“Johnny Appleseed” and the Revision of American Masculinity

MOST AMERICAN FOLKTALES are characterized by violence. The American myth glories in the inevitability of westward expansion, venerating war heroes or men who wrangled the land into submission, subjugated the frontier piece by piece until it no longer existed. To be manly is to be strong, and strength is too commonly demonstrated by the physical domination of weaker parties. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett grew famous through hunting, trapping, and their conquests in the Indian Wars. John Henry and Paul Bunyan exerted mastery over nature by laying railroad track and clearing the forests, subduing the wilderness by fundamentally altering it. The traditional American folk hero adheres to an aggressively masculine stereotype, rooted in destructive traits like violence, coercion, domination, and mastery. In Johnny Appleseed, Paul Buhle and Noah Van Sciver present the life of a man who dramatically defies this characterization. Buhle and Van Sciver’s graphic biography is nothing if not timely: published in 2017, it appears at a moment when some Americans are rekindling and others rejecting the violent and oppressive narratives that have long underwritten the nation’s peculiar brand of patriotism.

John Chapman, the historical figure on whom the folk hero Johnny Appleseed is based, left few written records during his life. Chapman lived from 1774 to 1845, years that were part of an era of expansion, industrialization, and the self-conscious cultivation of an American national character. He kept no known diary or account of his life: the little that we know about him has been pieced together from property speculation deeds, pages in books he ripped out and presented to acquaintances, family records, and journalistic accounts of his brief yet memorable visits to various places. He wandered the frontier for most of his life, distributing apple seeds in the expanding settlements of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana while introducing the spiritual teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg — a figure whose mystical version of Christianity gained traction in the United States amid the enthusiasm and revivals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — to anyone who would listen. The fundamental Swedenborgian tenets that Chapman taught were nonviolence (influential later in the century under the name “nonresistance”), the universality of Being, and the connectedness of the universe. These emphases assign little importance to the individual, expressing instead a harmony uniting all living things and the symbiosis that this collectivism requires. As a folk hero integrated into the American imaginary in its formative years, Appleseed represents a vision radically different from the familiar nationalistic tropes of exceptionalism and self-interest.

Buhle and Van Sciver’s comic mirrors the ambling, periphrastic trajectory of Chapman’s life in order to tell the story not only of a man, but of the society he encountered and influenced. With its titular solitary wanderer at its center, Johnny Appleseed depicts the culture of a young nation that could produce and celebrate such a man. The text brings the widespread religious enthusiasm of the period into focus in order to examine its scope, breadth, and utility for the white settlements of the American wilderness. Buhle’s script interrogates the relationship between text, knowledge, and folklore to challenge the story of the frontier as simply a battleground for the triumph of white supremacy, human exceptionalism, and untrammeled commercial interest. Together, he and Van Sciver present a version of American masculinity rooted in amity rather than deriving its identity from conquest and opposition. This version of masculinity includes among its facets nonviolence, charity, faith, selflessness, and a careful stewardship of nature.

Buhle and Van Sciver depict a Chapman characterized by his “otherworldly demeanor, disheveled appearance, rudimentary garments, and vegetarian diet.” He practices celibacy and temperance, and all who encounter him remark on his kindness. As he plants apple seeds and preaches the principles of Swedenborgianism, Appleseed emerges as a figure whose strength and influence do not depend on subjugating his fellow man or nature.

Planting apple trees nourishes the earth while sustaining its growing population with food, drink, medicine, and a potential source of income. To struggling settlers, apple trees proved a valuable asset. Cider and apple cider vinegar served a number of medicinal purposes, and apples were integral to the distillation of applejack, a popular liquor. In short, apple trees helped settlers physically and financially withstand the harsh conditions of the frontier. By scattering, giving, and selling seeds, Chapman intended to replenish a portion of the forests that had been razed to make space for settlements, operating from a conception of man and nature that was symbiotic rather than adversarial.

The frontier’s reputation as a dangerous, lawless space derived largely from sensational newspaper fiction, and Johnny Appleseed calls attention not only to the nature of legend, but also to the practical mechanics of its construction and popularization in print. Chapman’s elevation to legend did not proceed solely from word of mouth, but was augmented considerably by journalistic accounts and popular histories. By admitting our sparse archive of Chapman’s own writings, Buhle emphasizes the sources of communal memory, its embellishments, and its uses. Written accounts came to portray the frontier as a gritty expanse of violence and debauchery, elements of which Van Sciver brings to life in a sequence depicting such Western stereotypes as brawls, booze, bears, and an impenetrable racial hierarchy. Chapman, in contrast, ambles on in placid contentment, sowing seeds and interacting pleasantly with homesteading families and Indians alike.

