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T H O M A S J. L Y O N Utah State University Washington Irving's Wilderness Though he will probably never be deemed a writer “in the major mold,” Washington Irving had a deep historical interest in the American West, and it is undeniable that he wrote effectively about it. This will become evident in a reading of his three fine books on the West;1 which, because of their factual accuracy and culture-making importance, deserve to be given more critical at­ tention. Literarily, the way he handled his romantic fascination with the wilderness West in the last of the three books, The Ad­ ventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., first published in 1837 as The Rocky Mountains, is particularly interesting. Using Bonne­ ville’s journal, which unfortunately has not come to light since, Irving worked over the Captain’s spare, terse notes2 and created a picturesque book of his own, with surprisingly accurate descrip­ tions of the Western scene in his typically genial style and in a de­ cidedly romantic but well-controlled vein. Benjamin Bonneville, who later sold his notes to Irving for $1000, a very considerable sum at that time, had separated himself from the Army on leave in 1831, and had hired over a hundred men to work for him in fur trapping in the Rockies, moving this procession west from Fort Osage, Missouri, on May 1, 1832. He 1A Tour on the Prairies, 1835; Astoria, 1836; The Adventures of Captain Bonne­ ville, 1837. 2 For a judgment on the probable nature of the journal, see Edgeley W. Todd’s “Editor’s Introduction,” p. xx, in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (Nor­ man: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). All subsequent references to Bonne­ ville are to this edition. 168 Western American Literature returned to civilization over three years later, after covering a tre­ mendous amount of Western territory. He seemed much more in­ terested in the thrills of discovery and exploration than in beaver trapping, though his original capital support from a New York City fur dealer implies that he had at least some practical responsibil­ ities. At any rate, Bonneville saw a good deal of country and proved a careful observer of the natural scene. When Washington Irving met him (at John Jacob Astor’s estate in New York in 1835), Irving was immediately impressed, both with Captain Bonneville’s unaffected and exciting wilderness air and with the possibilities of working Bonneville’s three-year adventures into an authoritative book on the West, a natural follow-up to Astoria. Irving obviously found good materials to work with in Bonne­ ville’s notes. He had the great sweep of country, the heart-expanding long vistas of the West (he had had a taste of this himself, in his short but memorable prairie trip in 1832); in this mountain man’s perceptions he had the rough Rocky Mountain version of his boyhood heroes, the Canadian voyageurs, to build on. The re­ sult was a very full book —the first history of the fur trade of the 1830’s —and probably the first look at the Rocky Mountain West for much of the reading public of America’s first recognized man of letters. As Bonneville and his twenty wagons and crowd of men move westward across the high plains and into the badlands, Irving lays down the Easterner’s archetypal vision of the immense, un­ tamed land: Everything around bore traces of some fearful convulsion of nature in times long past. . . . Immense strata of rocks jutted up into crags and cliffs. . . . An air of sterility prevailed over these savage wastes. The valleys were destitute of herbage, and scantily clothed with a stunted species of wormwood. . . . From an elevated point of their march through this region, the travellers caught a beautiful view of the Powder River Mountains away to the north, stretching along the very verge of the horizon, and seeming, from the snow with which they were mantled, to be a chain of small white clouds, con­ necting sky and earth.8 This distant and somewhat vague view, reminiscent of the de­ scriptions of the Catskills in “Rip Van Winkle,” is nevertheless animated by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 167-174
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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