“A Region fruitful of wonders and adventures”: Romancing the West in Cooper’s and Irving’s Narratives

Pauline Pilote (École Normale Supérieure de Lyon)

Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In his introduction to A Tour on the Prairies, Washington Irving as he comes back to live in America after years spent in Europe, writes that “[he] was expected to write about a region fruitful of wonders and adventures, and which had already been made the theme of spirit-stirring narratives from able pens; yet about which [he] had nothing wonderful or adventurous to offer” (A Tour, 11). In this statement, Irving seems to position himself at loggerheads with James Fenimore Cooper, his own contemporary and fellow writer from New York State. Nevertheless, in A Tour on the Prairies and in the two other so-called Western Narratives that follow, Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, he appears to tread the same path as his contemporary, to go West and explore the wilderness. It is all the more striking to note that the three Western narratives match exactly the gap between the two sets of the Leatherstocking Tales since they are all published between 1832 and 1837. Therefore, the Leatherstocking saga chronologically encloses the Western Narratives and the similarity of their topics fosters the comparison and asks whether they can be seen as complementing each other. And yet, when Irving came back to America, Cooper was among those who deemed him unpatriotic (Brian Jay Jones, Washington Irving, 316), mostly on the grounds that he had lived in Europe for decades and had written The Sketch-Book, which focuses mostly on British matters. Critics today, although they tend to compare Irving to writers like Edgar Allan Poe for the same reasons, do acknowledge some parallelisms between his works and Cooper’s. J. Gerald Kennedy describes A Tour on the Prairies as a “Cooperesque narrative of pioneering and conquest” (“America’s Europe: Irving, Poe, and the Foreign Subject,” 165) 1 His article actually focuses on a comparison between Irving and Poe but this paper aims at following on this comparison with Cooper. Indeed Washington Irving has been very little compared to him, despite the fact that they certainly knew each other and were both prominent writers in the freshly independent America. They both co-founded the Knickerbocker Group with William Cullen Bryant and cooperated to gain access to the British literary market. Indeed, Brian Jay Jones notes how Irving helped secure the British copyright for Cooper’s The Spy and The Pioneers and conferred with Murray in London on that respect (Brian Jay Jones, Washington Irving, 202-203). Taking this literary intimacy into account, this paper steps aside of the usual focus on The Sketch-Book and turns towards The Western Narratives as a much underestimated part of Irving’s work, and seeks to re-read it in the light of Cooper’s Leatherstocking saga.

Despite the initial assertion in the introduction to his first narrative, Irving later claims in the introduction to Astoria that he had met with men from the North West Fur Company who “had passed years remote from civilized society, among distant and savage tribes, and who had wonders to recount of their wide and wild peregrinations, their hunting exploits, and their perilous adventures and hair breadth escapes among the Indians” (Astoria, 179). He even further states that the life of a trapper and fur trader was “perfect romance to [him]” (179, emphasis added). The term “romance” would sound familiar to nineteenth-century readers, since the early nineteenth century was marked by a revival of the genre in the form of Gothic romances on the one hand and historical romances in the wake of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels on the other, both of which were extremely popular among contemporary American readers. Indeed, Scott himself wrote an Essay on Romance in 1824, in which he placed romance on the side of “marvellous and uncommon incidents,” while on the other hand, novels tell the “ordinary train of human events” (Essay on Romance, 129). That difference is taken up later by Hawthorne in his famous preface to The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, where he places the novel on the side of “minute fidelity” (The House of the Seven Gables, ix) while the greater pliability of romance on the other allows the writer to embellish the picture. If we recall the quote from Astoria mentioning “exploits” and “hair-breadth escapes” or if we think of The Last of the Mohicans, the texts seem to be on the side of eventful plots and “uncommon incidents.” And yet, if we have a look at the Prefaces of both Irving and Cooper, both claim to reach out for authenticity, thereby placing the texts on the side of novels. Despite Irving’s claim to plain narratives and Cooper’s wish for authenticity, both actually complement each other in making the West a land of romance, replete with tales to recount and legends to be told.

