Johnny Appleseed - Should Be Known As Johnny Applejack

Today's encore selection -- from Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever. The legendary and almost mythical Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman and who lived from 1774 to 1845) helped usher in a hard-drinking era in American history:

"One of the most smoothed-over stories in American history has to be that of the itinerant, animal loving, humbly dressed John Chap­man, who planted frontier nurseries that grew into apple orchards in Pennsylvania and up and down the Ohio Valley. Chapman came to be universally loved and known as Johnny Appleseed. Although children's books and Disney drawings often feature Chapman literally sowing apples out of a hand-sewn burlap bag, he was far more or­ganized than that -- luckily for his crops and for his very happy customers.

"An American Saint Francis of Assisi (according to one story he put out a cooking fire rather than hurt some mosquitoes) crossed with Paul Bunyan and Henry David Thoreau, he strode into the national consciousness as smoothly as apple cider. There he stayed, enshrined in our most sentimental frontier myths, the subject of dozens of sanc­tified children's books and depictions, like The Legend of Johnny Ap­pleseed, the 1948 film from Walt Disney Studios that tells the story of a skunk-loving apple farmer led west by an angel who sings an apple song. ...

"Chapman, born in 1774 in Massachusetts, was ... a devout student of the popular teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose many American followers embraced a secular humanist creed. He had a system for growing apple trees. He would find seeds from the leav­ings of cider mills and plant them to become nurseries for orchards. He seemed to have an instinct about where people would want to settle -- on riverbanks, at the confluence of the primitive roads begin­ning to be built -- and it was in those places that he planted. By the time a community had grown up, Chapman had apple trees to sell. Then he would leave the plantings in the care of local farmers and re­turn every two years to oversee the crop.

"In general, seeds like those that Johnny Appleseed carried did not grow edible apples. Most edible apples are grown from grafts in which pieces of trees that bear a certain kind of apple are grafted onto other trees to create the best eating apples. Apples grown from seeds are usu­ally small and sour. They are called spitters for obvious reasons. They are 'sour enough,' Henry David Thoreau wrote, 'to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream.' But apples grown from seeds are very good for one thing -- making hard cider. Furthermore, apple cider was almost the only way the settlers could experience sweetness. Sugar was rare. Honey was hard to get.

"Johnny Appleseed was not carrying the possibility of eating apples; his mission was something quite different and more mature than Dis­ney's 1948 movie version. Far from being the American Saint Francis, John Chapman turned out to be the American Dionysus. No wonder everyone was glad to see him coming down the western roads! 'The reason people ... wanted John Chapman to stay and plant a nursery was the same reason he would soon be welcome in every cabin in Ohio,' [Michael] Pollan writes [in The Botany of Desire]. 'Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alco­hol to the frontier.'

"Until Prohibition, most apples were used to make cider, which was always fermented to create a healthy drink with a healthy punch­ -- about 10 percent alcohol. By freezing cider and siphoning off the alco­holic content, which did not freeze, farmers made the more powerful applejack -- often as high as 66 proof. 'It takes a leap of the historical imagination to appreciate just how much the apple meant to peo­ple living two hundred years ago,' Pollan writes. 'By comparison, the apple in our eye is a fairly inconsequential thing -- a popular fruit (sec­ond only to the banana) but nothing we can't imagine living without. It is much harder for us to imagine living without the experience of sweetness, however, and sweetness, in the widest, oldest sense, is what the apple offered an American in Chapman's time, the desire it helped gratify.'

"Digging further into his research, Pollan became even more con­vinced that, although Chapman did not frolic in the orchards with naked maidens, he was very much like the mythical Greco-Roman God of drunkenness, Dionysus. By teaching man how to ferment grapes, Dionysius had given men the gift of wine. American grapes were too sour to be fermented successfully, so the grape was replaced with the apple. In his book The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer writes that Dionysus was also the patron of cultivated trees and the discov­erer of the apple. Although, as Pollan points out, Chapman's sexual experimentation was limited to trees in orchards, in many other ways he came to represent the twining together of man and the natural world symbolized by the earlier god. 'As I delved deeper into the myth of Dionysus, I realized there was much more to his story, and the strangely changeable god who began to come into focus bore a remarkable resemblance to John Chapman. Or at least to 'Johnny Appleseed,' who, I became convinced, is Dionysus's American son.' The success of Johnny Appleseed was just one of many factors con­tributing to drinking in nineteenth-century America. As Chapman was floating down the Ohio River carrying his seedlings in a hollowed-out log, or headed farther west for Indiana, the United States had reached a crisis in the amount of drinking that was done on a routine and daily basis by almost everyone."

Drinking in America: Our Secret History
author: Susan Cheever  
title: Drinking in America: Our Secret History  
publisher: Twelve Books  
date: Copyright 2015 by Susan Cheever  
page(s): 88-91