result of his labors.  He was St. Frances of Assisi and Santa Claus wrapped into one bundle.

Mansfield, Ohio boys wear tin pots on their head to honor Johnny Appleseed in 1953.


The myth of Johnny Appleseed is a part of our national origin story, in which the United States expands into the trans-Appalachian West in the years after the American Revolution. Johnny Appleseed isn’t the only hero in this drama, and in fact he is a curious outlier.  Men like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Mike Fink present a jarring contrast to the gentle tree-planter. Violence–directed at Native Americans and nature–lay at the heart of their stories, while Appleseed is remembered for sowing, not destroying. The short explanation for this difference is that the Boone, Crockett and Fink myths first flourished in the age of Andrew Jackson, and reflect that era’s obsessions with masculine aggression. The myth of Johnny Appleseed, in contrast, was a product of the Victorian era, when sentimental feeling and feminine traits were more commonly celebrated.

Mansfield, Ohio boys dressed as Indians in front of the local Johnny Appleseed monument in 1953.

Appleseed, along with Boone, Crockett, and Fink, received updates during the Cold War as each was deployed to serve new concerns. Among the most powerful disseminators of these legends was the Walt Disney Company, which seized on the westward expansion story to target a new audience of baby boomer children. Disney sanitized the most gruesome aspects of the Crockett and Fink traditions, yet even after this cleansing, the contrast with Johnny Appleseed remained startling. Mike Fink, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone were archetypes of American manhood, and even in the Disney versions, violence was nearly always central to their stories. Disney also added the thoroughly mythical Paul Bunyan to this cast, and celebrated him for his prowess felling whole forests of trees. Johnny Appleseed, in sharp contrast, devoted his life to planting them.

Johnny sowing appleseeds in Disney’s 1948 film Melody Time.

Nevertheless, most American children of the Cold War era understood Johnny Appleseed to be a member of the same team of frontier superheroes.  Boone, Crockett, Fink, Bunyan, and Chapman were all actors in a drama about transforming a continent. Crockett and Boone cleared the land of menacing Indians and wildlife; Fink helped make the interior rivers safe for commerce; Bunyan cleared the forest; and Appleseed planted fruit trees to prepare the land for white American farm families. In Cold War versions of these stories, Boone and Crockett reluctantly used violence as a last resort. These heroes protected American families from a red menace on television shows like Walt Disney Presents and Daniel Boone at a time when American soldiers were doing the same in other parts of the world. In that context, Johnny Appleseed symbolized the other American response to the threat, winning hearts and minds with charity and benevolence. If Crockett’s war against the Red Stick Creeks explained American military involvement in Korea, Appleseed’s unbounded benevolence was a metaphor for another approach to the same danger, manifested in American aid programs and organizations like the Peace Corps.

The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

Vachel Lindsay, Johnny Appleseed Poet


A Kindred Spirit

Of the many artists and poets who have celebrated the life of John Chapman, Vachel Lindsay is perhaps my favorite. Lindsay at times appeared to aspire to be a twentieth-century version of Johnny Appleseed. He set off on several “tramping expeditions” across the nation with little money in his pocket, eager to meet ordinary Americans, and swap poems for food and shelter. Lindsay combined a deep patriotism with a concern for the poor and dispossessed. He voted the socialist ticket, embraced pacifism, and had utopian dreams for his nation. 

Traveling across the nation, he gave recitals of his poetry in a frantic, populist style he called “High Vaudeville,” and many of his poems were choreographed and danced. Although there are some surviving recordings of Vachel Lindsay performing his poetry, I am not aware of any recordings of his performance of “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed.” Lindsay cared deeply about how his poems were read, and sometimes offered his readers puzzling instructions on how to read them.  In the introduction to his Collected Works, Lindsay instructed: “All my verses marked to read aloud should be whispered, however contradictory that may seem.  All poetry is, first and last, for the inner ear, and its final pleasures are for the soul, whispering in solitude.”  I confess to taking this advice literally.  But when I read “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed,” the whisper that leaves my lips is a glorious shouting in my head.  One last note:  Vachel Lindsay included italicized instructions on how to hear this poem along the margins of the text.  I have included these odd little instructions in brackets and italics, as close to their location in the original printing as I could.   

Vachel Lindsay on a tramping expedition. He often swapped poems for food and a place to sleep..

In Praise of Johnny Appleseed

I.              Over the Appalachian Barricade

[To be read like old leaves on the elm tree of Time, Sifting soft winds with sentence and rhyme.]

 In the days of President Washington,

The glory of the nations,

Dust and ashes,

Snow and sleet,

And hay and oats and wheat,

Blew west,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Found the glades of rotting leaves, the soft deer-pastures,

The farms of the far-off future

In the forest.

Colts jumped the fence,

Snorting, ramping, snapping, sniffing,

With gastronomic calculations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

The east walls of our citadel,

And turned to gold-horned unicorns,

Feasting in the dim, volunteer farms of the forest.