I. “An Authentic Sketch” 2 : Writing Narratives as both Ethnographical Pieces and Romances

The perusal of the titles of the texts under survey discloses a real attention paid to the various ways of defining them, in particular in the subtitles. The generic name of Cooper’s series may well be The Leatherstocking Tales, the subtitles for each volume states what kind of text the reader is looking at. The Pioneers comes as a “descriptive tale,” as does The Prairie, while The Last of the Mohicans is a “narrative.” The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, on the other hand, bear no description of any kind. As for Irving, his three narratives have been collected under the name of Three Western Narratives by the Library of America but the collection was not meant as such by Irving himself who published the volumes separately, A Tour on the Prairies being itself a part of another series, The Crayon Miscellany, alongside other texts made out of former journals, Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey. The genre of the texts themselves is subject to discussion and it is no surprise that “narrative,” as the most neutral term, should be the one editors chose to go for. Indeed, Irving himself never named his writings “narratives” and, if we look closely at how Cooper himself describes his own in the course of the texts themselves, “tale” is actually what comes with a greater recurrence in every volume of the series 3 However, we note that in The Pathfinder, as in The Deerslayer, the two later texts of the saga, “narrative” tends to disappear and the identification of the text wavers between “tale” and “legend.”

We therefore start seeing how the texts actually shift from “descriptive tale” in the early volumes to more fictional matter towards the end of the series. We can here relate to what Irving is doing from A Tour on the Prairies to The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, moving from “a simple narrative of every day occurrences [with] no wonders to describe, [ ... ] [nor] marvellous or adventurous stor[ies]” (A Tour, 12) to more sensational matter with Captain Bonneville’s “tales of wild scenes and wild adventures” (Captain Bonneville, 630). Yet, Irving bases his text on more “scientific” matters as he provides as an appendix the letter addressed to Bonneville that prompted the mission across the continent: “your design of exploring the country to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, with a view of ascertaining the nature and character of the several tribes of Indians inhabiting those regions; the trade which might be profitably carried on with them; the quality of the soil, the productions, the minerals, the natural history, the climate, the geography and topography, as well as geology of the various parts of the country” (Captain Bonneville, 955). Irving’s texts border here on exploration narrative and display that encyclopaedic feel that is pervasive, if not explicitly stated, in Cooper’s tales as well. We read in his prefaces the claim for authenticity that underlines his fictions: the introduction to The Pioneers emphasises the “rigid adhesion to truth” (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I, 7) and “the faithfulness of the picture” (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol.I, 9); in The Prairie, he introduces himself as a “faithful chronicler” (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I., 882) and in The Deerslayer, the descriptions are said to be “as true to nature, as an intimate knowledge of the present appearance of the region described [ ... ] enabled the writer to render it” (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. II, 485-486). The Leatherstocking Tales provide accurate descriptions of life in the wilderness and include very specific details about the Native American way of life. The footnotes in The Last of Mohicans or The Pioneers have a very scientific ring to them and were in fact inserted after the novel was published in 1826 with the purpose of instructing the readers 4 In that sense, they recall the encyclopaedic objective of Captain Bonneville’s journey. The Pioneers itself reads as a picture of life in a settlement on the Frontier. Even the notes on American history included in the narratives come as proof of its encyclopaedic accuracy, as for instance Cooper’s digression on Indian history in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (The Wept, Vol. II, 44-50).

What comes as digressions or footnotes in Cooper’s texts takes up much more space in Irving’s Western Narratives — these tend to be even more specific, or even scientific, in the details they provide on Native American way of life, in the accuracy of their topographical descriptions, in the reliability of the geographical accounts, and in the ethnographic undertones.

II. Irving’s and Cooper’s Versions of Natty Bumppo

It therefore looks as though Irving was taking up Cooper’s “faithfulness of picture” claimed in The Pioneers and was lending it to his depictions of the wilderness and not just to Frontier life anymore. Volume after volume, Irving seems to be tending more and more towards the chronicle, while Cooper, wavering on terms around “tale” from “narrative” to “legend,” leans more and more towards a romantic and fictional rendering. When Cooper comes back to the Leatherstocking series after his trip to Europe, he seems indeed to discard the historical background that prevailed in the first three to focus on the more overtly romantic moments of Natty Bumppo’s life. On the contrary, Irving starts with his own personal account of a journey through the wilderness and goes on with focusing on actual historical characters: John Jacob Astor and his men and later Captain Bonneville himself. Not only are the details more specific but he even ends up in the last volume quoting the captain’s words directly, bringing his text as close as possible to historical accuracy.

