Europeans came to America for a variety of reasons. The Pilgrims and Puritans sought the freedom to worship. Others were looking to make their fortunes. Some wanted to escape the smothering class structure of European society. To survive and flourish in the New World, these immigrants, says author Arthur Hoyle, had to be both dissatisfied and ambitious, hardy of body and strong of mind, hard-working, resourceful, inventive, and practical.
“The two seemingly contradictory traits that enabled survival in the New World – independence and cooperation – have unfolded in a dynamic tension across American history,” he writes. These traits continue to play out in contemporary society; you have to look no farther than the growing conflict between red states and blue states, urban populations and rural populations, and populists and the elites.
In his recently published Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, Hoyle chronicles the lives of 12 Americans who have exhibited these enduring qualities of “being American” even while they often went against the grain of the society around them. In 10 chapters (two of the subjects are actually married couples), he provides fresh and highly readable accounts of who they were, what they did, and why it continues to matter,
Roger Williams was initially part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony but found the ruling Puritans to be as oppressive as the king left behind in Britain; he insisted upon a complete separation of state from the Church of England and the mingling of civic and religious authority. A contemporary, Anne Bradstreet, was the first American poet, at a time when poetry was the exclusive province of men. She evaded criticism by writing passionately religious poetry.
A fuller picture of Thomas Paine is presented than what one usually finds in the history textbooks. He was arguing against injustice long before he wrote Common Sense, but it was that pamphlet that started the tipping of the balance in opinion in favor of independence. During the French Revolution, he veered close to finding himself guillotined in Paris. Josiah Gregg was a merchant, explorer, author, news correspondent, and several other occupations; his wanderings on the prairies, the Southwest, and California, and his writings about his travels, would help feed the idea of Manifest Destiny.
William and Ellen Craft were slaves who escaped their Georgia plantation using a most ingenuous ruse. Ellen was fair enough to pass for white, and she disguised herself as a man, traveling mostly by train with her “slave” William all the way to Massachusetts. The son of a Norwegian-American farmer, Thorstein Veblen became an economist and sociologist and a major critic of capitalism. Thomas Merton was the Cistercian monk was a man of “contradictory and passionate character” Hoyle says, who sought spiritual meaning by distancing himself from society.
Brummett Echohawk was a Native American, a member of the Pawnee Tribe, who set out to prove that Native Americans could be just as patriotic as anyone else, and he proved it in World Wat II. Judith Baca is a Chicana muralist who uses her art for social change. Husband and wife Warren Brush and Cynthia Harvan-Brush work in agriculture, creating small, self-sufficient farms that are “thoughtfully and deliberately integrated with the conditions and features of their local ecosystems.”
None of the Americans featured were comfortable with their society’s majority and prevailing thought. Each sought to change both their individual worlds and the worlds around them. Some ended well; some did not. But they all displayed aspects of what we might call the classic American character.
Hoyle received his B.A. and M.A. dsgrees in English from the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s a writer, educator, administrator, naturalist, independent filmmaker, and author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur (2014). He lives in California.
Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits is a delightful and highly readable collection of essays about Americans who often infuriated their contemporaries, followed their individual stars, and yet still displayed the traits we understand and recognize as “American.”
Top illustration: Drawing of Thomas Paine.