January 15, 2012

Elia W. Peattie: from the thrall of the forest

Elia Wilkerson Cahill was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on January 15, 1862. As a child, she and her family (including four sisters) moved to Chicago. She stopped her schooling in sixth grade and became a typesetter in her father's print shop. After her 1883 marriage to Robert Burns Peattie, she became more involved in the literary scene. Under the name Elia W. Peattie, she became the art and society editor for the Chicago Tribune, later worked for a newspaper in Nebraska, and contributed to various journals and magazines. By the end of her life, she was a published journalist, short story writer, poet, novelist, and playwright.

Among her works is the short story "Michigan Man," and it is tempting to consider the work a reflection on her own life. The story follows Luther Dallas, an experienced "axe-man" who has spent 25 years of his 40-year life among the solemn pine trees of Michigan. The setting is a depressing one, described as "perennial gloom," but which allows a quiet, peaceful solitude.

More importantly, Luther is good at his job chopping down trees with the skills "of an executioner." He had no knowledge of the "progress" that inspired him to take so many lives, yet he feared a tree would some day return the favor. Sure enough, a large tree nearly crushes him and, in need of time to recover, he travels to Chicago to find his sister. Once there, however, the city confuses him and leaves him in a daze. He misses the solitude of the woods, but feels equally alone surrounded by tall, menacing buildings. He runs out of money and is sent to jail, still seriously injured from the tree. The lack of humanity in the urban environment is emphasized by the tale's closing lines:

The next morning the lock-up keeper opened the cell door. Luther lay with his head in a pool of blood. His soul had escaped from the thrall of the forest.

"Well, well!" said the little fat police justice, when he was told of it. "We ought to have a doctor around to look after such cases."

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