Glass Ghost: The Queer Cartography of an Unruly Revenant

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This is the eighth post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.


Hugh Glass was dead: to begin with. The American frontiersman best known for his violent encounter with a Grizzly bear in 1823 — and his subsequent journey for revenge against those who left him for dead — is an unruly, revenant being. Reanimated with each new artistic reincarnation, this hypermasculine, bear-battling folk hero of the American wilderness is arguably more myth than man. “Old Glass” has a pension for confounding new scholars in no small part because his story — as is often the case with legends — does not follow a linear narrative. His myth travels between ecologies, nations, and borders. His “wild body” is all over the map, “flickering in and out of meaning” at its boundaries.1

Jon T. Coleman “longs for a body” in his 2012 Here Lies Hugh Glass, wishing for records which might help exhume the story and autopsy the mythology. Apart from a single letter, the historic Glass left no bones to history. Where Coleman longs for a body, I covet a map, but encounter the same unruliness. Jack Halberstam’s Wild Things calls on scholars to write on these “disorderly forms of history” — to impart change in a field which has “bent toward legibility, recognition, maturity, and mutuality.” Queer geography and queer cartography, then, with their inherent nonlinearity and commitment to “alternate modes of spatial representation,” might help bring a clearer view of the places Glass’s ghost haunts into focus.2

In the case of the Academy Award winning 2016 Alejandro González Iñárritu film The Revenant, Glass again rises from the grave — this time, in western Canada, hundreds of miles from landscapes of the historic Glass’s path.3 The Revenant takes liberties with the historic Glass, condensing and reordering events, excluding some and fictionalizing others, artificially linearizing his story. If the points which geolocate Glass’s filmic trail in the 2016 The Revenant were plotted alongside their historical counterparts, its points and plot-holes would look like someone took birdshot to an atlas of North America at ten yards. Wondering if I could make the shot, I set out to create a map of Glass’s historic path against the path of The Revenant, so stalking the queerness of Glass’s unruly, “broken form.” 4

Left: In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, the folk hero Hugh Glass comes again to the silver screen, this time, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Punke (2002). Right: Hugh Glass as depicted in 19th c. bimodal illustration (Creative Commons, Wikipedia).

The Queerness of Hugh Glass

Glass’s historic trail has captivated and frustrated scholars for decades. Very little is known about the son of Pennsylvanian “Scotch-Irish” parents who joined “Ashely’s Hundred,” a group of mountain men recruited by General William Henry Ashely for the ill-fated fur trapping expedition of 1823.5 The sensationalized story of Glass’s encounter with the Grizzly bear first appeared before an American audience in Hall’s “The Missouri Trapper,” published in The Port Folio Magazine in March of 1825. From the beginning, the value and credibility of the frontiersman’s mythology hinges upon depictions of his wildness: Hall introduces Glass by name only after that name is predicated on its masculine heft. From “The Missouri Trapper” to The Revenant, Glass’s masculinity becomes a currency of sorts on which his tale’s credibility is scaled.

In Queer Ecologies, Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson describe frontier wildernesses as a space which liberated men from “emasculating scenes of domesticity” and urban effeminacy.  Coleman’s 2012 book describes the frontier’s ability to produce new male bodies by way of a “curiously masculine reproduction” in similar terms. The Revenant so engages the queerness of frontier in significant ways — and its characters portray what Coleman refers to as the “swindle and stage” of “masculine regeneration” well. The dialogue between its settler trapper characters reflect these queer aspects in ways which remain relatable to its modern audience. “God damn wish my Daddy was a doctor, then he coulda bought me a captain’s job,” gripes Tom Hardy as Glass’s nemesis Fitzgerald, lobbing insult at Captain Ashley’s adequacy as a leader in harsh frontier environments on the basis of its distance from the more privileged circles from whence Ashley came — so, insulting his masculinity. The Revenant’s filmic portrayal of settler hypermasculinity is as it was in “The Missouri Trapper:” predicated on intimacies between undomesticated frontier and the “wildness” of the settler-trapper body.


The tale of Hugh Glass appeared for the first time before an American audience in the March 1825 issue of The Port Folio magazine. Its authourship has been attributed to James Hall. Click here to read a digitized version of this article.

Glass’s mythic queerness hinges upon the relationship between the hypermasculinity of his “wild body” and the geography of frontier. Coleman stalks Glass’s mutilated, “broken form” across the brutal, homosocial geography of a frontier in which masculine bodies “rubbed against a region and produced new male bodies.” This is at once hypermasculine and non-heteronormative. Glass’s wilderness so becomes significant not only as a stage for white settler masculinity — it also sets the stage for a geographic understanding of Glass’s very “wildness”. The Glass myth haunts by travelling through time and through geographic space. Remade for the bear to take again and again, at times a Frankenstein, at others, more classically Promethean, Glass’s body is an “unruly”, “unnatural” queer being, scattered across borders, and flickering in and out of geographic legibility.

How, then, can we engage attempts at artificial linearization, like that of The Revenant, in a queer context? Queer mapping practices that do not plot an orderly progression but instead spatialize “a reeling spiral of flight and return, the iterative reawakening of new selves . . .” through a “messy slather of dots.” 6 It is so mapping becomes an essential vehicle for making sense of the geographies Glass’s ghost haunts. Here, “wild bodies” — those which, as Halberstam writes, “appear only at the very edge of definition” are made critical to the stories which “plot a different course through history”.

