Traits of an Indian Character
This section is somewhat different from the rest of the Sketchbook, departing from tales of Europe and the American settlers to tell stories of American Indians from the early days of the settlers. These two sketches primarily work to present a less biased history of the American Indians and their interactions with the settlers, with Crayon explicitly arguing against many of the commonly held prejudices. He is not quite free from prejudice himself, however, presenting a romanticized version of American Indians as proud warriors who flourish in the wilderness but cannot function in society.
This point underscores Crayon’s love of the romantic and his tendency to tell his stories with that bent. His characters’ loves are so deep, or their values so strong, that they die when deprived of what they value. The chief values loyalty more than his own life, unlike the traitors. The point is first of all to provide pleasure, not to educate through a true history. In this case, however, the truer history, the less antagonistic one, permits him to tell a story about a hero, creating an Indian protagonist who is worthy of admiration in maintaining his values against all odds. To the degree that this determination is an American theme, Philip takes his place as a hero in American history.
Crayon’s romanticizing of the American Indian also partially explains the perspective he takes in telling their stories. When he pictures them as living at peace in the wilderness, he is idealizing their past as a long, successful tradition of harmony. Thus, the loss of that harmony looks not unlike the loss of old European customs and ways of life, for him a tragedy on either continent.
It is interesting that Crayon undertakes to correct the historical record, given his preference for the small, private stories over the general histories of nations and their leading political figures. Crayon seems to realize, however, that the biased histories of the Indians close off Americans from appreciating the tales of the Indians. Just as Crayon notes that the British travelers badmouth the Americans when they write about their travels, he notes that American writers badmouth the Indians. Crayon’s only source for the story of Philip of Pokanoket is an extremely biased history, and from this account he takes the facts but finds a more honest, positive perspective on those facts.
This section also shows that Crayon’s general dichotomy between youthful America and ancient, storied Europe is complicated by the presence of a third group of cultures, those of the indigenous peoples of America. America does have many long histories, but these are not the histories of the settlers. In “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving’s narrator merges the two histories, suggesting that the settlers’ tales of Henry Hudson’s ghost are a natural extension of older Indian tales about spirits in the mountains.