Analysis (New Criticism/Beginning Theory)

Through the eyes of a New Critic, the meaning of ‘The Canoe Fight’ can easily be discerned. The story must be read without any outside information– for example, we must ignore what we already know about the location and era that the story was written in and takes place.

An early passage:

‘At Fort Madison, one of the smallest of the forts, there was a very daring frontiersman, named Samuel (or Sam) Dale—a man who had lived much with the Indians, and was like them in many respects, even in his dress and manners.’

By giving our protagonist a nickname upon introduction, a bond is immediately created. However, Sam is also ‘different’ which in turn leads us to believe that to be an Indian is unusual. Sam is not an Indian, and by saying that he’s like them ‘even in dress and manners’ it becomes clear that it is unusual for non-Indians to behave in such a matter.

It immediately becomes apparent that the reader is not meant to think highly of the Native Americans, as can be seen in the following passage:

‘Hearing that the Indians were in force on the southeastern bank of the Alabama River, the people in Fort Madison were greatly alarmed, fearing that all the crops in that region—which were ripe in the fields—would be destroyed. If that should occur, they knew they must starve during the coming winter, and so they made up their minds to drive the savages away, at least until they could gather the corn.’

We are given the impression that the Indians are dangerous and aggressive. The people of Fort Madison feel the need to ‘drive the savages away’ simply upon discovering that they are in the general vicinity of their crops. On the other hand, the settlers are portrayed as being relatively peaceful– after all, they are only doing this out of necessity and only until they have the opportunity to gather the corn.

Due to this we now know that there is a negative history between these people and the Indians, and we are also led to believe that the Indians have historically been the aggressors. We are given the impression that the lives of the settlers are more important than that of the Indians the people of Fort Madison plan to kill while ensuring the safety of their food supply.

‘Once across the river, Dale knew that he was among the Indians, and, knowing their ways, he was as watchful as if he had been one of them himself. He forbade his men to sleep at all during the night after crossing the river, and kept them under arms, in expectation of an attack.’

The Indians are portrayed as being the type to ambush a group of soldiers in their sleep. This makes them appear to be sneaky and/or dishonest in their fighting.

By highlighting the differences between the settlers and the Indians via Sam (‘he was as watchful as if he had been one of them himself’), it is implied that the settlers are more ‘honest’ in their fighting techniques. As a result, the settlers are once again implied to be the ‘superior’ party, and the Native Americans are portrayed as being increasingly ‘separate’ from the settlers.

‘One by one the savages fell, until only one was left facing Dale, who held Cæsar’s gun, with bayonet attached, in his hand. This sole survivor was Tar-cha-chee, an Indian with whom Dale had hunted and lived, one whom he regarded as a friend, and whom he now wished to spare. But the savage was strong within the Indian’s breast, and he refused to accept mercy even from a man who had been his comrade and friend. Standing erect in the bow of the canoe, he shook himself, and said, in the Muscogee tongue, “Big Sam, you are a man, I am another; now for it.”

With that he rushed forward, only to meet death at the hands of the friend who would gladly have spared him.’

We find that Dale is not quite as Indian as initially thought– he tries to spare the life of a friend, but ‘the savage was strong within’ said friend, who insists on fighting. Because of this we can assume that the willingness to have mercy is considered by the author to be a good thing (as the opposite would be ‘savage’, which is defined as ‘Fierce, violent, and uncontrolled’), as well as a trait held by the settlers and not the Indians.

Hence, we can once again assume that the settlers are morally ‘superior’ to the Indians.

‘The hero of this singular battle lived until the year 1841…[General Dale] entertained the strongest attachment for the Indians, extolled their courage, their love of country, and many of their domestic qualities; and I have often seen the wretched remnant of the Choctaws camped round his plantation and subsisting on his crops.’

It is implied that although Dale is a hero, he’s also extremely unusual in his continued attachment to the Indians. We are led to believe that the Indians are lazy and ‘wretched’ due to the fact that Dale shares his crops with them.

‘It is a curious fact that after the war ended, when Weatherford (Red Eagle), who commanded the Indians on the shore in this battle with Dale, was about to marry, he asked Dale to act as his best man, and the two who had fought each other so desperately stood side by side, as devoted friends, at the altar.’

It’s shown that although the Indians are apparently inferior to the settlers (both physically and morally), the two groups of the capability of some sort of connection. However, it is very heavily implid that said connection is unusual (‘It is a curious fact…’) and that they are still irreparably ‘different’ (It is pointed out that Weatherford’s ‘real’ name is still ‘Red Eagle).

If we look solely through the eyes of a New Critic, we can claim that according to Eggleston:

  • The Native Americans are ‘savage’ and aggressive.
  • The white Americans are peace loving and will only fight in order to protect their land from these ‘savages’.
  • Therefore, the white Americans are ‘superior’ to the Native Americans.
  • Although a peaceful bond is possible, it would be highly unusual and slightly disdainful.

It may seem that from this analysis we can easily find a meaning and declare themes for ‘The Canoe Fight’, and from a New Critic’s perspective we certainly can. However, according to Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory this is not the case.

According to Barry, no fixed ‘truths’ can be made, especially not ones regarding society. Therefore, my conclusion that one of the ‘meanings’ of the story is to purport the superiority of the white American vs the Native American is invalid.

Barry also claims that any judgment one might make is clouded by their own experience. I centered on the themes of racism, but others might find meaning in other aspects; for example, the relationships of the various settlers with one another. Beginning Theory states that there is no inherent meaning in a literary work, and that it is instead derived by the writer and the reader. This supports the above claim that there is no one ‘meaning’ in a story.

Using the Beginning Theory, it is hard to make any conclusion about Eggleston’s story. The closest statement to a ‘meaning’ I can make is that one possible interpretation is that the story was meant to spread the popular idea that Native Americans were inferior to white Americans, but that this is not the only message.

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