Building on this contrast, Buhle and Van Sciver recast the frontier as an expanse of possibility rather than merely lawlessness, bloodshed, and peril. In the introduction, Buhle articulates his desire to use Appleseed’s story to correct misconceptions about the frontier, explaining:

Johnny belongs to the frontier, but not the frontier as popularly understood and long romanticized or even treated harshly in novels, films, and television. During his wandering years, ardent reformism including women’s rights, abolitionism, and vegetarianism existed alongside slavery, the advancing white settlements, the plundering of natural resources, and the dispossession of Native Americans.

In correcting a myth that journalism, Wild West shows, and films have sustained for centuries, Buhle presents an environment in which an aggressive, chauvinistic protagonist cannot exist as a hero. The wilderness is home to innumerable kinds of people, all of whom sought to establish a life faithful to their own convictions.

In this account, the frontier’s defining characteristic was the potential it represented, and by displaying the rich diversity of this space, Buhle and Van Sciver connect it to the long history of reform movements in America. Their eccentric dreamer Appleseed promotes a sort of balancing act as white settlers pushed steadily westward, offsetting the desire to conquer and “civilize” with environmental consciousness and a sense of mankind’s responsibility to nature. Chapman was an early apostle of sustainability, a figure who drew attention to the effects — both positive and negative — of man’s action on the land.

Over the span of his long career as an author of graphic histories, Buhle’s subjects have included an array of radical reformers including Robin Hood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Che Guevara, and C. L. R. James, as well as movements for labor rights, women’s suffrage, and racial justice. In 2013, he edited a volume titled Radical Jesus that sought to restore the social and political import of Jesus’s life. Appleseed approaches Chapman’s faith in a comparable manner. Johnny Appleseed does not sanction or promote a singular doctrine, but instead lays out the practical effects of faith in the life of a humble, early 19th-century man and the various communities with which he came into contact.

Van Sciver’s artwork perfectly complements Buhle’s revisionist narrative. As Chapman and his brother set out for Pennsylvania in 1796, the artist’s luxurious, full-page renderings of the majestic wilderness convey the wonder the boys feel at the potentiality of the land around them. As they walk, they stumble across numerous Christian sects — Shakers, Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, and others — and they respond to this startlingly heterogeneous landscape by speaking to everyone they encounter. Chapman’s call to the wilderness is personified as a nude woman (seemingly Johannes Kelpius’s Woman in the Wilderness) beckoning him from the forest to come forth and seek God in nature. As Chapman wanders, he discovers a number of welcoming communities characterized by acceptance, forgiveness, inclusivity, and nonviolence. These placid communities stand in stark contrast to the bloodthirsty and coarse settlers with whom they coexist, and the concepts they embody receive lengthy exposition in the contexts of treaties, hardships, and altercations. Chapman, with his books and apple seeds, keeps up a brisk pace, traversing the land and distributing his seeds. Over the course of his life, he remains a steadfastly stable character, allowing the text to foreground his influence on the changing world around him.

Swedenborgianism appeals to Chapman for its emphasis on the interconnected nature of all living spirits. Though its abstract tenets have inspired many throughout history, including perhaps most famously in the American context Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is easy to see how elements of Swedenborgian doctrine might be difficult for readers of the comic to accept at face value. Van Sciver’s richly intricate representations of visions help here. Depicting such visions as spirits inhabiting Mars or apple-toting angels conversing in a dream, these visually engrossing images carefully refrain from either dismissing Swedenborgian beliefs as fantastical or stifling them with undue solemnity. No record survives of Chapman’s conversion experience or the details of his personal beliefs, but Buhle and Van Sciver beautifully remove the emphasis from Chapman as an individual in order to allow the history and practice of Swedenborgianism to make the case for itself as a positive force in the settlement of the frontier. On the whole, Johnny Appleseed presents faith as a basis for practical action. Chapman is not a great man because he is a Swedenborgian minister. His greatness proceeds from the selfless principles he models for a maturing society.

At one point, Chapman sits alone in a lush forest, pondering the nature of apples. His preference to grow trees from the apple seed was reputed to stem from a conviction that grafting fruit branches was “wicked and unnatural,” and he leans back on a mossy bank to read Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg. As Chapman reads, he is launched into a phantasmagoric digression on the Swedish mystic’s life and teachings. The book conveys the breadth of the sect’s scope and influence by noting the ubiquity of Swedenborgian bookshops in major cities. Chapman stumbles upon a company of Swedenborgians in a rainstorm and takes shelter at their hearth as a smiling man hands him a book: “I’m always on the road,” Chapman sighs, “I am unable to join in on your reading circles. But I will read the literature and pray.”

