- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

Washington Irving returned to America in 1832 after a 17-year-long sojourn in England and Spain. He had published volumes of stories and sketches (“The Sketch Book,” “Bracebridge Hall” and “Tales of a Traveller”), had traveled in and written about Spain (he would later become ambassador there), and was widely regarded as America’s premier man of letters.

Yet as he stepped onto home ground in New York City “old doubts recurred,” since “everything had changed.” “Huge edifices and lofty piles had sprung up in the place of lowly tenements,” and the faces he encountered were unknown to him.

Irving expressed these sentiments in his introduction to “A Tour of the Prairies,” the first of three narratives of the American West he would publish between 1835 and 1837. The Library of America has gathered together these accounts, and they provide us with a glimpse of an Irving few know much about.

In brief: “A Tour of the Prairies” is a first-person narrative of Irving’s travels with a group of buffalo hunters through Indian territory in what is now eastern Oklahoma.

“Astoria,” subtitled “Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains,” is a history of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a commercial empire in fur trading at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. (Irving’s history was written on the suggestion of Astor himself, who provided various documents from which the book was constructed.)

While Irving worked on the narrative at Astor’s country estate, Hell Gate (now East 86th Street in New York City), he met a Capt. Benjamin Bonneville who had attempted to write up one of his expeditions to the Rockies, but decided that Irving’s more practiced pen would do a better job. The result was “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.” The three books were written concurrently and helped pay for the purchase and refurbishing of Sunnyside, Irving’s house near the Hudson River at Tarrytown, New York.

Of the three narratives, the Bonneville one seems least interesting, but both “Tour” and “Astoria” have distinctive excellences along with — it must be admitted — some repetitiveness. But that could be said of much of Irving’s work; the interesting challenge, here and elsewhere, is to locate his peculiar attractions and gifts as a writer.

We know he was admired, even loved, by Walter Scott and by Charles Dickens; that he entertained W.M. Thackeray and Louis Napoleon at Sunnyside; and that his countryman Henry Wadsworth Longfellow praised him for possessing humor, sentiment, and absence of literary jealousy. But we need to look for satisfactions other than exclusively historical and biographical ones.

William Dean Howells, for whom Irving — along with Oliver Goldsmith and Miguel Cervantes — was an early favorite, singled out pathos and humor as his special qualities, and they are charmingly displayed in the chapter from “Tour” titled “A Bee Hunt.” In it, Irving accompanies some of his party in quest of a large hive in the hollow of an oak.

As the hunters cut down the tree, Irving-the-writer constructs a literary performance, noting that the resident bees seem undisturbed by the destruction: “They continued to ply at their usual occupations, some arriving full freighted into port, others sallying forth on new expeditions, like so many merchant men in a money making metropolis, little suspicious of impending bankruptcy and downfall.”

But when the bees who were absent when the tree was cut down return, their bewilderment and confusion is evident:

“At first they wheeled about in the air, in the place where the fallen tree had once reared its head, astonished at finding it all a vacuum. At length, as if comprehending their disaster, they settled down in clusters on a dry branch of a neighboring tree, whence they seemed to contemplate the prostrate ruin and to buzz forth doleful lamentations over the downfall of their republic.”

To appreciate this sort of writing (not everyone is likely to), it needs to be thought of very much as writing, as a literary exercise in an 18th-century humorous-pathetic mode. We remember that Irving loved Goldsmith enough to write a life of him.

In introducing his “Tour,” Irving warns readers how low-keyed they will find his narrative, which is offered with “great diffidence” and has no “moving accidents” to describe. (He is so modest as not to identify the allusion to Shakespeare’s tragic Othello, who had many such accidents to relate.)

In fact very little or no “action” occurs, and when it does Irving’s language is wholly responsible: A thunderstorm on the prairies is presented in the sublime mode; the lot of a captured wild horse, in two days tamed into a workhorse, prompts an analogy with our human lot.

There are occasional rumors of hostile Indians, and the party runs low on food at the end of things, but invariably, during the tour, someone returns to camp having bagged a buck or doe (inevitably a “fat” one) and frequent good meals are had.

Irving goes so far as to participate in a buffalo hunt and though “nothing of a sportsman” shoots one of the creatures, who proceeds, after another bullet is pumped into him, to die slowly at the writer’s feet. While he stands “meditating and moralizing over the wreck I had so wantonly produced,” a less fastidious fellow sportsman carves out the animal’s tongue and delivers it to Irving as a trophy.

The “Astoria” narrative is longer and more complicated in its telling. It is most affecting, and attains something like the heroic mode, when after six months of exploration Mr. Wilson Hunt, one of the partners in Astor’s American Fur Company in search of the Columbia River, attempts to navigate the Snake River:

“Everything ahead was wrapped in uncertainty. They knew nothing of the river on which they were floating. It had never before been navigated by a white man … It kept on its course through a vast wilderness of silent and apparently uninhabited mountains, without a savage wigwam on its banks, or bark upon its water.”

When after more arduous endeavors they reach “the long sought waters of the Columbia,” the reader feels something akin to their triumph.

But most of the time that reader is very much aware of his engagement with different kinds of literary expression. At one point there is some unintended comedy when Irving surveys and judges the habits of the Indian tribes living near the mouth of the Columbia.

He has no sympathy for the “absurd custom,” practiced by some of them, of flattening their heads; nor does he waste any sympathy on their music, which “scarcely deserves the name; the instruments being of the rudest kind.” (It is amusing to see him behaving in a way that would horrify a modern anthropologist.)

But probably the most telling notes struck in “Astoria” are picturesque and elegiac ones. More than once Irving rises to eloquence in contemplating the Canadian voyagers in a batteau “gliding across the bosom of a lake and dipping its oars to the cadence of those quaint old ditties, or sweeping along, in full chorus on a bright sunny morning, down the transparent current of one of the Canada rivers.”

And as he thinks about the once-powerful North West Company in its “feudal state” at Fort William, Irving strikes the universal motive of Ubi Sunt:

“The council chamber is silent and deserted; its banquet hall no longer echoes to the burst of loyalty of the ‘auld world’ ditty; the lords of the lakes and forests have passed away; and the hospitable magnates of Montreal — where are they!” For the duration of a paragraph, they are conjured up one more time.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College and is most recently the author of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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