American Literature Jane Johnston Schoolcraft
by
Robert Dale Parker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0010

Introduction

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (b. 1800–d. 1842) was the first known American Indian literary writer. She wrote poetry and short fiction and translated Ojibwe songs into English. Her Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, which she translated into English as Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky, a lyrical rather than a literal translation. She was born in Sault Ste. Marie in what is now northern Michigan. Schoolcraft’s mother, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, grew up in what is now northern Wisconsin, the daughter of Waubojeeg, a famous war chief and leader in civil life who was known for his eloquence in story and song. Schoolcraft’s father, John Johnston, was an Irish fur trader. Despite living in an area that white people saw as the farthest reach of the frontier, John Johnston collected a huge library. He raised his children with superb educations in English and European literature, history, and theology, as Ozhaguscodaywayquay, who did not speak English, immersed them in the traditions of Ojibwe song and storytelling. In 1822 the American government came to Sault Ste. Marie with army troops and a federal Indian agent, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Henry immersed himself in the study of Ojibwe language and culture, and in 1823 Jane and Henry married. To pass the long northern winters in 1826 and 1827, Henry assembled a handwritten magazine, the Literary Voyager, or Muzzeniegun, consisting mostly of his own writings but with work by others as well, including works by Jane, mostly poems and stories. Depending heavily on Jane and her family, Henry became an influential founder of American cultural anthropology. In 1839 he published the first large-scale collection of written-down and translated Indian stories, Algic Researches. The surviving manuscripts show that Jane and her brother William wrote some of the stories. Jane probably varied in how much she gave traditional stories the stamp of her own personality and style, much as oral storytellers and writers blend their own styles with styles they have heard or read before. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based his most famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855), on Henry’s work, including stories written by Jane and William. In 1833 Schoolcraft and her family moved to Mackinac Island, and in 1841 they moved to New York City. Schoolcraft was unrecognized in her lifetime except by friends and family, and her writings offer a window onto a highly literate Indian world that invites us to reenvision the cultural memory of early America.

Biography

Biographical writing about Jane Johnston Schoolcraft has gone through several stages. For many years she attracted little interest. Eventually she appeared as background information in writing about her famous husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Then she appeared in family histories, and more recently she has attracted the interest of literary scholars. Thus Osborn and Osborn 1942 and Bremer 1987 wrote about Jane only in relation to Henry. They did not pay attention to her as a writer. Then Marjorie Cahn Brazer wrote a family history of the Johnstons (Brazer 1993), and descendants of the Johnston family issued the privately published collection Hambleton and Stoutamire 1992, which approaches the Johnston family with enhanced respect and seriousness and includes Elizabeth Warren Stoutamire’s short biography of Jane. Still, no one focused on Jane Johnston Schoolcraft as a writer. Beginning at about the same time, in the 1990s, that literary critics grew increasingly receptive to women writers and American Indian writers, Schoolcraft began to attract serious attention as a historical figure and a writer. Stone-Gordon 1993 is an unpublished master’s thesis about Schoolcraft’s life, and an assortment of reference books include brief discussions of her life and writing. Then Schoolcraft 2007 accelerated what has now emerged as a new era in the study of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft 2007 also provides evidence that much of the relatively modest amount that had previously been written about Schoolcraft includes inaccurate information. For that reason earlier sources, even when they report what they suppose to be fact, must be used with caution.

  • Brazer, Marjorie Cahn. Harps upon the Willows: The Johnston Family of the Old Northwest. Edited by the Historical Society of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: Historical Society of Michigan, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brazer tries to be plainly factual, but for a book from as late as 1993 her account is shaped to an unusual degree by prejudices against Indians. She looks down on the Johnstons’ Indianness and misinterprets Schoolcraft as rejecting her own Indianness. Based on considerable primary research but must be read with caution.

  • Bremer, Richard G. Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar: The Life of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Mount Pleasant: Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A scholarly biography based on massive research in primary documents. Bremer came to dislike Henry, and while the dislike is no doubt at least partly deserved, it may shape the account too heavily. Although Bremer takes a patronizing or dismissive approach to Jane, his book remains enormously valuable. No index.

  • Hambleton, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Warren Stoutamire, eds. The John Johnston Family of Sault Ste. Marie. John Johnston Family Association, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best account of the Johnston family. Written by descendants and not marred by the unwitting biases against Indian people that distort most accounts. Deeply researched.

  • Osborn, Chase S., and Stellanova Osborn. Schoolcraft—Longfellow—Hiawatha. Lancaster, PA: Jacques Cattell, 1942.

    E-mail Citation »

    A deeply researched labor of love, this biography of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft worships him so exorbitantly that it loses perspective. Nevertheless, it remains a trove of information and an interesting if sometimes exasperating cultural document in its own right.

  • Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Edited by Robert Dale Parker. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edition of Schoolcraft’s writings includes a biography together with a cultural history and an introduction to Schoolcraft’s writing. Based on archival research and drawing on literary studies, American Indian studies, feminism, and postcolonial studies, it provides a larger and substantially different picture of Schoolcraft’s life than previous scholarship.

  • Stone-Gordon, Tammrah. “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky: A Literary Biography of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.” MA thesis, Michigan State University, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    An intelligent, refreshingly feminist account. Despite the subtitle, the focus is historical, not literary.

  • Stoutamire, Elizabeth Warren. “Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.” In The John Johnston Family of Sault Ste. Marie. Edited by Elizabeth Hambleton and Elizabeth Warren Stoutamire, 40–46. John Johnston Family Association, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Remarkably thorough despite its brevity, but this excellent short biography, like other historical accounts, takes no particular notice of Schoolcraft as a writer.

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