Posts Tagged ‘Washington Irving’

Paper Proposal Topic Apocalypse and Wilderness inGeorge Caitlin’ Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians

For my paper, essentially I would like to explore the apocalypse trope within George Caitlin’ Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians. His basic notion of the clash between an avaricious and decadent culture of “civilization” in comparison to “nature” and the depletion of both buffalo and Native American’s has implications of an impending cataclysm. The fact that culture and nature are at odds makes apocalypse seem not only imminent but also inevitable. His use of Native Americans could serve as an actual and explicit example of extermination. To supplement the notions of “civilized” culture, I would include some references to Thoreau and Washington Irving, also, so as to supplement the ethical, cultural notions of a culture’s trajectory or movement towards apocalypse, especially American culture during that century, as well as similar examples of prairie narrative and its relation to Eastern urban culture.

I find this particularly interesting because of its relevance to contemporary culture, where there is much more rhetorical apocalypticism dealing with the environment now more than ever. I find it interesting that people in an earlier time tended to enjoy the Judeo-Christian idea of a sinful earth, flagellated by a fearsome god, and how also advocates of apocalypse tend to find what the want. Exploring the apocalypse trope in its early American forms can potentially be enlightening as what the current state of apocalypse in our culture.

In an analytical sense, I would like investigate and potentially qualify what type of apocalypse Caitlin subscribes to, either a tragic Millenarian or a comic Augustinian, secular eschatologist or somewhere in between or neither. Also, Caitlin essentially proposes a wilderness or wildness “quarantine” from ‘civil’ culture because of its hunger to impose its will and sustain its material comforts, and thus, depleting the resources of nature.


  1. How much does Caitlin’s apocalypse depend on the elegiac pastoral model? How do they relate?
  2. What kind of authoritative element is prevalent in Caitlin’s desire to “quarantine” wilderness, i.e. why is preserving wilderness important to him?
  3. Although Caitlin relies on the stereotypical Nobel Savage imagery, what type of society does he expect or imply will remain, if any at all? (Future primitivism, total destitution or reduced society after cataclysm)
  4. Can Deep Ecologists be accused of using the apocalypse trope to influence birth rates, or discourage reproduction?
  5. Finally, what solution is there, if human culture inherently uses “nature” will there be any form of living that is not apocalyptic?

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.

Animal Deaths in Washington Irving’s “A Tour on the Prairies” and their Colonialist implications

In Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Priaries, the deaths of animals are depicted in a way that alludes to the notion of colonial exploitation of virgin lands and native peoples. In the chapter entitled “A Bee Hunt,” Irving describes the process that the white settlers carry out in order to collect the prized, honey-soaked beehives from the habitats of these airborne insects. He emphasizes the sense of purpose and right of domination exhibited by the bee hunters, stating that they “plied their axes vigorously at the foot of the tree to level it with the ground,” (Irving, 52). Here, the reader can easily draw an imaginary parallel to early British colonialists furiously tearing away at the natural landscape as they work to construct new (and potentially profitable) settlements.

At the same time, the writer characterizes the animals as innocent victims who could not have possibly anticipated their demise at the hands of these foreign beings. He also notes that these animals possess certain noble aspects that are to be admired, indicating that he might hold similar feelings about the Native Americans, who were similarly victimized by white men.  The bees in the narrative met a similar fate—as their once “industrious community” was overtaken by the axe of alien aggressors.

Irving outlines the factor of profitability on the behalf of the hunters, writing that “Every stark bee-hunter was to be seen with a rich morsel in his hand, dripping about his fingers, and disappearing as rapidly as a cream tart before the holiday appetite of a schoolboy,” (Irving, 53). Such wording evokes in the reader’s mind the images and emotionality associated with claiming a well-deserved prize of say, a stuffed animal after a successful day at the carnival—it all seems to be a game with an objective (victory) for these white settlers, who think little of the inhabitants of the habitat that they disturb.

The writer goes on to indulge his feelings of guilt upon his own killing of a buffalo, perhaps to assuage them by having expressed them on paper. Initially, he describes these mammoth creatures with awe, wonderment and terror, again much like an observant white settler might articulate a memory of encountering Indians for the first time. After all is said and done and Irving has fired several shots into the buffalo, which agonizes in pain as it dies, he expresses great remorse. “It seemed as if I had inflicted pain in proportion to the bulk of my victim, and as if there were a hundred-fold greater waste of life than there would have been in the destruction of an animal of inferior size,” he writes (Irving, 178). The reader can only guess that this is a form of apologetic foreshadowing for the magnitude of destruction inflicted upon the natives by colonialist white settlers.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. 50-54, 171-179. Print.

Instructions for Group 2’s First Blog Response

prairie in Effigy Mounds National Monument, Io...

Prairie in Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 2 only!

  1. Give an analysis of how wilderness functions in The Pioneers and/or A Tour on the Prairies. Some questions you may want to consider are: How is wilderness represented/valued (for example, as Eden, evil, sacred, pure, threatening, etc)? What are the “politics of wilderness” (Garrard 77) of the text; in other words, how is wilderness a site of gender, class, and/or racial struggle? Who or what is included/excluded in the text’s conception of wilderness? If you are writing about both texts, do they portray wilderness in similar or different ways, and what is at stake in these similarities/differences?
  2. Give an analysis of how the death of animal(s) is depicted in The Pioneers and/or A Tour on the Prairies. Some questions to consider include: What is the purpose of animal death in the text(s)? What emotions does it evoke in the reader and for what purpose? What attitude(s) toward animals/animal life is represented by the depiction of its death? How is this event used to reveal, promote, or condemn human qualities/actions? Is the animal death related to issues of identity, such as gender, race, class, and sexuality? To what extent does animal death validate or deny a commonality of experience shared by human and nonhuman entities? What kind of language is used to convey animal death, and what are the implications of that language? If you are writing about both texts, do they portray animal death in similar or different ways, and what is at stake in these similarities/differences?
  3. Give an analysis of how prairies are depicted in Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies and either William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Prairies” or the journals of Lewis & Clark. What do prairies represent to each of these writers? How does a change in literary form (from creative nonfiction to poem, for example) affect the representation of the prairie landscape? What feelings/thoughts does the prairie illicit? How do the writers depict changes to the prairie landscape as a result of westward expansion? How do issues of identity (like race, class, gender, religion, etc) influence their depictions of the prairie? What is at stake in the similarities/differences in these authors’ depictions of the prairies?

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about both texts, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.

Group 2, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, September 13.

Group 1, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, September 15.