The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XXII. Lincoln
§ 5. Pioneer Loneliness
Loneliness was the all-pervading characteristic of that life. The pioneer cabin, whether in Kentucky, Indiana, or Illinois, was an island in a wilderness. The pioneer village was merely a slightly larger island. Both for cabin and for village, the near horizon encircled it with the primeval. This close boundary, the shadow of the old gods, is a mighty, neglected factor in all the psychological history of the American people. In the lives of the pioneers, scattered over the lonely West, it is of first magnitude. It bore in upon them from every point of the compass, the consciousness of a world mightier than their own, the world of natural force. To a sensitive, poetic spirit, temperamentally melancholy, that encircling shadow must have had the effect of the night on Browning’s David, though without producing the elation of David. That the mysticism of the primitive should have developed to full strength in a dreamer of these spiritual islands, but that it should not have risen victorious out of the primeval shadow, is explicable, perhaps, by two things—by the extreme hardness of pioneer life and by the lack of mental fecundity in these men whose primitive estate was a reversion not a development. While their sensibilities had recovered the primitive emotions, their minds, like stalled engines, merely came to a pause. Except for its emotional sensing of the vast unseen, the religious life of the pioneer islands lay most of the time dormant. It is a fact of much significance that the Western pioneers were not accompained by ministers of religion—which is one detail of the wider fact that their migration was singly, by families, not communal. What a vast difference between the settlement of a colonial community, bringing with it organized religion, and these isolated, almost vagrant, movements into the West with organized religion left behind! Most of the time, in the places where Lincoln’s boyhood was passed, there were no public religious services. Periodically a circuitrider appeared. And then, in a terrific prodigality, the pent-up religious emotion burst forth. The student of Dionysus who would glimpse the psychology of the wild women of the Ecstasies, if he is equal to translating human nature through widely differing externals, may get hints from the religious passion of the pioneer revival. Conversely, Dionysus will help him to understand the West. That there was not much Christianity in all this goes without saying. It was older, simpler, more elemental. But it was fettered mentally in a Christian phraseology. Out of this contradiction grew its incoherency, its meaninglessness. With the passing of one of these seasons of stormful ecstasy, there was left in its wake often a great recharge of natural piety but nothing—or hardly anything—of spiritual understanding.