The Big Bear of Arkansas
The Big Bear of Arkansas
"THE BIG BEAR OF ARKANSAS"
Indebted to both the oral tradition and the literary culture, "The Big Bear of Arkansas" is a short story of considerable sophistication. Its author, Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878), first published the work in the Spirit of the Times (27 March 1841), the sporting weekly edited by William T. Porter (1809–1858) where much of the best contemporary humor appeared. Porter reprinted Thorpe's tale in an anthology whose title emphasizes its preeminence: The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Sketches, Illustrative of Characters and Incidents in the South and Southwest (1845). Thorpe republished the story himself in a collection of his tales and sketches, The Hive of "The Bee-Hunter" (1854). He belongs to a group of American authors active during the middle third of the nineteenth century and known as the humorists of the Old Southwest. This group, which included Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870) and George Washington Harris (1814–1869), has become so closely identified with Thorpe's tale that it is sometimes called the Big Bear School of literature.
REVISIONS AND TARGET AUDIENCE
"The Big Bear of Arkansas" has been frequently anthologized in collections of American humor, frontier literature, and classic American short stories. Typically, the anthologies reprint the 1854 text, but this revision masks some of the complexities of the original periodical version. Porter revised the story for inclusion in his collection of sketches, and Thorpe, using Porter's text as his source, revised it again for inclusion in The Hive of "The Bee-Hunter." The tale was originally written for the sporting crowd; the revised version better suits the more genteel book-buying public. Through their revisions Porter and Thorpe eliminated much of the story's dialect and raciness. In "The Text, Tradition, and Themes of 'The Big Bear of Arkansas,'" J. A. Leo Lemay comments, "In general, what Thorpe did to the text of 'The Big Bear of Arkansas' in revising it could justly be compared to a pedantic school-marm's corrections of Mark Twain's colloquial prose" (p. 323). The best text is the 1841 Spirit of the Times version.
NARRATIVE FRAME AND VOICE
Like the other humorists of the Old Southwest, Thorpe was fascinated with folk speech yet hesitant to give over his narrative completely to some loose-limbed, slack-jawed rustic. Consequently, he structured his story as a frame tale, which allowed him to begin it in a voice not dissimilar to his own, that of an urbane southern gentleman, and then to indulge his interest in folk speech partway through the story by handing the narrative reins over to Jim Doggett, a gregarious Arkansas bear hunter. The gentility of the outside narrator's voice thus frames the inside narrator's down-home twang.
"The Big Bear of Arkansas" begins in New Orleans as passengers board a northbound Mississippi steamboat. Thorpe depicts the steamboat as a microcosm of the world, an idea that recalls the traditional motif of the ship of fools and anticipates the depiction of a Mississippi steamboat by Herman Melville (1819–1891) in The Confidence-Man (1857). The sophisticated outside narrator emphasizes that reading faces in a crowd of people resembles the process of reading a written text, an idea Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) had pointed out the year before in his short story "The Man of the Crowd" (1840). Thorpe's narrator distinguishes himself from the loud-talking rabble by describing his sedate and solitary act of reading the latest newspaper.
His reading is disturbed by the sound of an ear-piercing Indian war whoop, which is uttered by none other than Jim Doggett, a man better known by his sobriquet, "Big Bear of Arkansas." Doggett has thus taken the name of his prey. His loud whoop shows that he has taken on Native American characteristics as well. Like so many legendary American frontiersmen, Jim Doggett is a hybrid, a mongrel, a man with one foot in civilization and the other in the wilderness. His personality and charm cause others aboard the steamboat to gather around him. His voice is so alluring that he even draws the urbane narrator's attention away from his newspaper.
The story develops as fellow steamboat passengers ask a series of questions and Doggett responds with characteristic tall talk. His responses bristle with memorable phrases. They ask about Arkansas ("the creation State, the finishing-up country; a State where the sile runs down to the centre of the 'arth, and government gives you a title to every inch of it"), mosquitoes ("give them a fair chance for a few months, and you will get as much above noticing them as an alligator"), and the plentifulness of bears in Arkansas ("about as plenty as blackberries, and a little plentifuller"). Eventually, they prompt him to tell a bear-hunting story. From this point, Jim Doggett completely takes over the narration and proceeds to tell the story of "the greatest bar was killed that ever lived, none excepted" (pp. 1537, 1540).
