Posts Tagged ‘A Tour of the Prairies’

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.


3. Analysis of Prairie Depiction in “A Tour on the Prairies” and “The Prairies”

The prairies, as depicted in literature, are a place of beauty and freedom; it is represented as a place of much potential in very distinct ways. Both Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies and William Cullen Bryant’s poem The Prairies involve a great deal of praise surrounding the discovery and exploration of this new America. While both authors respect and admire the vastness and unfamiliarity of the prairies they do so in very distinct ways. Irving considers the prairies to be a place that is altogether foreign to him and offers him little comfort, “To one unaccustomed to it, there is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie. The loneliness of a forest seems nothing to it” (Irving 175). To Irving, the prairies represent a place that needs to be understood and in a sense conquered or it will overwhelm and consume a person. Whereas Bryant admires the power of the prairies and the lifestyle that it enforces upon its inhabitants he sees its strangeness as a virtue in the calm that it offers to its visitors, “A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream, And I am in the wilderness alone” (Bryant 4). Bryant sees the prairies as a place yet untouched by man and thus powerful in its ability to give peace, solitude, and steadfastness in a changing world.

Irving and Bryant also differ on the divinity found in nature. Irving considers the forest to be a much more holy and religious place, comparing it to his own religious experiences, “I was reminded of the effect of sunshine among the stained windows and clustering columns of a Gothic cathedral. Indeed there is a grandeur and solemnity in our spacious forests of the West, that awaken in me the same feeling I have experienced in those vast and venerable piles, and the sound of the wind sweeping through them, supplies occasionally the deep breathings of the organ” (Irving 41). This depiction of the forests offers more powerful imagery than any of the comparisons Irving makes of the prairies. Irving’s religious comparison to the forest shows that his heart lies with the forests, not the prairies. On the other end is Bryant’s reverence toward the prairie as a place of great serenity and divinity, “The hollow beating of his footstep seems A sacrilegious sound” (Bryant 2). Bryant regards the prairies as a place to be worshiped and praised, a place that is divine in its beauty. He feels that the virginal characteristic of the untouched prairie is important and ought to be respected.

Irving and Bryant offer two admiring views of the prairies. While they may differ in the author’s feeling toward the prairies, in comparison to the rest of nature, it is easy to see that each writer speaks with great esteem on the many unique qualities of the prairies. To Irving, the prairies represents a place of unfamiliarity and solitude; a place in which a man may lose himself in the strangeness of it all. In contrast, Bryant supports the view that the prairie is unlike any other part of nature and that it ought to be respected in its strange power. For the audience these two viewpoints offer diverse looks into, what was, a newly discovered part of America. Each author provides an unbiased opinion of what they have seen, leaving the reader to settle on an opinion themselves.


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

Bryant, William Cullen. Yale Book of American Verse. Ch./Art: The Prairies p. 1-4 as reprinted. pub. Yale University Press; 1912; 1999.

Dead animals in A Tour on the Prairies

       The death of the animal depicted in “A Tour on the Prairies” seems to be completely for sport. The narrator does not demonstrate or mention a need to kill meat for the purpose of survival. Shooting the buffalo was done without much care or emotion on the part of the narrator. He demonstrates his lack of connection with nature and the world around him by wasting the valuable resources around him.
       The death of the animal, specifically the reaction of the narrator, evokes anger in the reader. The narrator shot down an animal with no reason besides thrills. He goes on to describe the helpless buffalo he had wounded with no real need and the fact that it will lay there and have its body eaten by other animals in the area. Rather than him using the “sport” of hunting when it would have been of use to him, he selfishly shoots down an animal that will evidently rot because no one will eat it’s meat.
       The narrator, soon after taking a first shot at the buffalo and bringing it down, realizes what he has done and the guilt he feels. He says, “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).  This line reveals a negative quality of humans. He allowed his adrenaline to make the better judgment; he let his excitement push him towards killing the buffalo without good reasoning. While the man does not promote or condemn anything, he does reveal the selfish, uncaring ways humans can be when they want something.
        Animals are presented as nothing more than moving targets. Even after we are given the narrators heart-felt words on his agony for what he has done, still are not given anything that would make a reader feel a closer connection to the animal.
Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies.  Universitof Oklahoma Press, 1956. 178. Print.