In Boozo Veritas #9 by Teege Braune
John Chapman: Ascetic Prophet of American Romanticism
Last week I celebrated the birthday of John Chapman, who history remembers as Johnny Appleseed, by going to Redlight Redlight’s Johnny Appleseed Day! A Celebration of Cider! Among the nearly twenty varieties of cider Redlight Redlight had available on draft and in bottle, there was not a single whole, fresh apple present, but this might have been okay with Appleseed because he didn’t really harold in the American apple growing tradition we associate with him. In fact, the process of growing edible, tasty apples is a complex process of grafting and splicing, all farming methods despised by Chapman who thought of them as mistreating God’s gift to humanity. Thus his apples were not often used for eating; primarily they were used for the purpose of fermenting cider.
This is a detail conveniently passed over by Disney’s delightful 1948 cartoon depicting Appleseed’s life. Like many children born in the second half of the twentieth century my earliest awareness of much of folklore, myth, and legend comes straight from Disney, who I will credit with inciting my curiosity about these subjects, but like any work of animation intended for children, Disney’s classics often manipulate the stories they revere for the purpose of “protecting” youth (except for The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, which is surprisingly accurate). Nevertheless, The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, as in most of their work, contains grains of the source material despite the silly songs and attempts at childish humor. For example, Disney’s short film makes a particular point of demonstrating Appleseed’s fondness for animals, while the historical Chapman was, in fact, a vegetarian and animal right’s activists at a time before a single law regarding animal welfare had been passed in the United States.
John Chapman, eccentric wanderer that he was, had already been dubbed Appleseed and become a living legend in his own time, and like all legends the details lie somewhere between historical facts and exaggerated rumors. Without a doubt he was more than some hobo who strew seeds wherever he went and wore a pot on his head, though as far as anyone can tell, he did actually wear a pot on his head. Furthermore, his primary shirt was a coffee sack, in which he cut holes for his neck and arms, and he usually went without shoes even in the coldest days of winter, a story I particularly like because not only does Appleseed look like my father in this artist’s rendition, my own eccentric dad will often jog barefoot in the middle of December.
Few elementary school lessons on Chapman mention that he was a devout member of The New Church and scholar of the works of its founder Emmanuel Swedenborg. It is from Swedenborg’s writings that Chapman most likely developed his strict adherence to a life of minimalism, asceticism, and universal compassion. Unlike the hermit depicted in Disney’s brief biopic, Chapman was also a humanist and charismatic storyteller who was friendly with American Indian communities even in times of war and a welcomed if unexpected fixture amongst the pioneer communities through which he roamed. At the same time Swedenborg’s writings were influencing William Blake’s fascinating but impenetrable Zoaic mythology in England, across the pond in America an Apple farmer was preaching Swedenborg’s utterly complex system of angelic hierarchies to pioneer families more rapt by Chapman’s intense way of speaking than the confusing theological ideas he was describing.
In 1871, twenty-six years after Chapman’s death, he was once and for all immortalized by an article called “Johnny Appleseed: A Pioneer Hero” written by W. D. Haley and published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. In this article Haley uses the figure of Appleseed to mourn the disappearing American frontier. Mixed within the tales of Chapman’s antics, Haley complains that, “railroads have destroyed the romance of frontier life.” Only a quarter century after he died, Haley sees Johnny Appleseed through the lens of nostalgia and paints him as a folk hero that could only come from another time now long past. American romanticism grew out of the sheering of our hairy and wild national origins, easy enough to romanticize, but most likely hellish to live through. While Haley’s article was making Johnny Appleseed a household name, another American romantic was redefining literature and creating a style unique to our then burgeoning literary culture, and though Walt Whitman never mentions John Chapman by name, reading the former’s praises of American individualism and spirit, one cannot help but bring the latter to mind. In the same way, the transcendentalists’ praise of nature and wandering aimlessly therein found an antecedent in Johnny Appleseed. Even Kerouac’s hitchhiking and enduring romanticism of a restless bohemian lifestyle is, if not uniquely American, certainly fortified by the sprawling vastness of our gigantic nation. As these men wrote and traveled, they lamented a past that seemed remote and lost to them, that of an uncharted American landscape. While the pioneers attempted to tame this wild, Chapman felt perfectly at home in it, and it’s his freedom, a freedom from anxiety, nostalgia, and social demands, that has ensured his sainthood in an America plodding ever forward toward technological achievement while it gazes longingly backwards towards a pastoral simplicity.
You can read more about Redlight Redlight’s Celebration of Cider at Orlandobeerguide.com.
Teege Braune is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.