A MYTHIC TALE
As Doggett tells his tale, it takes on elements of a mythic adventure. The bear possesses an almost supernatural ability to evade capture despite Doggett's multiple attempts to slay it. Sometimes the bear seems to possess shape-shifting powers. At other times it becomes a reflection of Jim Doggett himself. "I would see that bar in every thing I did," Doggett explains at one point (p. 1542). He and the bear are doppelgängers, doubles for each other. The hunter and the hunted almost become one. Of the bear, Doggett says, "I loved him like a brother" (p. 1542). His statement anticipates the love and respect and brotherhood Santiago feels for the great fish he catches in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the classic novella by Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). In another instance, the bear, as Doggett remarks, seems almost the devil himself. Its unstoppability looks forward to other such manifestations in American popular culture. At one point in the story, the great bear walks "through the fence like a falling tree would through a cobweb" (p. 1544), an image that adumbrates Arnold Schwarzenegger's character effortlessly walking through a wall in The Terminator (1984).
As it turns out, Doggett never actually shoots or kills the bear. Instead Thorpe deliberately undercuts the hunter's heroism. When the bear makes its final approach, Doggett, his pants around his ankles, is taking a squat in the woods. He explains that "before I had really gathered myself up, I heard the old varmint groaning in a thicket near by, like a thousand sinners, and by the time I reached him he was a corpse" (p. 1544). Doggett concludes his story on a somber note: "My private opinion is, that that bar was an unhuntable bear, and died when his time come" (p. 1545).
The outside narrator's voice returns to put the finishing touches on the scene. "When the story was ended, our hero sat some minutes with his auditors in a grave silence; I saw there was a mystery to him connected with the bear whose death he had just related, that had evidently made a strong impression on his mind" (p. 1545). This statement reinforces the sense of melancholy in Doggett's closing words.
CRITICAL RECEPTION AND INFLUENCE
Lemay has recognized connections between "The Big Bear of Arkansas" and early American promotion literature, has identified many biblical echoes in the story, has linked Jim Doggett to such legendary American folk heroes as Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, and has traced the story's prominent motifs to the tall tale tradition. Unlike many similar texts in the American literary tradition, "The Big Bear of Arkansas" ends on an elegiac note. The bear's death ultimately symbolizes the passing of the American wilderness.
"The Big Bear of Arkansas" influenced many major figures in American literature. Thorpe's humor, setting, and dialect were a major inspiration for Mark Twain (1835–1910). Among twentieth-century authors, William Faulkner (1897–1962) reflects Thorpe's influence. Much as Thorpe does in "The Big Bear of Arkansas," Faulkner, generally speaking, uses multiple voices within an individual work to articulate the complexity of its themes and ideas. Specifically, Thorpe's tale had a profound impact on Faulkner's "The Bear" (1942), which reiterates its imagery, tone, and symbolism. "The Big Bear of Arkansas" forms a nexus in American literary history. It echoes early American literature and anticipates the alienation and sense of loss that form such an important aspect of literary modernism.
Thorpe, Thomas Bangs. "The Big Bear of Arkansas." 1841. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, 2nd ed., edited by Nina Baym et al., pp. 1535–1545. New York: Norton, 1985.
Blair, Walter. "The Technique of 'The Big Bear of Arkansas.'" Southwest Review 28 (1943): 426–435.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. "'Mr. Spirit' and 'The Big Bear of Arkansas': A Note on the Genesis of Southwestern Sporting and Humor Literature." American Literature 27 (1955): 332–346.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. "Thomas Bangs Thorpe and the Literature of the Ante-Bellum Southwestern Frontier." Louisiana Historical Quarterly 39 (1956): 199–222.
Justus, James H. Fetching the Old Southwest: HumorousWriting from Longstreet to Twain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Lemay, J. A. Leo. "The Text, Tradition, and Themes of 'The Big Bear of Arkansas.'" American Literature 47 (1975): 321–342.
Simoneaux, Katherine G. "Symbolism in Thorpe's 'The Big Bear of Arkansas.'" Arkansas Historical Quarterly 25 (1966): 240–247.
Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: TheMythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Kevin J. Hayes