Thursday, October 22, 2009

Francis Parkman is boring

I'm talking about The Oregon Trail (serialized 1846-8).  I've read the book twice now and find it exciting, even thrilling in places.  But I recently came across a book blogger - no idea who, unfortunately, and Google is no help - whose verdict was "boring," and I understand what she meant.

Because nothing really happens in Parkman's book, except for all of the things that are constantly happening.  If you know what I mean.

Parkman and his college chum Quincy Adams Shaw (now is that a Boston name or what?) spend their 1846 summer vacation out West.  They hire a guide in St. Louis, and take the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie, where they split up so Parkman can live with a band of Dakota Sioux.  When they join up again, they head south along the edge of the Colorado Rockies to Bent's Fort, then go home along the Santa Fe Trail.

They hunt, a lot, to eat and for sport.  I think Shaw was really there to hunt.  They never fight it out with Indians, or with bandits, or with grizzly bears.  They never dangle from the edge of a cliff, or discover anything new, or climb an unclimbed peak.  Parkman does not paint portraits of his Sioux hosts, or witness their secret mutilation ceremonies.  Both men nearly die, but from disease, which is not so dramatic.   A war among the Indians threatens, but fizzles.

For me, this book fires the imagination.  Parkman actually chances onto the most eventful year in Western American history.  The migrations to Oregon and Utah are at their heights - Parkman's party travels in the middle of it.  In the Rockies, they encounter the dying remnants of the fur trade and the last of the mountain men.  On their way home on the Santa Fe Trail, they encounter detachments of the U.S. Army, on the way to the war with Mexico.  And Parkman's chapters about the Sioux are almost unrivaled.  He's describing daily life, though, not anything extraordinary - even the great buffalo hunt chapter is just part of daily life.

It's strange.  I read the book and it seems so eventful.  But nothing happens.


  1. Sounds like a lot happens to me, maybe it isn't dramatic, but real life seldom is. Just because nothing happens to Parkman doesn't mean nothing happens and I think you make the point very well.

  2. That's the difference between an account of the daily life and the fictionalized accounts found in novels and films.

    It's the difference between expanding one's horizons and getting the adrenaline pumping.

    Calling a work "boring" usually tells me more about the individaul than it tells me about the work.

  3. Maybe he should have included a vampire or something.

    It's interesting to compare Parkman to someone like Samuel Chamberlain. In My Confession he singlehandedly saves the day in almost every situation.

  4. A valuable reading companion while reading Parkman's book is John D. Unruh's on life on the Oregon Trail. Although it is by a modern college professor it has the feel of someone who was there. It can give a valuable second eye on the period and place. The title may be Across the Plains, or maybe Life on the Oregon Trail. It's hell to get old!

  5. John Unruh, The Plains Across (1979), yes, a great book. Still the place to start for the study of the Oregon and California migration. Sad story: the book is Unruh's dissertation. He died of a brain tumor before it was published.

    Fred, I do not want to give up the category of "boring book"! It's much too useful. Boring books are more common than not, I'm afraid. Strange that I somehow almost exclusively read non-boring books.

    This leads to Stefanie's comment - real life is like that, yes, but then why read a book about it unless something extraordinary happens? I mean, we know the answer to that, right, but I see the point.

    Chrees, how is the Samuel Chamberlain book? I kind of know what's in it, but is it good-as-literature, or just good-as-history?

  6. The Chamberlain book is like sitting down at the bar with a known b-s' don't believe most of what he says, but he's still entertaining.

    Even as skewed history, it's an interesting look at someone who rode with the Glanton gang. If interested, drop me an email and I can arrange to get it to you.

  7. Plant foods - almost none. I'm not sure he was good with plants. There's this, though, about a man who got separated from his Oregon-bound party and wandered around for 33 days:

    "All this time he had subsisted on crickets and lizards, wild onions, and three eggs which he found in the nest of a prairie dove" (Ch 11).

  8. OK, if you really want to keep the category of "boring," feel free to do so. [g]

  9. Chrees, thanks for the offer - my library has a copy & I'm going to take a look.

  10. I've always meant to read this book--now I'm curious as to whether I will like it or not.

    I can only imagine what an agent/publisher would suggest today to make it more of a story! :)

  11. Jane, I do think The Oregon Trail is a great book. I'd rank it a notch below Two Years Before the Mast and the first volume of George Catlin and the Lewis and Clark journal. By rank, I mean as a literary work.

    There's another reason to read it, though: as an entry into France and England in North America, Parkman's epic of the American forest. That's one way I'm using it this time.

    Completely agree about the imaginary editor. Parkman was writing at a time when simply going somewhere (and then bothering to write about it) was interesting enough.

  12. I'm reading Parkman's Seinfeld episode now, and I think it's fantastic. If this is "about nothing" or "boring," please give me another serving of that. Btw, did you ever read any of Parkman's histories? I think I'm becoming interested in reading more by the guy on a grand scale. Also, glad to hear that you rate Two Years Before the Mast so highly. My dad sent me a copy a couple of years ago, but maybe he meant me to read it in 2012 instead of the year that he sent it.

  13. I've read a healthy chunk of Parkman's histories now - The Conspiracy of Pontiac and four of the seven France and England in North America books. So far, so good. The crazy adventure stories of The Jesuits in North America and La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West are great places to dive in - not remotely boring.