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Thomas Bangs Thorpe, 1815-1878
The Hive of "The Bee-Hunter," A Repository of Sketches, Including Peculiar American Character, Scenery, and Rural Sports
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1854.

Summary

Thomas Bangs Thorpe, antebellum humorist and painter, was born March 1, 1815 in Westfield, Massachusetts. Three years later his family moved briefly to New York so that his father Thomas, a Methodist minister, could serve in the Allen Street Church. However, his mother Rebecca was forced to move with young Thorpe and his two siblings to Albany after her husband's sudden death. Here Thorpe was first exposed to the Dutch landscape painters that would later influence his profession in the arts. In 1830 he began a serious study of painting under John Quidor, an eccentric portraitist in New York who cultivated Thorpe's sensitivity to the comic in both literature and painting. He worked as a portrait painter in New York for several years, exhibiting his first painting titled Ichabod Crane in 1833 at the American Academy of Fine Arts. Unable to raise the money necessary for study and travel abroad, nineteen-year-old Thorpe resigned himself to enrolling at Wesleyan University. His struggles with illness prevented him from receiving a degree, and in 1837 he moved south to Louisiana in search of a milder climate. He married Anne Maria Hinckley, with whom he had three children. The couple settled in Jackson, Louisiana in 1839, where he painted portraits of plantation owners for a living.

During his time as portrait painter Thorpe became familiar with southern plantation life and often joined his patrons on hunting trips, which inspired his later sporting stories. In July 1839, he published his first story, "Tom Owen, the Bee-Hunter," in Spirit of the Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers across the country to rave reviews. Over the next forty years, Thorpe published six books and over 150 essays, sketches, and stories. He edited six newspapers in Louisiana, including the short-lived New Orleans Southern Sportsman, a rival of Spirit of the Times. After becoming involved in state politics and campaigning unsuccessfully for public office, Thorpe returned to New York in 1854, where he remarried after the death of his first wife. He worked for the New York Custom House until 1862, at which time he transferred to the customs office in New Orleans and played a critical role rebuilding the city during the Civil War. He returned to New York yet again in the late 1860s, and continued to publish in established magazines. Thorpe died on September 20, 1878 due to complications with Bright's disease.

Best known for his work as a southwestern humorist, Thorpe published two collections of sketches in this genre: The Mysteries of the Backwoods (1846) and The Hive of the "Bee-Hunter": A Repository of Sketches, Including Peculiar American Characters, Scenery, and Rural Sports (D. Appleton and Company, 1854). The latter includes 24 sketches of southern backwoods life and rural sporting and is considered by many to be his best humor writing. His two most popular stories appearing in the collection—"Tom Owen, the Bee-Hunter," and "The Big Bear of Arkansas"—both feature a comic backwoodsman character wrestling with his environment. In keeping with the southwestern humorist tradition, Thorpe, a transplanted New Yorker, celebrates the rural personalities he encountered; however, he also expresses his concern regarding the disappearance of the American wild. Yet his keen interest in Louisiana hunting practices take precedence over these environmental concerns, particularly in stories such as "Wild Turkey Hunting" and "Wildcat Hunting."

Thorpe's first sketch in the collection, "Tom Owen, the Bee Hunter," adopts a mock-heroic tone when the narrator humorously describes Tom Owens as his "quiet hero" who hunts bees for sport. While visiting a plantation one October afternoon, the narrator is intrigued by the sudden appearance of Tom, whose courtly manner and disheveled dress compels the narrator to follow him into battle. Aware that "as a country becomes cleared up and settled, bee-hunters disappear," he relays Tom's bee-hunting prowess as if to immortalize a brave yet dying ritual. As Tom victoriously fills his pails with honey, the narrator wistfully compares his feat to those of the legendary bear-hunters or whalers. Yet the sketch ends with a subtle, characteristic jab from the environmentally conscious Thorpe, who remarks that Tom's spoils of honey were "soon to be devoured, soon to be replaced by the destruction of another tree, and another nation of bees."

Another collected story, "The Big Bear of Arkansas," was originally published in the Spirit of the Times in 1841 and later collected as the title story in the first anthology of southwestern humor. In the tale's outer narrative framework, a refined gentleman recalls his experiences traveling aboard a Mississippi River steamboat named The Invincible. While onboard he and the other passengers become engrossed in a bear-hunting tale told by backwoodsman Jim Doggett, who entertainingly recounts his struggle with a wily, elusive bear. The unassailable "creation bar," which Doggett respects for its legendary size and craft, complements his exaggerated description of Arkansas, which, he claims, is also home to forty-pound wild turkeys, giant mosquitoes, and crops that sprout fully overnight.

The bear acquires mythic status by the end of the tale; according to Doggett, the creature chooses to die only "when his time come." For Doggett, the killing is anti-climactic: the bear decides it is time to die as Doggett is relieving himself in some nearby bushes. Doggett finally kills the bear, but only after humiliating himself by tripping and falling in haste to reach his gun. This ending underscores Thorpe's skepticism about man's superiority over nature. Although he champions the sporting life in other stories, Thorpe clearly sides with nature in "The Big Bear of Arkansas."

"The Big Bear of Arkansas" soon surpassed "Tom Owen, the Bee-Hunter" as Thorpe's most famous story. Indeed, "The Big Bear of Arkansas" remains one of the best-known stories of the southwestern humor tradition. In later characterizing this literary genre, Bernard DeVoto even coined the term, the "Big Bear School of Literature." Thorpe's influence also may be traced in William Faulkner, who considered "The Big Bear of Arkansas" a masterpiece and likely drew from it in the famous bear-hunting episodes of Go Down, Moses. Although Thorpe wrote up until his death, his talent was most pronounced early in his career when he focused his energy on capturing the backwoods vernacular of the Louisiana that he had made his home.

Works Consulted: Gale, Steven H., ed., Encyclopedia of American Humorists, New York: Garland Publishing, 1988; Ljundquist, Kent, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Antebellum Writers in the South, volume 248, Detroit: Gale Research, 2001; Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950, volume 11, Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

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