Johnny Appleseed, a Review

Weary travelers, journeying west,
In the shade of his trees find pleasant rest;
And they often start, with glad surprise,
At the rosy fruit that round them lies.

-Lydia Maria Child

Paul Buhle and Noah Van Sciver’s new graphic novel Johnny Appleseed is a special piece of art that functions on multiple levels as a gift for readers of all ages. As a longtime graphic novel and comic art reader, I can say with a level of certain authority that this new hardcover published by Fantagraphics is a worthwhile treasure that may very well service the imaginative longings of multiple generations.

Buhle, the historian of the American Left and authorized biographer of CLR James, has created something particularly intriguing here in terms of the historical dynamic. On the most superficial level, we quite obviously are discussing a biography of John Chapman, an itinerant horticulturist who wanders the American frontier during the 19th century. Influenced by the writings of Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Johnny lives out a utopian Christian socialist praxis in the popular imagination that inspires the likes of Thoreau, Whitman, and perhaps even a young Abraham Lincoln.

Yet such a superficial summary is a grave injustice to this work of art. With an introduction by Buhle timestamped at February 2017, it is worthwhile and important to understand what is underneath the skin of this fruit. The book has the capacity and dimensions of not as much a traditional American historical narrative as a socio-political manifesto. What the reader is encountering is a set of coordinates, a magnetic polarity, which activists and thinkers can orient their compasses upon as we move into a future that requires a substantial eco-communist praxis which has yet to be properly formulated beyond the generalized outlines presented by thinkers like Murray Bookchin. In this sense each page is a seed, planted by Buhle and Van Sciver in the reader’s mind, that presents the opportunity to blossom into a deeper philosophy with uniquely American antecedents that are wholly rooted in what today is called intersectional feminist anti-imperialism. Chapman’s interactions and work with and on behalf of the American Indians during years when they were subjected to genocide by his contemporaries is a deeply relevant and important commentary on the anti-pipeline #NoDAPL events at Standing Rock. For those of us who have been involved with the Green Party of the United States in the past twenty years, this book has the potential to offer the same agit-prop value and relevance equivalent to what was created by the artists of the Popular Front years of the Old Left or the best crop of works generated by the New Left.

Aesthetics and politics are deeply relevant to this matter and should be considered herein. The outstanding and perplexing contradiction is that the high watermark of American radical agit-prop, the moment when artists created artworks that were best attenuated and most accessible to the widest audience, was simultaneous with the political program being the more conservative. The most progressive films produced in Hollywood prior to the 1960s were during the Popular Front years, when multitudes of writers, directors, and actors were members of a Communist Party USA that practically nullified its emphasis on class warfare while abandoning national liberation struggles in the name of unity and solidarity with the CIO and Franklin Roosevelt. In the days of the New Left, music rather than film served as a major conduit of politics, with artists like Dylan and Joplin writing songs that were as powerful as they were relevant. But both artists were able to proliferate to the widest audience at exactly the moment when their work began to be carried on the very major record labels that were part of the structural problems that their generation challenged. Is it possible to disentangle the aesthetic of the Popular Front from the politics of the Popular Front, which were wretched?

This contradiction provides a very productive and robust inquiry. The Popular Front period coincided with consolidation and solidifying of the generic norms that are known in Film Studies as Classical Hollywood Cinema. While the French, Italian, and Global South cinemas all developed in a way that provided a level of experimentation and generic innovation, by contrast the Hollywood film has stayed within the confines of Classical Hollywood Cinema for now over seven decades. Even seemingly innovative films, like FIGHT CLUB or THE MATRIX, are in fact defined by a three act structure, a conflict between protagonist and antagonist buttressed by a love story subplot involving the protagonist, and a resolution that re-affirms the social hegemony of a variation of Popular Front-styled rebellion (or more correctly, lack thereof). FIGHT CLUB, for example, ends with a man who intentionally stops the rebellious anti-capitalist spirit that possess his body, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, and retreats into the middle class comforts of a heteronormative romance with Marla. The wily satyr Durden, agent of a communist rebellion flavored by an ideology rooted in Nietzsche, is not the final victor, he is in fact vanquished and ideologically neutralized so our protagonist can return to suburban life. The aftermath of his activities remain, yes, but because he does not follow up these acts with further ascent to the heights of power, meaning the acts merely serve a catharsis that soothes the retreat into patriarchy.

Such observations provide a critical lens through which we can appraise the current volume. It bears mentioning here that, within the comic art studies discourse, the so-called Golden Age of American comic art for years has also been simultaneous with the Popular Front. Jewish comic artists like Jack Kirby drew imagery of Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw long before Pearl Harbor owing to how personally they took the Nuremberg race laws that were being used to oppress and eventually murder their cousins back in Europe. Such imagery, created at a time when isolationism was a strong current in the United States and affection for fascism was exhibited by metropolitan Irish Catholics and German American Bundists, was inherently and undeniably both political and radical regardless of whether the individual creator was a dues paying member of the Communist Party or even a Fellow Traveler (Kirby was neither and would at one point produce anti-Communist comics at the start of the Cold War).

CLR James argued that the revolutionary can and should use popular culture items, such as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, to inspire the working class to a disciplined spontaneity that can provide the genesis of a revolutionary movement. The difference between popular culture and Popular Front, which is the graveyard of revolutionary movements, is the rejection of the structural system that provides both a comforting framework and reassurance of safety but also a set of limitations and boundary lines that the working class is prevented and forbidden from crossing.

Does this work by Buhle and Van Sciver serve as popular culture or is it part of a Popular Front? I would argue the former for the following reasons.

First, while it obviously utilizes certain generic archetypes in construction, the story itself moves wildly outside the boundaries of the typical three act structure. Instead we are brought on a fantastic journey through space and time to learn about an important and inspirational section of ecological socialist history that will become more and more important for activists as we continue to face the repercussions of anthropogenic climate change. Chapman’s praxis of planting trees across the land is extremely relevant because deforestation has been a major cause for the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And because of the resulting food shortages that can come of climate change, we also would do well to note that planting more fruit bearing trees might very well become a necessity of survival over the next century.

Second, while the Popular Front built ultimately false alliances with civic structures (churches, unions, political parties) that served as the terminal flaw, Buhle and Van Sciver present an affirmation of spiritual pluralism and near anarchism. Chapman’s connection to religion and spirituality is neither antagonistic, as was the case with Communists, nor supportive of hypocritical believers, which was part of the Popular Front. Instead, we are given an example of a truly libertarian religious pluralism that promotes alliances between the faithful and atheist, something the Left today needs to better grasp in order to build strong alliances.

Finally, the repudiation of capitalism and its various ideological manifestations, be it patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity, or imperialism, is not rejected on the final page of the story. Johnny Appleseed and Joe Hill live together in eternity where working people defend their rights and their ecology from the onslaught wrought by capital. From Standing Rock to Berta Cáceres and beyond, they are not idealized European straight men who serve as high watermarks. Instead they provide a gentle yet discernible trail on a wilderness path that recognized solidarity with the indigenous and demonstrate how and why Europeans can and should strive to live in harmony with these first inhabitants of the continent.

Buhle and Van Sciver have created a book that should be handed down from generation to generation. Grandparents should read it to children and coworkers should hand it off to each other at work. The accessible nature of the comic form combined with such a desperately necessary eco-communist praxis is exactly what America needs at this point, the close of the game show host’s first year as president that has polluted so many different parts of our lives. They show that the aesthetic of the Popular Front, informed by a progressive nostalgia for American history, can be separated from the politics, a stellar development in my estimation.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.