The Wilderness Trope in Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies and Disney’s Pocahontas


1. I am interested in this topic because I was raised in the woods. My families’ property connects to Blackwater state forest and throughout my childhood and adolescence I have experienced the wilderness similarly to both Pocahontas and Irving.  After having learned about ecocritical perspectives in class I saw the movie Pocahontas in a different light. In Pocahontas, the wilderness functions as a place of spiritual connection that offers guidance to Pocahontas. The movie shows a sharp distinction between the culture of the ‘civilized’ white man and the nature of the Powhatan tribe. This is also evident in Irving’s writings as he encounters Indians and realizes that they have a distinct culture of their own. Though I am usually comfortable in nature I have felt the same fear of nature that Irving felt when he was lost in the prairie. I have also felt remorse after having killed a large number of squirrels (a game I used to play with my brothers and my 22 rifle)


2. I am familiar with the wilderness trope from reading at least five times in Garrard’s book. I would like to focus analytically on two aspects of the film and Irving’s essay: their sublime features and their portrayal of man controlling/overpowering nature. Pocahontas demonstrates the sublime aspect throughout the entire movie with beautiful forest scenes and her connection with nature through mother willow, while Irving speaks of the prairies vastness numerous times in a reverential tone. The awe and beauty of the wilderness entrances both characters and causes them to respect nature. There is also a fear of the wilderness  in both, displayed by the settlers of Jamestown in Pocahontas and Irving’s need to travel in groups. The need to control nature is also made evident in the egotistical actions of the English men in the film as they are cutting down the forest, planning to kill ‘savages,’ and building shelters and brigades for their colonies. Same applies to Irving as he kills the buffalo for sport as a cultural way to define manhood, rather than for survival.


3. Questions:

1. What does the juxtaposition of the role of Indians and the role of white men in wilderness in both the film and  the

essay say about generalizations of the two cultures?

2. Why do white men feel a need to control nature? because they feel emasculinated by it or because they fear                    the freedom of it versus the restraints presented by ‘civilized’ societies?

3. How is the killing of savages  and the killing of buffalo related in the two pieces?

4. If wilderness is only authentic if we are truly absent from it (Garrard 70) how is the presence of white men altering

wilderness versus the presence of Indians.





14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kbudd on October 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I think the second question has a lot of potential for your paper. The idea that nature is emasculating is extremely interesting. You could also discuss the Ecological Indian because the stereotype was that they were closer to nature than the white man.

    • Posted by lpeake on October 27, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      I agree with there being potential for the discussion of the Ecological Indian. There has been a lot of deserved flack towards Disney for it’s depictions of Native Americans in Peter Pan, but not a lot towards those in Pocahontas. I think it would be interesting to look at why the Ecological Indian stereotype in Pocahontas is so well received. Putting that into a question, I guess:

      5. How does the stereotype of the Ecological Indian function within the movie, what are some specific instances, and why has this stereotype persisted throughout centuries?

  2. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    2. Why do white men feel a need to control nature? because they feel emasculinated by it or because they fear the freedom of it versus the restraints presented by ‘civilized’ societies?

    I also think this question brings up some really good points in regards to your final paper topic. When reading through your post, I started thinking about these ideas and came up with this question.

    Is the white need to control nature possibly a reflection of the native harmony and “conquering” of nature? (that is probably not the right word to describe it, but what I am saying is does the fact that natives have historically known how to live in and as one with nature made white men feel like they need to learn these skills too, as they have always felt they are better than natives) furthermore, does this reflection have implications for the audiences of the texts/movies?

  3. Posted by thelorist on October 27, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Your questions bring a lot to the discussion table, and I like that your paper is interested in a number of questions, ranging from the opposing Native and settling white perceptions of nature, to the problem of Pocahontas’s depiction of the problematic Ecological Indian stereotype. In order to reinforce the exploration of the “need to control nature”, could you perhaps delve into the respective cultural values of Native Americans and settlers, and elaborate on the spatial and material assumptions present in both sets of cultural values? (i.e. the notion of land as a home without quantitative boundaries, versus the land as property and the scripturally-designated domain of man)

  4. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I think this is a very interesting topic especially with your close relationship and history with nature an aspect that I think will help you tremendously. Your question “2. Why do white men feel a need to control nature? because they feel emasculinated by it or because they fear the freedom of it versus the restraints presented by ‘civilized’ societies?” is very interesting and got me thinking about a question for you:

    9. How does the sex of the narrator influence the relationship and language when describing nature?

  5. I think this is a great topic, I would have never gone for Pocahontas, so it’s really refreshing to see you use the movie in such a way. Like everyone above I think definitely delving into how the Ecological Indian is represented in both texts would be a great way to go. Also I would go as far as to ask

    10. how does the ecological indian function in both works? and what does it say about the perception of nature that is being conveyed?

  6. Posted by kwalley on October 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    This is a very interesting and broad topic, your question about the emasculating quality of nature is particularly intriguing, and a perspective I had never considered before. Another question that might be helpful:

    11. Does the sublimity of nature experienced by both Pocahontas and Irving influence these character’s beyond their awe and respect for nature? Does it change them?

  7. I think this question is very interesting because it connects the deaths of Indians and buffaloes together by the abuse of the white settlers since they often were not able to defend themselves and redeem what was taken.
    Another question: What other animals were killed in mass numbers alongside the buffaloes by white settlers?

  8. Posted by lmc908 on October 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I like your first question. You might want to consider the role that women play in the movie as well. You not only have the man/nature dualism but you also have the man/women.

    Question: Is there significance in nature being personified in the movie Pocahantas? is there a message of deep ecology in this?

  9. Posted by christys21 on October 28, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    I thought your fourth question was very interesting. Perhaps white men have a differnt idea of what is considered good, natural use of the land than the indians.

    Another question I would ask would be if killing of the buffallo and of savages is part of the idea of “wilderness.” Is it just something natural to the wild, an element that goes hand in hand?
    I have found that the wild typically, to me, seems to be something that feeds on itself. Everything is connected in one way or the other, even if if means harming another being or thing.

  10. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 28, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I like question two because I feel as if it has the potential to get at the heart of the matter–the heart of the white man’s motivation to divide and conquer. I believe there is some room here for the analysis of the prevailing colonial mentality which is of course a very broad subject yet it would be good to analyze the effect of rationalism on the European mindset and how it shaped this conquering attitude. Further, a brief discussion of the European feelings of unquestionable superiority might also be of use and interest in the broader context of the paper.
    The question I would add would be:
    15.) How do the prevailing colonial ideologies shape the white man’s ambitions to control nature, and, on a baser or subconscious level, how does this ideology exist to comfort humanity in its place in the world (plays into your previous question about being “emasculated” in the limitless power and expanse of nature )?

  11. Why should we read Cooper and Pocahontas together? What links these two texts and what do we learn/gain by reading (aka analyzing) them alongside each other? If you were primarily talking about the ecological Indian, there would be a more obvious academic justification for doing so. I think wilderness works as a link, but you still need to be more explicit in the significance of such a comparison. There are some gender differences here that need to be taken into account, as well as authorship.

    • (Authorship re: Pocahontas. As in, whose story is this? It’s not an autobiographical text, and I seriously doubt the Disney script was written by Native Americans. Something to address…)

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