As I read Here Lies Hugh Glass, by Jon T. Coleman, I was reminded of the brilliant but underachieving genius who turned 20 pages of original material into a two hundred-page book. Somehow, he made it entertaining. So, what do you do when you have one primary source? What do you do with multiple, but unreliable, secondary sources? Coleman provides the answer.
You candidly admit your dilemma, flash a clever smile at the reader, lay out the material you have, and then you describe the process of writing history. He must have paid some attention in class because everything is there. Coleman weaves other frontier stories in with the Glass story to create a more complete picture of his subject. With the scantiest of evidence to support such an interpretation, he presents his work through the holy Trinity of modern history (Race, Class, and Gender), seemingly tweaking the noses of many academic historians in the process. As a byproduct of examining the way lesser authors presented the Glass story, Coleman exposes two potentially negative properties associated with written history. First, history is moldable. Second, history possesses a powerful utility. By rewriting the Glass story for their benefit, these lesser authors were able to shape it and then apply it for their needs. Through this process Coleman successfully, and I do not believe accidentally, contributed to a better understanding of Hugh Glass and his counterparts. Coleman’s retelling presents a previously unidentified labor group. He shapes the story Hugh Glass and others, men whose bodies were sacrificed for capitalist enterprises while working in a harsh 18th century American West. In so doing Coleman develops a new historiography, one he refers to as “environmental Americanism.” This book was presented for review in my History capstone course, and I am thankful. It is an irreverent study of modern history writing. For those who are not familiar with the story, Hugh Glass was an early 18th century American frontiersman. He signed on as a hunter for a Missouri River for trapping expedition. During the expedition, his group battled Indians and many died. He personally suffered a bear mauling which saw his back ripped open, his head bitten, his throat punctured, and a chunk of flesh removed from his posterior. Given up for dead, abandoned by his colleagues, clinging to life, he crawled 200 miles in order to gain retribution. His story is the basis for the movie “The Revenant.”
Jon T. Coleman, Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).