Painting of Vachel Lindsay by artist Ted Keylon.

Stripedest, kickingest kittens escaped,

Caterwauling “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Renounced their poor relations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to tiny tigers

In the humorous forest.

Chickens escaped

From farmyard congregations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to amber trumpets

On the ramparts of our Hoosiers’ nest and citadel,

Millennial heralds

Of the foggy mazy forest.

Pigs broke loose, scrambled west,

Scorned their loathsome stations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Turned to roaming, foaming wild boars

Of the forest.

The smallest, blindest puppies toddled west

Lindsay gesturing dramatically during a reading.

While their eyes were coming open,

And, with misty observations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

Barked, barked, barked

At the glow-worms and the marsh lights and the lightning-bugs,

And turned to ravening wolves

Of the forest.

Crazy parrots and canaries flew west,

Drunk on May-time revelations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to delirious, flower-dressed fairies

Of the lazy forest.

Haughtiest swans and peacocks swept west,

And, despite soft derivations,

Crossed the Appalachians,

And turned to blazing warrior souls

Of the forest,

Singing the ways

Of the Ancient of Days.

And the “Old Continentals

In their ragged regimentals,”

With bard’s imaginations,

Crossed the Appalachians.

And

A boy

Blew west,

And with prayers and incantations,

And with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,”

Vachel Lindsay

Crossed the Appalachians,

And was “young John Chapman,”

Then

“Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,”

Chief of the fastnesses, dappled and vast,

In a pack on his back,

In a deer-hide sack,

The beautiful orchards of the past,

The ghosts of all the forests and the groves—

In that pack on his back,

In that talisman sack,

To-morrow’s peaches, pears, and cherries,

To-morrow’s grapes and red raspberries,

Seeds and tree-souls, precious things,

Feathered with microscopic wings,

All the outdoors the child heart knows,

And the apple, green, red, and white,

Sun of his day and his night—

The apple allied to the thorn,

Child of the rose.

Porches untrod of forest houses

All before him, all day long,

“Yankee Doodle” his marching song;

And the evening breeze

Joined his psalms of praise

As he sang the ways

Of the Ancient of Days.

Leaving behind august Virginia,

Proud Massachusetts, and proud Maine,

Planting the trees that would march and train

On, in his name to the great Pacific,

Like Birnam wood to Dunsinane,

Johnny Appleseed swept on,

Every shackle gone,

Loving every sloshy brake,

Loving every skunk and snake,

Loving every leathery weed,

Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,

Master and ruler of the unicorn-ramping forest,

The tiger-mewing forest,

The rooster-trumpeting, boar-foaming, wolf-ravening forest,

The spirit-haunted, fairy-enchanted forest,

Stupendous and endless,

Searching its perilous ways

In the name of the Ancient of Days.

II. The Indians Worship Him, but He Hurries On

Painted kings in the midst of the clearing

Heard him asking his friends the eagles

To guard each planted seed and seedling.

Then he was a god, to the red man’s dreaming;

Then the chiefs brought treasures grotesque and fair,—

Magical trinkets and pipes and guns,

Beads and furs from their medicine-lair,—

Stuck holy feathers in his hair.

Hailed him with austere delight.

The orchard god was their guest through the night.

While the late snow blew from bleak Lake Erie,

Scourging rock and river and reed,

All night long they made great medicine

For Jonathan Chapman,

Johnny Appleseed,

Johnny Appleseed;

And as though his heart were a wind-blown wheat-sheaf,

As though his heart were a new built nest,

As though their heaven house were his breast,

In swept the snowbirds singing glory.

And I hear his bird heart beat its story,

Hear yet how the ghost of the forest shivers,

Hear yet the cry of the gray, old orchards,Bound volume of "In Praise of Johnny Appleseed"

Dim and decaying by the rivers,

And the timid wings of the bird-ghosts beating,

And the ghosts of the tom-toms beating, beating.

 [While you read, hear the hoof-beats of deer in the snow. And see, by their track, bleeding footprints we know.]

 But he left their wigwams and their love.

By the hour of dawn he was proud and stark,

Kissed the Indian babes with a sigh,

Went forth to live on roots and bark,

Sleep in the trees, while the years howled by.

Calling the catamounts by name,

And buffalo bulls no hand could tame.

Slaying never a living creature,

Joining the birds in every game,

With the gorgeous turkey gobblers mocking,

With the lean-necked eagles boxing and shouting;

Sticking their feathers in his hair,—

Turkey feathers,

Eagle feathers,

Trading hearts with all beasts and weathers

He swept on, winged and wonder-crested,

Bare-armed, barefooted, and bare-breasted.

 [While you read, see conventions of deer go by. The bucks toss their horns, the fuzzy fawns fly.]

 The maples, shedding their spinning seeds,

Called to his appleseeds in the ground,

Vast chestnut-trees, with their butterfly nations,

Called to his seeds without a sound.

And the chipmunk turned a “summerset.”

And the foxes danced the Virginia reel;

Hawthorne and crab-thorn bent, rain-wet,

And dropped their flowers in his night-black hair;

And the soft fawns stopped for his perorations;

And his black eyes shone through the forest-gleam,

And he plunged young hands into new-turned earth,

And prayed dear orchard boughs into birth;

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream,

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream,

And he ran with the rabbit and slept with the stream.

And so for us he made great medicine,

And so for us he made great medicine,

And so for us he made great medicine,

In the days of President Washington.

  1. III.        Johnny Appleseed’s Old Age

[To be read like faint hoof-beats of fawns long gone From respectable pasture, and park and lawn, And heartbeats of fawns that are coming again When the forest, once more, is the master of men.]

 

Long, long after,

When settlers put up beam and rafter,

They asked of the birds: “Who gave this fruit?

Who watched this fence till the seeds took root?

Who gave these boughs?” They asked the sky,

And there was no reply.

But the robin might have said,

“To the farthest West he has followed the sun,

His life and his empire just begun.”

Self-scourged, like a monk, with a throne for wages,

Stripped, like the iron-souled Hindu sages,

Draped like a statue, in strings like a scarecrow,

His helmet-hat an old tin pan,

But worn in the love of the heart of man,

More sane than the helm of Tamerlane!

Hairy Ainu, wild man of Borneo, Robinson Crusoe—Johnny Appleseed!

And the robin might have said,

“Sowing, he goes to the far, new West,

With the apple, the sun of his burning breast—

The apple allied to the thorn,

Child of the rose.”

Washington buried in Virginia,

Jackson buried in Tennessee,

Young Lincoln, brooding in Illinois,

And Johnny Appleseed, priestly and free,

Knotted and gnarled, past seventy years,

Still planted on in the woods alone.

Ohio and young Indiana—

These were his wide altar-stone,

Where still he burnt out flesh and bone.

Twenty days ahead of the Indian, twenty years ahead of the white man,

At last the Indian overtook him, at last the Indian hurried past him;

At last the white man overtook him, at last the white man hurried past him;

At last his own trees overtook him, at last his own trees hurried past him.

Many cats were tame again,

Many ponies tame again,

Many pigs were tame again,

Many canaries tame again;

And the real frontier was his sunburnt breast.

From the fiery core of that apple, the earth,

Sprang apple-amaranths divine.

Love’s orchards climbed to the heavens of the West.

And snowed the earthly sod with flowers.

Farm hands from the terraces of the blest

Danced on the mists with their ladies fine;

And Johnny Appleseed laughed with his dreams,

And swam once more the ice-cold streams.

And the doves of the spirit swept through the hours,

With doom-calls, love-calls, death-calls, dream-calls;

And Johnny Appleseed, all that year,

Lifted his hands to the farm-filled sky,

To the apple-harvesters busy on high;

And so once more his youth began,

And so for us he made great medicine—

Johnny Appleseed, medicine-man.

Then

The sun was turned –up broken barrel,

Out of which their juicy apples rolled,

Down the repeated terraces,

Thumping across the gold,

An angel in each apple that touched the forest mold,

A ballot-box in each apple,

A state capital in each apple,

Great high schools, great colleges,

All America in each apple,

Each red, rich, round, and bouncing moon

That touched the forest mold.

Like scrolls and rolled-up flags of silk,

He saw the fruits unfold,

And all our expectations in one wild-flower written dream.

Confusion, and death-sweetness, and a thicket of crab-thorns!

Heart of a hundred midnights, heart of the merciful morns.

Heaven’s boughs bent down with their alchemy,

Perfumed airs, and thoughts of wonder.

And the dew on the grass and his own cold tears

Were one in brooding mystery,

Though death’s loud thunder came upon him,

Though death’s loud thunder struck him down—

The boughs and the proud thoughts swept through the thunder,

Till he saw our wide nation, each State a flower,

Each petal a park for holy feet,

With wild fawns merry on every street,

With wild fawns merry on every street,

The vista of ten thousand years, flower-lighted and complete.

Hear the lazy weeds murmuring, bays and rivers whispering,

From Michigan to Texas, California to Maine;

Listen to the eagles screaming, calling,

“Johnny Appleseed, Johnny Appleseed,”

There by the doors of old Fort Wayne.

In the four-poster bed Johnny Appleseed built,

Autumn rains were the curtains, autumn leaves were the quilt.

He laid him down sweetly, and slept through the night,

Like a stone washed white,

There by the doors of old Fort Wayne

The Invention of Johnny Appleseed essay is the lead piece in the Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review


To be released in late October

My essay about the emergence of the Johnny Appleseed myth is the lead essay in the Fall 2012 issue of the Antioch Review, out this month.  Excerpted from the final chapter of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, it examines the changing meanings and uses of the Johnny Appleseed story from the late 19th century up to the present.  My advance copy arrived this week. It should be on its way to subscribers, and available at fine bookstores, very soon.  For updates, check out the Antioch Review website.