A New Map for “Old Glass”

This mapping project aims to provide perspective on the Hugh Glass folk legend. It uses literary and other primary source material against ecological data, historical scholarship and archaeological data, and presents this in conjunction with locations filmed for the 2015 film The Revenant. To access more features, visit the map.

 Considered in the map above are three groups of plotted points. Group 1 plots known locations along Glass’s historic path, as substantiated by newspapers, letters, and other primary source material between 1822 and 1825.7 These points chart Glass’s historical journey with “Ashley’s Hundred,” the bear attack at the center of his mythology, and his quest for vengeance against the trappers who abandoned him thereafter. Group 2 plots filming locations of the 2016 film The Revenant. Group 3 plots relevant sites and landmarks along Glass’s journey which scholarship has confirmed, and are of significance to the narrative journey explored by Groups 1 and 2.8

I can only offer what I have learned in chasing after a Glass ghost that shatters with each attempt to get a closer look: one can no more easily shoot a ghost than exhume it.

If the “messy slather of dots” Groups 1, 2, and 3 provide were treated as “gaping holes, disagreements, and wounds” in Glass’s story and sutured up, the map would be a tangle of transnational proportions. 9 Using line to make connections between the oldest and the youngest Glass folklore, Group 4 does just this. Comparing The Revenant’s film locations (Group 2) against locations which can be substantiated from history and literature (Groups 1 and 3), it illustrates the ability of the Glass myth to travel across ecologies and nations, and to subvert borders. Readers can view this by visiting the map and clicking Group 4 to enable it.

Importantly, examining Glass’s historic path alongside its Revenant resurrection reveals the extent to which the film perpetuates its folkloric queerness. The Revenant relies upon both the “broken form” of Glass’s body — and on the broken form of historical order. The Revenant itself produces a “messy slather of dots” in the pursuit of linearizing the Glass narrative — and so can itself be considered contributive to the folkloric unruliness of Glass’s wild body. Raising Glass to destroy him in completely new ecologies and along artificial timelines, The Revenant not only fails to subvert Glass’s unruly queerness: it also enhances it.

For Now We See Through a Glass, Queerly: Conclusions and Further Study

Like Coleman, I indulge in imagining where Glass’s bones might lie: doubtlessly, not far from where they fell to a fatal altercation with an Arikara warrior c.1833, although whether now beneath a highway or in the mouth of someone’s eager terrier with a pension for digging and a lot more luck than I, I know not. “Flickering in and out of meaning,” the specter of Glass’s broken form appears along the periphery of this map’s limited data set as might a ghost, skirting the “very edge of definition” in regions and in “formations of nature” which maps uniquely illustrate.10 It is here Glass’s queerness can be represented in its truest form: something alive and unalive, human and non-human, more elusive with every attempt to catch it. The Revenant is a figment of frontier imagination perhaps best understood in the haunts which represent its queerness.


Remade for the bear to take again and again, Glass’s body is an “unruly”, “unnatural” queer being, scattered across borders, and flickering in and out of geographic legibility.


For how much Professor Coleman’s research has done for Glass’s story, I wish I could offer him a body. As new mythologies reanimate old bones, I hold out hope, always, for an archaeological miracle; for the discovery of an old map which might help write new chapters of Glass’s story.11 Instead, I can only offer what I have learned in chasing after a Glass ghost which shatters with each attempt to get a closer look: one can no more easily shoot a ghost than exhume it. They are undying, powerful, and inherently queer.

Left: John Lopez’s statue of Grizzly v. Glass. Grand River Museum, North Lemmon, South Dakota. Creative Commons image via Wikipedia. To learn more about John Lopez’s art, please visit his website. Right: Grizzly bear, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 2021, Caroline Abbott.


Notes

  1. See Jack Halberstam, 2020; Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, 2010.
  2. See Larry Knopp and Michael Brown, 2010.
  3. This study’s scope is limited to analyses of the filmic Revenant but wishes to acknowledge the 2002 publication of the novel of the same name which preceded it by Michael Punke, without which The Revenant would not exist as it is known. This novel opens unique ecocritical pathways on which further scholarship may build.
  4. See Coleman, 2012.
  5. Striking similarities exist between Queer Ecologies’ introductory analysis of the hyper-masculine Queerness of Brokeback Mountain and the way Coleman engages gender in his study of Glass. While Coleman engages gendered analyses, scholarship connecting Glass with Queer Ecologies 2010 remains open to potential.
  6. See Hugh Ryan, “A Memoir About Queer Identity,” The New York Times, 7 Feb. 2021.
  7. This work relies upon a very large number of sources. Please contact Caroline Abbott with questions.
  8. Rather than fixating on inaccuracies between the historic Glass and the filmic Revenant, this map strictly aims to frame considerations of Hugh Glass’s mythic Queerness and demonstrate the usefulness of maps to such studies.
  9. See Coleman, 2012.
  10. See Halberstam, 2020.
  11. On the off event that the archaeological Gods are reading this, please note that I do not wish to appear ungrateful for the exciting imagery produced of Shackleton’s ship earlier this year, but that, to this student of history, the location of Fort Kiowa would settle the score for those of us who have not yet found their sea legs.

Featured image: Hugh Glass as depicted in 19th c. bimodal illustration (Creative Commons, Wikipedia).
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