Wilderness as a Political Frame: The Reluctant Hero

I once heard a description of the “Reluctant Hero” – he is the most revered figure in storytelling, because he is the one who is charged with a noble mission, but he is forced to do so out of duty. His humility is his royalty. Luke Skywalker, Neo Anderson, Harry Potter, and the list goes on.

I experience Washington Irving as the Reluctant Hero. He has been prodded and cajoled into writing about his travels. And so in his introduction, he acknowledges that he has been demanded to write, and so as a reader we know that Irving is aware that many shall read his writings immediately upon publication. His readers are in the palm of his hands. What is even more alluring is that Irving seems to have no agenda; after all, he writes that “it is a simple narrative of every day occurrences” (9). Irving writes as a quiet man, a man who observes all, much as the Indians will observe the white man.

And yet, upon closer observation of Irving himself, one could deduce that he is a liberal writing for a conservative audience. He sides with the Indians, not the white man; the wild prairie, not the pastoral farm. He never forces his ideas upon others, but he slips them in. Nature – and those who live in tandem with nature – is the frame in which he poses his  ideas.

Irving’s writing is soft and subtle, but his political attitude is also soft and subtle. His views on Indians are made quite clear in the simple way he describes their beauty as “figures of monumental bronze,” while one of the white men that they encounter is described as a “tall raw-boned old fellow.”

When Irving’s traveling party encounters an Indian, they invite him to accompany them on their travels. Upon a moment’s notice, the Indian agrees, and Irving comments that “We are a society of slaves, not so much to others as to ourselves; our superfluities are the chains that bind us, impeding every movement of our bodies and thwarting every impulse of our souls” (34). His words declare quite boldly that society with its trappings is a prison – that nature is the escape, and that those who live within nature are free, such as this young Indian. These are the “figures of monumental bronze” – beautiful in their freedom to roam. And yet he immediately follows such a declaration with, “Such, at least, were my speculations at the time.” He allows the immediate experience to dictate his ideas, thereby disowning any political commentary. He allows his reader to draw his or her own conclusions about nature and society.

But of course, Irving knows that he is the Reluctant Hero, and people want to believe a hero.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by thelorist on September 14, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I liked your interpretation of Irving as the Reluctant Hero. I agree with this characterization and admit that I didn’t completely notice these traits on my first read-through. The moment it occurred to me that Irving was communicating a set of sentiments I haven’t seen in the readings until now was during the buffalo hunt, near the end of the selection. It was a different experience, watching the hunt from the first-person point-of-view of Irving, who, unlike characters who glorify the aesthetic of hunting, expressed regret and sadness, all the while admitting his shortcomings as a hunter: “I am nothing of a sportsman; I had been prompted to this unwonted exploit by the magnitude of the game, and the excitement of the adventurous chase. Now that the excitement was over, I could not but look with commiseration upon the poor animal that lay struggling and bleeding at my feet” (178).

    Irving, Washington. “A Tour of the Prairies”. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 3-9, 30-34, 39-46, 50-54, 171-179. pub. University of Oklahoma Press 1956

  2. First off, after seeing a reference to “The Matrix” in your opening paragraph I knew this would be a post worth commenting on.

    This is an intriguing and original argument, and I had to read it a couple times to grasp whether I was in agreement with you or not. After reviewing Irving’s text, I am in complete agreement. That being said, there are two points I wish to bring up that I feel are implicit in your essay, but I feel could benefit from a more explicit approach.

    First, you do a very good job in the second paragraph of defining what makes Washington Irving reluctant, but what exactly makes him heroic? After all, he states that this is a “simple narrative of everyday occurrences” (9), and you characterize him as a “quiet man” and an observer, but how does this quiet man emerge as a hero in the reader’s mind? The way I see it (feel free to disagree with this interpretation) is that the character of Irving serves as a stand-in for the reader, thereby allowing the reader to experience vicariously the drama of the prairie. Irving becomes the “hero as self.”

    You mention a few ways Irving is able to do this: his “soft and subtle” approach to politics, his ability to slip in ideas without forcing them on the reader, his willingness to let the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about the characters Irving encounters. All of these are excellent points, but I think one other method Irving uses to completely get the reader on his side is his use of emotion. In previous nature commentaries we have read (say, for example, the Lewis and Clark Journals) the authors rarely express their emotional state of mind when portraying nature and instead rely on stoic descriptions. Irving, on the other hand, displays a wide variety of emotion in his descriptions of nature and the people interacting with it: wonder (“such is the glorious independence of man in a savage state” [34]), hatred (“I felt little doubt on whose back a lash would be most meritoriously bestowed” [33]), grief (“It was a scene on which the ‘melancholy Jacques’ might have moralized by the hour” [53]), lonesomeness (“there is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie” [175]), guilt (“I could not but look with commiseration upon the poor animal that lay struggling and bleeding at my feet” [178]), to name a few. I felt that this honest and heartfelt outpouring of human emotion is an important component to what makes Irving a compelling narrator, and it encourages sympathy with the reader. It’s certainly what got me on his side.

    To conclude, thank you for this post, it made me view Irving’s writing in a totally different light. I realize you were focusing more on Irving as a political writer, and my two points above deviate from that theme, but I felt that the “Irving as Reluctant Hero” interpretation was original enough to deserve some attention on its own.

  3. Posted by teagueoreagan on September 15, 2011 at 3:06 am

    I feel that his introduction is a bit ridiculous and longwindedly overblown for what he is trying to accomplish with it. He attempts to establish a level of humility approaching the wooden, stilted introductions of someone like the sentimentalist Susana Rowson and, just like hers’, I don’t buy it. Even in writing about “everyday occurrences” there is no such thing as objective literature–it simply does not exist. I agree wholeheartedly with your ultimate conclusion that he has liberal tendencies and is writing for a broader audience which explains his preliminary posturing as this “reluctant hero”. No wonder he would want to lay aside any doubts of his patriotism and address related past criticisms so he could roll out an informative yet distinctly biased narrative that ultimately exalts the intrinsic value of natural wildlife, somewhat demonizes the conduct and comportment of frontier settlers, glorifies the native way of life and runs in stark contrast to the conservative feelings of unquestionable entitlement to all things that lay within reach.

  4. We need to be careful not to apply contemporary political ideas to the nineteenth century. “Liberal” and “conservative” have different meanings and connotations today than in Irving’s time. To be more clear, Jefferson’s agrarian ideals formed the Democratic-Republican party, which many years later (and after many breakdowns into different factions) became what we know today as the Democratic party. In Jefferson’s time, the opposing party was the Federalist party, and the Republican party is not founded until 1854. It is a mistake to call Jeffersonian agrarianism “conservative” and Washington Irving “liberal” or to throw around these terms as they are defined today in a nineteenth century context, as the political structure of that time differs from today.

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