However, despite these different prospects, it looks as though Irving’s Western Narratives could still be read in relation to Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and not only chronologically speaking. Indeed, in A Tour on the Prairies, Irving makes a direct reference to Leatherstocking himself when he calls one of his characters, Ryan, “this real old Leatherstocking” (A Tour, 106). Irving, writing after the end of The Prairie, is here bringing Natty Bumppo back to life after Cooper has killed him off in the last pages of the volume. He also ages him, starting where Cooper had left him and bringing him even further west. Indeed, by pairing Irving’s Tour on the Prairies with Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, it seems that Irving is driving Leatherstocking to the Pacific coast and extends Cooper’s own move to the west impelled in The Pioneers, when Natty strides out of the settlement into the forest, and furthered in the two following tales. When Cooper himself resurrects him in 1840, he makes him retrace his steps: he rejuvenates Irving’s old Ryan and brings him back to the eastern coast. Therefore, between the two of them, Irving and Cooper make Leatherstocking travel back and forth across the American continent. In Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Irving takes up again the figure of Leatherstocking, but this time proliferate and resurrected in a plethora of avatars. Both Astoria and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville feature a lot of trappers, whose relationship to their rifles makes them mirror images to Natty Bumppo. Donald M’Kenzie is one of them — Irving describes his “remarkable shot, which of itself was sufficient to give him renown upon the frontier” (Astoria, 280). He even gets another re-embodiment in Beatte, the “half-breed” that accompanies Irving on his own tour. Just like Hawkeye, Beatte is said to be “a living monument of the hardships of wild frontier life” (A Tour, 123), and is further described as helping in civilising the habits and meliorating the conditions of some Indian tribe, being inflexible in his faith, and as brought up in communion with the whites but being more of an Indian in his tastes (A Tour, 123). As William Bedford Clark has it, he is “a man who thus straddles two worlds” (“How the West Won”, 342) and therefore, despite the fact that he has an Indian wife, Beatte seems indeed a reincarnation of Cooper’s hero.

Irving’s narratives seem sometimes bound to revive Cooper’s character and divest him of his romantic deeds by bringing him back to his accurate setting and showing what his life would have been like in the real world. In that sense, Irving gives his narrative the same tendency that he imparts to his descriptions of Native Americans, in which he claims to take off their romantic outfit and to give a more accurate portrayal of their habits. It therefore sounds as though Irving was endeavouring to set things right and to restore truth to romantic fictions of the frontier.

But the opposition between Cooper and Irving is not just binary. Cooper’s texts are just as well pervaded with this encyclopaedic stance that prevailed in Irving’s chronicles. We mentioned earlier his digressions on Indian history or The Pioneers as a picture of life on the Frontier but his narratives are also studded with descriptions of Indian customs or mentions of Native Americans’ habits, as, among others, an extensive depiction of Indian lodges in The Prairie (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I, 1187) or details of an Indian encampment in The Deerslayer (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. II, 663). These lengthy digressions read as asides to the main plot and serve Cooper’s purpose of giving his readers an insight into the customs of the time. Irving completes his reversing of Cooper’s by actually expanding Cooper’s asides into a whole narrative. Starting with Astoria but mostly in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, focus is on very detailed rendering of Indian life and Irving usually stops on each tribe encountered by the group of trappers in order to provide details as to the functioning of the tribe. The narratives are therefore turned into general chronicles on Native American way of life and in that sense recall Volney’s General Observations on the Indians or Savages of North America 5

However, what forms the main body of Cooper’s texts, that is eventful plots and fictional romances, also make their way into Irving’s narratives but, this time, read as side stories. For instance, in A Tour on the Prairies, Irving borders on Gothic fiction when he tells the story of the dead Indian woman waiting for her husband to come back before fading away as a ghost (A Tour, 125-126). More strikingly, the story of Kosato and his wife narrated in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville strongly recalls the succession of captivity narratives of The Last of the Mohicans, or rather the story of Chingachgook and Wah-ta!-Wah in The Deerslayer: she’s taken captive, he endeavours everything to get to her and they elope into the forest. What was the main body of Cooper’s fictions is turned into side stories by Irving and takes up the place of Cooper’s ethnographic digressions, leading to a general inversion here. This could lead us to read Irving’s texts as complete reversals on Cooper’s, as though both were taking their image of the West in two different directions.

However, reading fictional side stories in Irving’s avowed faithful chronicles provides a new image of the West behind the scientific notations on the quality of the land and the potential trade with its inhabitants. With both authors, although with different methods, the West is revealed as a land full of stories to be told, a land of adventures and exploits.

III. “Those regions of danger and adventure” (Astoria, 302): Picturing the West as a Land of Heroic Deeds:

To Irving’s as well as to Cooper’s eyes, the wilderness first represents the land of the unfamiliar as well as the land of dire reality it stood for in the minds of their contemporaries. The New World was new because it was unfamiliar and because it was recent. Yet, Walter Scott before them had managed to render Scotland as “the land of romance and fiction” (Waverley, 211) precisely because it was new to the eyes of its protagonist. We note, on that matter, that it is said of Edward Waverley when he first crossed the Border that “[h]e now entered upon a new world, where, for a time, all was beautiful because all was new” (Waverley, 72, emphasis added). That sentence could well describe Cooper’s or Irving’s vision of their own country, namely because of the constant recurrence of the word “beautiful” itself to describe the landscape in Irving’s narratives. The sense of romance that was attached to the Scottish Highlands seems to be directly translated onto the American West 6

The Leatherstocking Tales provide an image of the wilderness as a land of adventures. As soon as the characters step away from the Frontier and its settlements into the forest, they encounter Indian warfare, successive captivities, treasure hunts, epic chases through the woods and many “hair-breadth ‘scapes,” and in particular in The Last of the Mohicans. As for Irving, even though he focuses on real stories and historical characters, emphasis is on this sense of adventure that seems to pervade the wilderness. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville gives the reader a hint from the title and throughout the book, Irving keeps insisting on his character’s “adventurous spirit” that seems to constantly drive him on 7 Astoria, however, has been reviewed as being “not a romance” by Irving’s contemporaries:

We have been spell-bound by its many and varied beauties, and may, perhaps, have had our calmer reason warped by the vivid pictures which contains of pleasures and excitements long gone by; recalling fading recollections of days spent among scenes not different from those which it describes; and living over again in memory, times of health and youth, and wild and joyous excitements, amid the dull monotony of our wonderful civilization. And yet “Astoria” is not a romance. (The London and Westminster Review, January 1837, 320)

Nonetheless, although it focuses on John Jacob Astor’s enterprise and still says or shows little of this man’s individual spirit, some characters in Astoria do not lack in boldness. Hunt, in particular, who was on the expedition that went on foot through the continent, stands for Astor’s daring alter ego. The episode towards the end when he goes off to Russia and back to establish a partnership “might have furnished a chapter in the wanderings of Sindbad” (Astoria, 573). This recalls one of the very first sentences of the Introduction when Irving compares the fur trappers to “these Sindbads of the wilderness” (Astoria, 179) and later a sailor they meet on the way is called “another Sindbad” (Astoria, 231). Irving moves here from a simple comparison to envisioning, with the chapter on Hunt, his own narration as fitting in the Arabian Nights themselves, which stands as the epitome for books of fictions. Irving moves markedly away here from the chronicle to enter the realm of tales as he turns actual people into characters of romances.

Both authors sometimes go even further and border on legendary lore. When Cooper draws to the conclusion of The Last of the Mohicans, he states that “[y]ears [had] passed away before the traditionary tale of the white maiden and the young warrior of the Mohicans, ceased to beguile the long nights and tedious marches” (Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I, 875). Here again, the tale of Cora and Uncas becomes a tale told at night, recalling Arabian Nights. It even slowly melts into tradition, as the characters are turned into anonymous figures, thus becoming a proper legend told over and over again. Similarly, the end of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish follows the same pattern and lapses as well into legend thanks to the ruins of the tombs that stay on for future generations. The word “legend” is actually used by Cooper in that case (The Wept, Vol.II, 230). Even if Irving has no tales of star-crossed lovers or romantic deaths to recount, he still has his characters mention tales that are told over and over again. Regularly, he narrates how trappers gather in the evening to recount tales of old and exploits of fellow trappers, or “listening to the stories of old times told by some veteran chronicler” (Astoria, 351), a scene that recalls the last quotation about the tale of Cora and Uncas. This turns the wilderness into a land replete with wild tales of adventures. Just as the tombs at the end of The Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish stand as memorial for times long past, Irving also shows how tales are attached to the land itself. When he explains the names of various places by telling the story that goes along with it, he manages to blend perfectly the scientific details on the topography with more fictional background. To take but one example, Scott’s Bluffs in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville is a place of encampment first described as “cliffs of indurated clay and sandstone” (Captain Bonneville, 653). Then, from the scientific precision of the texture of the soil, Irving moves to the tragic legend of the place where a man, Scott himself, was taken ill and abandoned by his companions, managed to survive through starvation and to crawl on a huge distance to those cliffs where he finally found his death. In so doing, Irving links legends to actual places, thus creating the romantic associations that were considered to be lacking in the American landscape. As characters roam the wilderness, they come across places that bear the memories of stories of old, the American forest therefore standing paradoxically as a new land full of memories.

Therefore, although the New World was regarded as vacant space, both authors endeavour to give romantic undertones to matter-of-fact reality. The comparison of the two shows how they do indeed complement each other, although they take their representations of the West into two different directions. They nevertheless achieve the same image of the wilderness as a land of romance, replete with exploits, adventures, long repeated legends, romantic ruins that bear the testimony of past deeds. As they both focus on the West and its motley populations, reading them both together helps shedding light on the various methods of combining authentic sketches of manners with an atmosphere of romance and on the different ways to intertwine the chronicle with more fictional background. Behind the very specific and detailed notations on the land and the people that inhabit it, they manage to give a legendary depth to the New World, thus showing America as a land of romance, fit for contention with the Old World itself.

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. The London and Westminster Review. London: John Macrone, 1837.
  • Clark, William Bedford. “How the West Won: Irving’s Comic Inversion of the Westering Myth in A Tour on the Prairies.” American Literature 50.3 (1978): 335 347.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I. New York: The Library of America, 1985.
  • ------. The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. II. New York: The Library of America, 1985.
  • ------. The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, A Tale, in Two Volumes. New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1849.
  • Harding, Brian. “Washington Irving’s Great Enterprise: Exploring American Values in the Western Writings” in Making America/Making American Literature, Franklin to Cooper. A. Robert Lee et W.M. Verhoeven (eds.). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. 199 220.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. Mineola: Dover Publication, Inc., 1999.
  • Helton, Tena Lea. “The Literary Frontier: Creating an American Nation (1820-1840).” (diss.) Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005.
  • Irving, Washington. The Crayon Papers. New York: John W. Lovell Company, 1883.
  • ------. Three Western Narratives. New York: The Library of America, 2004.
  • Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving, The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011.
  • Kennedy, J. Gerald. “America’s Europe: Irving, Poe, and the Foreign Subject” in The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol.5, The American Novel to 1870, J. Gerald Kennedy et Leland S. Person. (eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Kime, Wayne R. “The Author as Professional: Washington Irving’s “Rambling Anecdotes” of the West” in Critical Essays on Washington Irving, Ralph M. Aderman (ed.). Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990. 237 253.
  • Littlefield, Jr., Daniel F. “Washington Irving and the American Indian.” American Indian Quarterly 5.2 (1979): 135 154.
  • MacLaren, I.S. “Washington Irving’s Problems with History and Romance in Astoria.” The Canadian Review of American Studies 21.1 (1990): 1 14.
  • Reynolds, Guy. “The Winning of the West: Washington Irving’s ‘A Tour on the Prairies’” The Yearbook of English Studies 34 (2004): 88 99.
  • Scott, Walter. Waverley, Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since. London: Penguin Classics, 2010.
  • Scraba, Jeffrey Michael. “The Politics of Nostalgia and the Signification of Space: Walter Scott and Washington Irving.” (diss.) New Brunswick: State University of New Jersey, 2006.


1 David Littlepage, Jr. does in “Washington Irving and the American Indian” or Guy Reynolds in “The Winning of the West: Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies“ (95) compare their treatments of Native Americans.

2 The quotation is actually the subtitle of another of Irving’s short stories: “The Conspiracy of Neamathla; An Authentic Sketch” (The Crayon Papers, 150).

3 This is true even for The Last of the Mohicans, although the text is defined as a “narrative” in the subtitle. As for The Prairie, “narrative” equals “tale” in the number of recurrences within the text itself, although the subtitle here defines it as a “tale.”

4 See Tena Lea Helton, she also notes that almost all of the thirty-one footnotes inserted in the novel are ethnographic, geographic and/or historical (The Literary Frontier, 43).

5 For Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., Irving’s Western Narratives read as chronicles of white men’s influence on the American West (“Washington Irving and the American Indian,” 151). Therefore, the expression “romantic chronicles” could still be used to qualify Irving’s texts, although it applies to the Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, which Irving himself termed so in a letter to Murray on May 9, 1829 (quoted in Brian Jay Jones’ biography, Washington Irving, 259).

6 We note that Irving has been much studied in comparison to Walter Scott. Indeed, more that Cooper, Irving sought an intimate relationship with the Scottish author and even went to visit him at Abbotsford, where Walter Scott disclosed to him his own impressions on A History of New York. Jeffrey Scrabahas recently compared the two in The Politics of Nostalgia and the Signification of Space: Walter Scott and Washington Irving (diss.). More specifically on that matter, I.S. MacLaren shows how Astoria “expressed a desire to see the unsettled West literally as an American echo of Sir Walter Scott’s country of romance” (“Washington Irving’s Problem with History and Romance in Astoria,” 3).

. On The Adventures of Captain Bonneville being an “adventurous story,” see Brian Harding, “Washington Irving’s Great Enterprise” in Making America/Making American Literature. Wayne R. Kime in “The Author as Professional” shows how The Adventures of Captain Bonneville shifts the emphasis on the man of business in Astoria onto the “region of romance” (248).