The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 12. The Answers of Cooper and Irving

The best kind of reply to the taunt of Sydney Smith was the literary work of Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, who are more fully treated elsewhere in this History. Of Cooper’s are novels, three more important ones had been produced before he was entangled in the controversies that occupied much of his life. The Pioneers reflected his early experiences on the frontier; while The Last of the Mohicans deserves notice because it contains, in distinct types, both the idealized and the unidealized Indian that we have seen in the travellers. Chin-gachgook is a true descendant of Montaigne’s high-minded savage, and belongs to the family of Rousseau’s “natural” man; whereas the base “Mingoes” are more like real aborigines. The Prairie, with its large element of description, was followed during the author’s residence abroad by Notions of the Americans Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828), a series of letters by an imaginary Englishman, in which there is an attempt to rectify prevailing European and British misconceptions of America, and to show the Americans how to be more refined, and how to suppress their self-satisfaction. A middle course pleased neither English nor American; nor did the criticism in Homeward Bound and Home as Found tend to pacify Cooper’s fellow-countrymen. The turmoil of his later years did not prevent him from writing two of his most popular novels, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, which again disclose his conception of the forest and frontier.

Few have depicted that life with more truth and spirit than Irving. From the noisy disputes between John Bull and Jonathan we come back to him as to a contemplative traveller of some previous generation; and in truth he carries on the tradition of Carver, and of Lewis and Clark. Returning in 1832, after an absence in Europe of seventeen years, Irving found his countrymen expecting him to vindicate his patriotism, and American letters, by some work on a native theme. Instead of directly yielding to the call, he made “a wide and varied tour,” joining a Government expedition to the Arkansas River, exploring the hunting-grounds of the stealthy Pawnees, witnessing the pursuit of the buffalo, and sharing the spoils of bee-hunters. The result was A Tour on the Prairies (1835), which represents but a part of the journey. “It is,” he says, “a simple narrative of every-day occurrences”; but it describes the motley life of the border with fidelity—Osage Indians, “stern and simple in garb and aspect,” with “fine Roman countenances, and broad deep chests”; gaily dressed Creeks, “quite Oriental” in appearance; and “a sprinkling of trappers, hunters, half-breeds, creoles, negroes of every hue, and all that other rabble rout of non-descript beings that keep about the frontiers, between civilized and savage life, as those equivocal birds, the bats, hover about the confines of light and darkness.” Irving’s next task was to write the history of John Jacob Astor’s development and consolidation of the fur-trade in the North-west (after the Lewis and Clark expedition), in Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains, which appeared in 1836. The literary method here employed is characteristic of so many books of travel, beginning with Carver’s, that Irving may be allowed to explain it in his own words:

  • As the journals, on which I chiefly depended, had been kept by men of business, intent upon the main object of the enterprise, and but little versed in science, or curious about matters not immediately bearing upon their interests, and as they were written often in moments of fatigue or hurry, amid the inconveniences of wild encampments, they were often meagre in their details, furnishing hints to provoke rather than narratives to satisfy inquiry. I have, therefore, availed myself occasionally of collateral lights supplied by the published journals of other travellers who have visited the scenes described, such as Messrs. Lewis and Clark, Bradbury, Brackenridge, Long, Franchere, and Ross Cox, and make a general acknowledgment of aid received from these quarters.
  • The work I here present to the public, is necessarily of a rambling and somewhat disjointed nature, comprising various expeditions by land and sea. The facts, however, will prove to be linked and banded together by one grand scheme, devised and conducted by a master spirit; one set of characters, also continues throughout, appearing occasionally, though sometimes at long intervals, and the whole enterprise winds up by a regular catastrophe; so that the work, without any laboured attempt at artificial construction, actually possesses much of that unity so much sought after in works of fiction, and considered so important to the interest of every history.