The Culprit Fay

The Culprit Fay

10 February 2013

Perhaps because I suspect such is to be my fate, I have always had a weakness for forgotten writers of the past, especially when we share a passion for folklore, fairies, and legends.

Ina E. Wood van Norman
Ina E. Wood van Norman

A recent cross-country skiing trip to Minnewaska State Park led me to the adventures of Minnewaska, Minnehaha's adopted daughter, as chronicled by Mrs. Ina E. Wood van Norman, along with the work of Jared Barhite, who took time off from his duties as the Superintendent of Schools in West New York to pen Dalmaqua, a Legend of Aowasting (Awosting) Lake, among other poetry collections.

If you'd like to know more about these writers and our attempt to find Barhite's "Minnewaska Sphinx," please see our article at MountainHikingSite.com.

That journey also introduced me to the formidable Alice Otillia Thorson, whose 1901 novel, The Tribe of Pezhekee, tells the story of the warrior maiden, Minnewaska, as it was related by a ghost who arose from the local Indian Mound known as Minnewaska's Grave.

Jared Barhite
Jared Barhite

The ghostly narrator is probably sufficient reason to take the novel's historicity with a grain of salt. But if more motive is needed, Thorson herself admitted that there was no more historical basis to her novel than the fact that "There was a current popular myth that the tumulus-crowned hill across the lake was the burial place of an Indian Chief named Minnewaska." However, Minnewaska sounded like a girl's name to her, and so she made her protagonist a woman - and gave rise to an entire folkloric tradition of Minnewaska being a woman.

The Minnewaska Sphinx
The Minnewaska Sphinx

Thorson's lack of, shall we say, conventional academic method, along with my own passion for 19th century British antiquarians, led to me to look for actual 19th-century folklorists who specialized in American legends. One of the first was Charles M. Skinner, who published Myths and Legends of our Own Land, published in 1896. A newspaperman who served as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle after Walt Whitman, Skinner hoped, like many turn of the century folklorists, to use traditional stories, music, and dance to combat the industrial age.

Congenial as that attitude is to anyone who lives in Woodstock, it can't hide the fact that Skinner's scholarship is, to say the least, uneven. Myths and Legends offers an omnivorous collection of genuine local legends, such as the deeply unpleasant origins of "The Deformed of Zoar," along with the more well-known traditions of "The Catskill Witch" and "Big Indian."

Alice Thorson
Alice Thorson

But Skinner also presented a prose version of "The Culprit Fay" as a genuine piece of folklore, when it is in fact a poem composed by Columbia-educated Joseph Rodman Drake, who described its composition in a preface to the piece:

Charles M. Skinner
Charles M. Skinner

The exquisite poem of 'The Culprit Fay,' was composed hastily among the Highlands of the Hudson, in the summer of 1819. The author - says his biography - was walking with some friends on a warm moonlight evening, when one of the party remarked that it would be difficult to write a faery poem, purely imaginative, without the aid of human characters. When the party was reassembled, two or three days afterward, 'The Culprit Fay' was read to them, nearly as it is now printed.

Elegant as the challenge was, it is questionable whether Drake met it, especially given that Drake's current fame rests largely on Edgar Allan Poe's savaging of the poem in what is commonly known as the "The Halleck-Rodman Review":

It is more than probable that from ten readers of the Culprit Fay, nine would immediately pronounce it a poem betokening the most extraordinary powers of imagination, and of these nine, perhaps five or six, poets themselves... would feel embarrassed between a half-consciousness that they ought to admire the production, and a wonder that they do not... An example will best illustrate our meaning upon this point:

Joseph Drake
Joseph Drake

He put his acorn helmet on;
It was plumed of the silk of the thistle down:
The corslet plate that guarded his breast
Was once the wild bee's golden vest;
His cloak of a thousand mingled dyes,
Was formed of the wings of butterflies;
His shield was the shell of a lady-bug queen,
Studs of gold on a ground of green;
And the quivering lance which he brandished bright
Was the sting of a wasp he had slain in fight.

We shall now be understood. Were any of the admirers of the Culprit Fay asked their opinion of these lines, they would most probably speak in high terms of the imagination they display. Yet let the most stolid and the most confessedly unpoetical of these admirers only try the experiment, and he will find, possibly to his extreme surprise, that he himself will have no difficulty whatever in substituting for the equipments of the Fairy, as assigned by the poet, other equipments equally comfortable, no doubt... Why we could accoutre him as well ourselves - let us see.

His blue-bell helmet, we have heard
Was plumed with the down of the hummingbird,
The corslet on his bosom bold
Was once the locust's coat of gold,
His cloak, of a thousand mingled hues,
Was the velvet violet, wet with dews,
His target was, the crescent shell
Of the small sea Sidrophel,
And a glittering beam from a maiden's eye
Was the lance which he proudly wav'd on high.

Wicked as it is, Poe's review is spot on. Even in prose, the acorn helmet stopped me in my tracks, making me wonder what beldame spinning yarn by the fire, let alone what Native American, could ever come up with such a precious image. But let's not hold Skinner culprit for yielding to the impulse to take something a bit fey seriously. Myths and Legends is packed with colonial and Native American traditions, and an awful lot of fun to browse through.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird