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

§ 13. The Influence of the Travellers

While engaged upon Astoria, Irving had met at the house of Colonel Astor the picturesque Captain Bonneville, and learning that the Capitain possessed a manuscript record of his experiences among the Rocky Mountain hunters, he secured it for a goodly sum, thereupon proceeding to rewrite and amplify it in the customary fashion. From the popular Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), one gains and indescribable sense of the buoyancy of spirit in the open prairies, and of high tension in the life of the mountaineers, sanguine and alert in the midst of dangers known or surmised.

The general influence of these travellers and observers upon commerce and immigration is rather the affair of the historian and economist. Unquestionably the effect of innumerable guides for emigrants, and statistical works on agriculture, was augmented by books of travel which in substance were not always distinct from these humbler compilations. The trench-ant if malevolent Cobbett, glorying in a life of cheerful industry close to the soil, and representing America as neither a paradise nor yet a den of thieves but a good nurse for the farmer, did much in the third decade of the last century to stimulate emigration of a better sort from the mother country to the land of free endeavour. Possession of the soil, and the opportunity to gain more and more of it—as depicted by Crevecè…ur—must always act as a stimulus to the human mind. Once reaching these shores, a mobile population would be allured to the West through the virile descriptions of the Mississippi Valley by a Timothy Flint, or through the animated sketches of life and manners by a James Hall. To the literature of travel may also be ascribed much of the attraction exerted by this country upon distinguished foreigners in seasons of stress or misfortune. Napoleon himself once spoke of America as a possible retreat. If Crè…ur’s portrait of the free and social colonist was “embellished with rather too flattering circum stances,” it was not the less true in presenting and that the Americans have striven to realize; it was real in the sense that it governed their better thoughts and actions. By disengaging and projecting the ideal form of American life, such works interpreted the new republic for England and the Continent. More than this, they interpreted one part of the new nation to another. No other class of books can have done so much to consolidate the people; their effect upon character and imagination can hardly be overestimated.

They gave wings to the imagination; and here they are especially significant for the history of literature. As the discovery of America was accompanied by an outburst of poetry in the Renaissance, other causes, naturally, contributing thereto—as the mind of a Shakespeare was caught by a chance description of the “still-vexed Bermoothes”; so the great advances in geographical discovery and natural science after the middle of the eighteenth century made themselves felt in another generation of poets, and American travels found a quick response in works of literary art. The place of the travellers in the move-ment known as “the return to nature” would require for adequate treatment nothing short of a dissertation; nor could one always discriminate between the literary preconceptions which the observers brought with them and the ultimate facts about man and his environment which they transmitted to the poets. Yet we recognize in the reports of American travel something ultimate, as did the poets and philosophers.

Scattered instances suffice for illustration. In the speech On Conciliation with America, Burke, who himself had a share in an Account of the European Settlements (1757), betrays an acquaintance with more recent works of a similar kind. To one of Carver’s borrowed passages on Indian funeral customs Schiller owes the substance of the Nadowessiers Todtenlied, a poem greatly admired by Goethe. Still better known is the employment of what is striking and exotic in Carver and Bartram by Chateaubriand in the composite landscape of Renegrave; and Atala, and his mingling of conventional with imaginary incidents in the Voyage en Amèrique.

In American and English poets, also, one may see the connection between highter forms of literature and books of travel. Freneau translates the Travels of the Abbe Robin (Philadelphia, 1783), and writes Stanzas on the Emigration to America and Peopling the Western Country (Poems, 1786). Timothy Dwight’s “Most fruiful thy soil, most inviting thy clime,” in Columbia, echoes the sentiment of his Travels. Longfellow derives the myth of Hiawatha from Schoolcraft, and is said to have used Sealsfield’s Life in the New World, and Fremont’s Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in Evangeline. In Bryant, the allusion to

  • the continuous woods
  • Where rolls the Oregon
  • has been traced to Carver. Thanatopsis, the lines To a Waterfowl, and The Prairies alike reveal the spirit of inland discovery.