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Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story Paperback – April 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Former Washingtonian editor Means (Colin Powell: A Biography) employs extensive research to dig out facts buried in the mythic past about Johnny Appleseed, "not only the best-known walker in American history but also one of its most notable loners." John Chapman was born in 1774, grew up on a Massachusetts farm, but left in the 1790s, sowing seeds and planting apple nurseries while spreading Swedenborgian spirituality. Means considers conflicting claims on Chapman's family tree, then traces his treks through Ohio orchards; looks at Appleseed pop culture; and considers the theory that Chapman's fame came from inferior seedlings and scrub apples used for hard cider that kept the frontier in an "alcoholic haze." Tracing the roots and routes of this American folk hero, Means concludes that Chapman "almost certainly was insane," yet this nature lover's life was a critique of industrialization: "The nature he loved and gave himself over to vibrated through his entire being." Due to scant records, much is speculative, but Means's considerable skills as a wordsmith and historian produce a bountiful harvest. 15 b&w illus.; 7 maps. (Apr. 12)
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“Engaging . . . Means scrubs away nearly two centuries of rumor and myth to uncover the truth about 19th-century pioneer nurseryman John Chapman. . . . Mean’s meticulous research reveals Chapman as an ascetic, conservationist and pacifist well-suited to serve as patron saint of today’s faith-based ‘creation care’ movement.”

--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“We all know the caricature, but few of us know the man. Howard Means produces a feast of a story that strips away the myths of this folk-tale hero and gives us the real John Chapman and the rough-and-tumble world he lived in. This is a thoroughly fascinating and fun book.”

--Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

“Johnny Appleseed is one of the great myths of our childhood. With insight and a lively touch, Howard Means tells us the story of the real Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman, a mystic and visionary who turns out to be a most memorable American character.”

--Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers

“Means supports the legend with hard-earned fact in his portrait of Chapman as a ‘nurseryman; religious zealot; real-estate dabbler’ and even altruistic capitalist.”

--The Wall Street Journal

“Delightfully wry and perceptive . . . a captivating achievement in Americana.”

--Booklist (Starred Review)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (April 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439178267
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439178263
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #194,347 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a former schoolteacher (Deerfield Academy, St. Albans School) who segued into journalism (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washingtonian Magazine as senior writer, the Orlando Sentinel and King Features Syndicate, and back to the Washingtonian as senior editor) and from there into books as editor, collaborator, and author. My interests are broad, but increasingly, they seem to be focusing on a constellation of interrelated subjects: American eccentricity and self-reliance, the Civil War as the primal act of American history (an event we are still not over), religious fundamentalism and utopianism, and Manifest Destiny as the great engine of our national story. In my new biography, JOHNNY APPLESEED, all those forces except the Civil War (and that, too, if we project forward) come together in, I hope, fascinating ways. Born and raised in Lancaster, PA, I live now in Millwood, VA, in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on April 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author Howard Means sets the tone of this work in the opening pages when says Johnny may be one of the oddest and yet most beloved characters in U.S. history. There is a real dichotomy here in that myth always supersedes the reality no matter how great it is of itself.

John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed was born on 9/26/1774 to Nathaniel and Elizabeth Simons Chapman in Leominster, MA. He grew up with his sister Elizabeth and ten half-brothers/sisters near Longmeadow, MA before taking off when he was 22 with his half-brother Nathaniel who was six years his junior. With a family of 13 living in a small house one can understand why Johnny and Nathaniel might want to experience the west and more leg room as young vibrant males. The Chapmans first tramped about Pennsylvania for a while before moving westward into Ohio. In fact a great part of the book discusses the early settling of primarily Ohio with great mention of Pennsylvania with lesser note of Massachusetts, New York, and Indiana.

Johnny not only planted apple trees using the seeds he got free from Western Pennsylvania cider mills, as he thought that was more in keeping with God's way than grafting onto established trees. It was also infinity cheaper and he could carry all his future plants in a sack or two rather than needing a horse and wagon to transport seedlings. The problem was Johnny's big heart in giving away trees to people who couldn't pay. He did establish some orchards and sold some trees from them but was much more famous for simply planting apple seeds to start trees. Johnny supposedly loved all animals and nature alike. The myth goes that he would rather let a rattlesnake bite him than kill it. That seems to be a big of a stretch to me, but fighting the falsehoods in a legend is a no win situation.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Peter A. Greene VINE VOICE on August 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Means has done a great job with a little-examined American icon. In particular, he does a great job of navigating the differences and connections between the real John Chapman and the mythic Johnny Appleseed whose story emerged from the man.

Part of the challenge is to put Chapman in context. That context includes early pre-revolution history, an obscure version of Christianity, and culture and society that have long since vanished into our dimly-remembered past. To do that, Means is not afraid to take some side trips that help us understand who Chapman was and how his story could take root and grow. Means could have stayed strictly focused on the man, but the story would have made so much less sense without the context.

So in a sense you get lots of bonus history in this book, but it's all history that helps make sense of the main thread.

Means uses a chatty and personal voice. He's clear and fair about including various tales, explaining where they came from and explaining how likely they may or may not be; he doesn't try to set himself up as the final arbiter, and he hasn't thrown away all the pieces of research that he deemed inauthentic. This, again, can give the book a bit of a ranging feel, and readers who like their info in quick direct tightly-fileted bursts may find this book a bit rambly for their tastes.

But I loved it. Thoroughly researched, richly unfolding, and filled with illuminating (and occasionally surprising) connections, it's a great study in obscure biography, the growth of the American identity, and the ways in which a man's story can become a nation's beloved myth. Not so much "Let me tell you how it is" as "Hey, come look at this cool stuff I found." Whether you know a little about Johnny or a lot, you will find much to enjoy here. Very readable, and highly recommended.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Irving Warner on September 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I did not know much about John Chapman (AKA "Johnny Appleseed") and it appears that few others did also. There is little firm material for the researcher to grab hold of, and though Howard Means does a banner job of doing so, this book should have had a different title. It concerns far more than Chapman, rather it surveys the post revolutionary war "Westward land expansion" into Ohio, Kentucky, etc. Chapman was very much a part of that, but only a small part. This book's task was weightier than an examination of the Johnny Appleseed myths, though it did cast a real light upon his life. One thing Means repeatedly marveled at was how Chapman walked everywhere, often overland, i.e. over roadless expanses. In 1800 or thereabouts, inland people >all< walked, rode a horse or used rivers. Poor people usually lacked horses and boats; hence, they walked everywhere. One of the startling Appleseed myths that Means did debunk, was one which he de-emphasized: That John Chapman walked around casting appleseeds hither and yon--everywhere he went, like one might modern day shopping pamphlets. He did anything but that, and Means does a good job of nailing this down--Chapman as a planter of apple nurseries. I think the author did a good job in this book; however, the title benignly misleads.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David M. Keck on August 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This efficient book is readable and well-researched. As the title says, it contains both the real history of Johnny Appleseed as we know him, and the various legends about him and the history of them. This is excellent writing and research, including the collateral subjects used to tell the related stories to the life of John Chapman.
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