The book presents the many iterations and facets of Swedenborgian belief for the reader to gauge and consider, as Chapman does. At one point, Buhle and Van Sciver show him talking with a crowd he meets during his travels in Ohio. Onlookers are quick to try to label the nature of his faith, yet Chapman’s forthright responses indicate that the elements he borrows from Swedenborgianism and primitive Christianity are specific to him. In this, Chapman models the importance of cultivating an individual, personal faith as opposed to adhering uncritically to an external system of belief. He continues leasing land, preaching, and selling seeds for the remainder of his life. As his life’s work continues at a more or less constant pace throughout his adult life, the origins of his legend spring into print from the pens of historians, folklorists, and writers like Lydia Maria Child and William Dean Howells, preserving and assigning significance to his life across time and space.

Chapman did not explicitly express his vision of an ideal society. His canonization as a folk hero, however, projects a brilliant future of harmony, sustainability, and accord beyond the narrow scope of his corporeal life. Buhle extrapolates, “Chapman’s imagined society would foreswear violence in any form, look upon all people as equals, but also upon the animal kingdom as fellow creatures deserving kindness and dignity. It would be far less materialistic, and its members would wish to meet nature as something more like wanderers than conquerors.” This is the America that Appleseed symbolizes, and his legend serves to remind us of an alternative trajectory that has existed continuously throughout American history.

Buhle describes the Appleseed legend as one of the “paths not taken by American society,” a bright future the nation never fully aligned with or realized. Though solitary, Chapman is motivated by collective interests above his own. He requires very little to live and rove, and he seeks to alleviate his neighbors’ burdens and invest in a future that might sustain both nature and civilization. Folk heroes are born out of their utility and applicability to the present, and Buhle traces the resurgence of interest in Johnny Appleseed back to the 1970s and the rebirth of a cultural environmental consciousness.

Presenting Chapman’s life in the form of a graphic biography renders the complexity of both Appleseed’s legend and Swedenborg’s teachings accessible to a much wider audience than would likely have encountered them otherwise. Historically, Christian sectarianism shaped the developing frontier far more than history books or Disney folk legends recall. When the religious sects and communitarian experiments of Early America are remembered, it’s easy to dismiss their members as zealots. But in doing so, we fail to consider the immense power and import of personal conviction. Buhle and Van Sciver’s Chapman pushes us beyond stereotypical versions of American individualism. Though he is frequently alone, he acts in the interest of a larger communal identity of which he is a part.

“Johnny lives in our hearts,” a page toward the end of the biography brightly proclaims. A host of smiling figures who carry on Appleseed’s legacy, variously interpreted, continue the work of a man who represents a generous and caring American masculinity. Appleseed is most commonly memorialized today in the form of a simple ditty that fulfills the ritual of saying grace:

The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun and rain and the apple seed
Yes, He’s been good to me.

This is hardly a prayer, as it fails to address a deity directly. Its theme is the Lord’s beneficent provision, and it chronicles the blessings that have been brought into the speaker’s life. The song’s unprepossessing simplicity encompasses a host of beliefs, which surely has contributed to its ubiquity in environments where a specific denominational preference cannot be privileged. This blessing celebrates, most prominently, gratitude, emphasizing the speaker’s dependence on an external force and his comfort within this role. In contrast with the bootstraps narrative of American success, Appleseed symbolizes a community in which individuals work together for the benefit of all.

When envisioning Johnny Appleseed, many Americans revert to the caricature from Walt Disney’s 1948 Melody Time. There Appleseed is a bumbling, irresolute weakling who wears a pot on his head and requires the stern prompting of his guardian angel to do or say anything. Buhle and Van Sciver flatly reject this depiction of Appleseed as timid or inept, physically rendering Chapman as sturdy, bearded, and bold. He is manly without needing to perform his dominance over anything or anyone, amending the masculine stereotype of brawn achieved through the physical exertion of mastery over a tree or a machine or a race of people. In this new graphic biography, Buhle and Van Sciver offer temperance, pacifism, collectivism, husbandry, and generosity as the constituents of a more useful form of strength, one capable of animating a better American future.

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Ashley Rattner is a doctoral candidate in American Literature at the University of Memphis.

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