The Big Bear of Arkansas

The Big Bear of Arkansas

In the preface to his collection The Big Bear of Arkansas, William T. Porter says the collected works represent a “new vein of literature,”

In the preface to his collection The Big Bear of Arkansas, William T. Porter says the collected works represent a “new vein of literature,” “original,” “inexhaustible,” and devoted to delineating a “new generation” of Americans, every bit as unique and exciting as those old pioneers described by James Fenimore Cooper. Like the title of the newspaper in which many of the stories were originally published, these works spoke to the “spirit of the times.” According to Porter, his paper and the fictional works he collected courted “popular favour” by devoting themselves to “wit and humour,” to “fun and frolic,” and to the “flash and fashion of the day.” The storytellers of his work are described as “rugged Russian bears” who like to hunt, drink, and tell yarns. Oddly enough, Emerson similarly spoke of the “elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state”: “The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride,” he said, an “auspicious” sign. (Yet Emerson also spoke of the “sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude . . .”) Do you think The Big Bear of Arkansas is the kind of literature Emerson had in mind when he said “give me insight into to-day,” or when he spoke of a new writing that was “blood-warm,” a writing that discovered the “sublime” lurking in “every trifle”? Why or why not?
In Walter Channing’s essay, he talks about how the “Babel of the revolution . . . gave us a different moral and political existence” but not a literary one. He laments that the nation’s “confusion of tongues” didn’t give way to a unique literature; instead, the former colony, “made up of all sorts of materials, speaking not only the dialects of the original language, but the different languages of the three different nations from which it sprung,” chose one language (British English) to “preserve.” The citizens of the United States guarded that language from new ideas, and they looked to their “mother country” for their literary tone and an approval of their literary merits. To what extent does T. B. Thorpe’s “The Big Bear of Arkansas” realize the “original” literature that Channing pined for?
What is the function(s) of Thorpe’s story? Merely to entertain? To educate? To document the disparate regions of the nation? For whom? What kind of national identity does Thorpe articulate and thus envision in writing this story?

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