The West as Seen from the East
The West as Seen from the East
The West as Seen from the East
Literary Explorations. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Eastern newspapers, magazines, and books began to carry the accounts of official explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, and John Fremont. The adventures of unofficial explorers, such as painter George Catlin and trader Josiah Gregg, also became popular. This new interest in the West inspired Eastern literary figures such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to produce their own impressions of the frontier. While such literary accounts were often shaped by reading rather than firsthand experience, they had a tremendous influence upon future visions of the West.
Cooper. James Fenimore Cooper created an immensely influential vision of the West in his Leatherstocking novels, the first of which was The Pioneers (1823), set near Otsego Lake, New York, in the late eighteenth century. The novel’s fundamental conflict is played out between Judge Temple, a Christian gentleman and proprietor of a large tract of land, and Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, a hunter and trapper who has lived for forty years on the judge’s land. Cooper depicts Leatherstocking as a man “form’d for the wilderness,” “kindred [to] the beasts of the forest,” and steeped in Indian lore and the moral code of nature. After being arrested for killing a single deer out of season, Leatherstocking chooses to leave the settlement, disappearing into the woods, “towards the setting sun.” The Pioneers, like the other novels in the Leatherstocking series, is driven by conflicts between civilization and freedom, law and nature, conflicts that would be played out again and again in Western literature. Cooper himself continued to explore these questions through the character of Leatherstocking in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper never actually visited the West, and his novels remained unconvincing to his critics. Nevertheless, the character of Leatherstocking, blending the man of action with the man of natural philosophy, became one of the most influential and enduring characters of American literature.
Irving’s Tours. Washington Irving, widely regarded as the first professional American author and best known today as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” also wrote of the West. In 1832, after a seventeen-year sojourn in Europe, Irving returned home to New York, anxious to again take up American subject matter. In the next few years he published three Western volumes, A Tour of the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836), and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). A Tour of the Prairies records Irving’s experience as a member of a federal government expedition across what is now Oklahoma. Irving considered A Tour of the Prairies a “light” work, a miscellaneous collection of sketches varied in their range and tone. Astoria and Captain Bonneville were intended as more “serious” works. Astoria, written at the behest of business magnate John Jacob Astor, documented Astor’s “grand enterprise” in the Northwest—his attempt, between 1809 and 1813, to establish a fur-trading colony at the mouth of the Columbia River. The colony failed, in part because of confusion created by the outbreak of hostilities with the British. The lesson of Astoria, according to Irving, is that the growth of the American empire will depend upon bold entrepreneurs such as Astor, entrepreneurs who deserve recognition and support from the federal government. Captain Bonneville was based on the journals of Benjamin Bonneville, a gentleman-soldier who in 1831 was granted leave from the U.S. Army to explore the Rocky Mountains. The mountain region was, in Irving’s view, “an irreclaimable wilderness,” populated by mountain men and Indians of “savage habitudes.” In contrast to Cooper’s pastoral vision of the frontier as home to yeomanlike virtue, Irving’s wilderness tests and nearly exhausts the resources of both empire builders, such as Astor, and experienced soldiers, such as Bonneville.
Before the Mast (1840) vividly recounts his experiences as a merchant sailor and in pre-gold-rush California. In 1842 Francis Parkman, also a Harvard student, followed Dana westward, leaving his studies for a “tour of curiosity and amusement” beyond the Missouri River. His Oregon Trail (1846), the record of his journey, reveals an Easterner’s paradoxical disdain for and romantic vision of the West. He found some backwoodsmen to be “uncouth, mean and stupid”; yet his guide, Henry Chatillon, appears as a heroic figure, brave, true, and possessing “a natural refinement.” Another group of prominent New England literary figures, the Transcendentalists, were more concerned with the Far East than the Far West. Ralph Waldo Emerson had little to say about the West, and while we might expect Henry David Thoreau to have a great interest in the frontier, in fact he decried the base economic motivations of those who went West. The mountain men were, according to Thoreau, a “loafing class tempted by rum and money.” He thought the gold rush marked “the greatest-disgrace on mankind.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the most famous American poet of his day, created a popular, if sentimentalized, vision of Indian life in his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Whatever the attitude of literary Easterners toward the West, by 1850 references to the West were commonplace in Eastern literature. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) is dotted with Western allusions, and Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter (1850), described the fiendish Chillingworth as probing his enemy’s secret “like a miner searching for gold.”
Ralph M. Aderman, ed., Critical Essays on Washington Irving (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990);
Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Twayne, 1988);
Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985);
Robert E. Spiller and others, The Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1973);
J. Golden Taylor, A Literary History of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987).