Stephen Vincent Benét is a name that is not heard much these days, though some of his short stories still show up in standard anthologies of American Literature. The Pulitzer Prize winning author came from an established American military family that had no apparent Jewish connections. Nevertheless, his interest in portraying and interpreting the American experience include at least one story with a decidedly Jewish theme. “Jacob and the Indians” was first published in the May 14 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, and in the following year was included in Benét’s collection Tales before Midnight.
The plot concerns the adventures of Jacob Stein, a bookish young Jew from Europe who was making a meagre living as a peddler in Philadelphia. The struggle of the uncouth Ashkenazic newcomers to be accepted by their cultured Sephardic coreligionists is a recurring motif. Determined to earn some more money and impress a young lady, young Jacob ventures out into the wilds of western Pennsylvania to involve himself in the fur trade in dangerously exciting Indian country. The encounter of the naïve talmudic scholar with the wild west is reminiscent of the exploits of Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder’s character) in “the Frisco Kid.” When Jacob returns to the city, he is a rugged frontiersman, and he has become so fascinated with the limitless possibilities of the American west that he is not particularly perturbed to find out that his former “rose of Sharon” for whom he originally undertook his quest has meanwhile been married to another.
Apart from Benét’s general evocation of American society at that time, he clearly did some research into the dynamics of the Jewish community. The sentence structure sometimes reflects foreign rhythms that sound like Yiddish (“To Philadelphia he came”) and the prose is sprinkled with Hebrew and Yiddish expressions, such as “chedar” (not a cheese but an elementary school), “the preacher Koheleth,” “Schnorrer,” impatience expressed by “nu,” and even a female demon named Iggereth-beth-Mathlan—slightly garbled from the talmudic “Agrat bat Maḥlat.” On the other hand, he also inserts some made-up phrases that are intended to sound like Hebrew adages; such as “protection of the strong is like a rock and a well,” or “who lies down in the straw with a dog gets up with fleas” (the latter was probably coined by Benjamin Franklin).
It is likely that the Jacob the hero was based on a certain Jacob I. Cohen (1744-1823), a Bavarian-born fur trader and friend of Daniel Boone who became a leading figure in the Philadelphia Jewish community. Benét’s Jacob Stein was born in the town of Rettelsheim, Germany; as far as I can tell this is a fictitious locality, though Germany would fit the migration patterns of the time. Various speech patterns, customs and idioms that are embedded in the story seem more appropriate to Yiddish-speakers from Poland or Russia.
Another historical personage whom Benét incorporated into his character was Abraham Chapman, a Canadian trader who was captured by Indians in Detroit. As he was being burned at the stake, he asked for something to drink, but the soup that he was given was so scalding that he angrily hurled it at his captors. Such behaviour was unheard of among the Indians, and they presumed that the man was insane; which according to their laws earned him an exemption from execution.
Benét tells a virtually identical story about Jacob Stein in Pennsylvania. Notwithstanding its factual historical basis, like much of Benét’s prose it also evokes biblical associations, notably with the tale of David who feigned madness to save his life from Achish king of Gat when fleeing from King Saul.
Indeed, it is in his skillful use of biblical motifs that I find Benét most fascinating. For example, Jacob Stein had a rival for the heart of his boss’s lovely daughter Miriam Ettelson: Meyer Kappelhuist was a robust Dutch-born Indian trader with a red face and red hairs on the backs of his hands. It was in order to outdo Meyer’s wealth and attractiveness to women that Jacob set out on his westward journey.
Of course for readers of the Bible, Meyer Kappelhuist immediately brings up associations with Jacob’s twin brother Esau, the red-haired, hirsute hunter whose ambivalent relationship with Jacob drove the latter into exile both for personal safety and to find himself a wife.
The comparison is most evident in Benét’s description of Jacob Stein’s return to civilization. One of the first people he meets is Meyer Kappelhuist. They greet each other civilly, but as in the midrashic accounts that ascribed malicious motives to Esau, Jacob Stein “did not like the look in the red-haired man's eyes.” When Meyer suggests that they continue their travels together, Jacob cautiously declines the invitation and decides to take a different route, even as the biblical Jacob did with Esau. In Benét’s tale it turned out that Meyer Kappelhuist was scalped and killed by Indians, and Jacob accepted the duty of burying his remains.
The biblical language that most pervades the story of Jacob and the Indians is that which relates to the land itself: Jacob declares his plan to "go forth into the wilderness,” and throughout the story the vast and limitless American frontier is designated by expressions like “wilderness,” “the land of Canaan,” “a view across the Jordan” or “Promised Land.”
Jacob’s mentor Raphael Sanchez (who seems to act as the author’s voice in the narrative) speaks poignantly of his motives for immigrating to the New World: “It was for the promise—the promise of [William] Penn—that this land should be an habitation and a refuge, not only for the Gentiles.” The Jews will have an equal share in the destiny of this unique new land, a share which must be earned.
Truly, Benét projected back onto the heroes of his story a vision of America that was messianic. He contrasted it with the rapacious European imperialist powers who seized possession of their colonial territories only to control and exploit their economic riches. America, by contrast, is a land that is cultivated by the hard work of its own residents. “One pays for the land of Canaan; one pays in blood and sweat." The redemption that lay in the American frontier would benefit not only Jacob's descendants, but "nations yet to come."
Indeed, although the young scholar Jacob had received a traditional Jewish education that was vividly steeped in the scriptural imagery of Jerusalem perched atop the Temple mount, Benét describes how that “white city set on a hill” came to be transformed in Jacob’s heart into “a great and open landscape, ready for nations.”
Those of us who remain devoted to the physical city of Jerusalem and to the strengthening of a Jewish homeland on our historic territory will doubtless feel uneasy at the American writer’s co-opting of our deeply held national and religious convictions—though I am certain that they accurately reflect the attitudes of many Jews and Christians in the times of Jacob Stein and of Stephen Vincent Benét.
Nevertheless, the ideals which they expressed with such articulate passion—of redemption that must be earned through hard labour, and of a nationalism that seeks to share its bounty with all humanity—should still resonate with us, whether on the North American frontier or in our middle-eastern promised land.