Title Reviewed:
American Frontier

Author Reviewed:
Elizabeth Peck

Bertha Thomas Lynch


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 485-487

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Frontier. By Elizabeth Peck. Doubleday, Doran and Company, Garden City, New York. Pp. ix, 195.

This little volume is made up of a series of poems relating to the pioneer life of a period extending from 1780 to 1875. As a teacher of history in the Academy of Berea College, Mrs. Peck conceived the idea of visiting the homes and schools of the students who had been in her classes. These visits, made on foot or on muleback, furnished the opportunity to learn many of the facts on which she has based her poems. While traveling in the southern mountains, many areas of which are truly retarded frontiers, she gathered up old wills, deeds, letters, journals, and newspapers. Though a reader and lover of poetry, the author first tried to tell her story in prose, but the attempt was abandoned. The subjects suggested by the accumulated material on pioneer life called for portrayal in verse, and the result is a book of poems.

Of the volume, Mrs. Peck says in her "Foreword": "It was not written for professors of history. Why trouble them with one more book? American Frontier is for anybody who enjoys rich, full-flavored life, even though he knows little about the history of American pioneeringquot;. Of the success of Mrs. Peck's effort to express her conception of the frontier in poetry, Stephen Benet says: "She's dug up some beautiful material and told it with a very effective readable directness."

Only a few of the selections in the volume can be noticed in, this brief review. In the first poem, "White Man", the Indian, Black Hoof, ponders deeply the coming of settlers to his forests. Comparing the new type of man with his own race, he concludes that—

The Spirit never meant him to live in our forest. If he possessed it, he could not live in it. He is too weak and full of fear, Too lazy and woman-bound. If he possessed it, he would straightway hack it down. The Spirit never meant him to live in our forests.

The poem "Walthena" reveals the longing of a pioneer woman for some touch of denied beauty in her home, a longing satisfied by giving her daughters symbolic names:

But I chose names for loveliness alone. Fair-Anna is a spoon of silver bright, Lizelle a silken gown, Morene a china bowl, And you, Walthena, are a candle white, A tall, smooth candle white, Walthena.

"Between the Walls of the Valley," presents humorous stories pertaining to mountain people and mountain ways, among others using the old tale regarding the planting of corn in a mountain-side field:

It's odd, stranger, I saw a farmer loading, His shotgun full of corn, As I went by. Could you tell my why? He shoots his corn in, row by row, Between the walls of the valley.

There is a camp-meeting poem and one dealing with the old wagoner of Indiana in 1850. Johnny Appleseed is not missed, nor the Arkansas Traveler. Texas, Old Man River, Mormons, gold-seekers and trappers all have their innings, in turn. The range is from Ohio to the Gulf and from the Gulf to the golden West. The dangers, the fears, the longings and the democracy of the people of the advancing frontier are the themes of the poems in American Frontier. The leveling effect that frontier conditions exercised on newcomers is well set forth in some lines that relate to a group of Michigan colonists of about 1835:

Back home they never would have met, Even at church. Out here they neighbor side by side, Knowing well, The sweetness of each other's bread, However raised.

But why write more? The poems must be read in order to appreciate the book.


Published by the Indiana University Department of History.