The Canal and the Cataract: José María Heredia as Travel Writer

Frederick Luciani (Colgate University)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 41-49.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

The ode to Niagara composed by José María Heredia in 1824 and first published a year later is the best known work by that Cuban poet. Frequently anthologized in the nineteenth century in English translation and in the original Spanish to this day, Heredia’s ode enjoys a kind of iconic status. ¹ It is a watershed poem in more than one sense; it heralds the transition to high Romanticism that in the 1820s and 30s would flourish in Latin American letters. Articulating, as it does, the vision of a young man exiled from his native island because of his implication in pro-Independence conspiracies, the poem would have immediate relevance for Cubans of Heredia’s generation who chafed under Spanish rule. And it would prove to have enduring appeal for later generations of Cubans who found themselves displaced for political reasons at various points in the island’s long history of liberation struggles.

Although the forerunner of a nascent Latin American Romanticism and a prototype for future Latin American exile literature, “Niágara” is often read in a kind of isolation. ² But the poem is best understood, I believe, within the denser context of the letters that Heredia wrote during his two years in the United States, specifically those that describe his 1824 trip via Hudson River steamboat, Erie Canal packet boat, and stagecoach from New York City to the Niagara frontier. ³ These artfully written but seldom-studied letters constitute an interesting travel narrative in their own right, while providing a frame for Heredia’s celebrated poem. Together, poem and travel letters trace a textual course in which river, canal and waterfall are complementary and sometimes competing tropes.

Heredia would claim that he composed his ode to Niagara in true Romantic fashion — in a rush of inspiration at the very edge of the cataract. One might be tempted to doubt this claim, were it not for the fact that during that same summer of 1824 another illustrious Cuban traveler to the falls reported having seen Heredia’s jotting of the poem in a Niagara hotel guest book. Spontaneity was not just a pose; when he made his trip, at age 20, Heredia was already at the height of his poetic powers, and he composed with alacrity and precision. But spontaneity was enabled by extensive preparation; Heredia’s Niagara writings were preceded and mediated by a body of texts that he had pored through prior to setting out. For example, in a letter written at the falls, Heredia alludes to the description of Niagara found in [42] Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801), and his poem seems to borrow ideas and imagery from that great Romantic novel. Other textual precedents that have been observed are John Gardiner Calkins Brainards’ poem “The Fall of Niagara,” which had been published earlier in 1824, and John Howison’s Sketches of Upper Canada, an 1822 travel narrative from which Heredia quotes at length.

More broadly, Heredia was part of a generation of early nineteenth-century travelers and travel writers for whom literary descriptions of Niagara were turning the falls into what Elizabeth McKinsey has called an “icon of the natural sublime.” As such, the falls were evoked with a consistent set of meanings and rhetorical devices, all of which may be observed in Heredia’s poem: the insistence on the sublime, the ineffable and the forbidden; themes of danger and death; the complete emotional identification of the “I” with the natural scene; the perceived presence of the hand of God; and the imminence of the great American wilderness — untamed and spiritualized — to which the falls seemed to be a kind of portal. Heredia may have composed his poem spontaneously and in situ, but his Niagara writings and, indeed, his very experience at the falls, seem predetermined by what he read about the place before embarking on his journey.

The same can be said for Heredia’s trip up the Hudson to Albany and across the interior of the state along the Erie Canal. His letters evoking the beauties of the Hudson Valley and the Catskill mountains were nurtured by his readings in French and English Romanticism: not only Chateaubriand but also Lamartine, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Ossian, whose poetry at the time Heredia was busy rendering into Spanish. His Romantic eye also was sharpened by the tourist guides that began to appear in the early 1820s, an example being the influential The Fashionable Tour: A Trip to the Springs, Niagara, Quebeck, and Boston, in the Summer of 1821. Such guides, themselves imbued with Romantic notions of the sublime and the picturesque, promised certain kinds of scenes and experiences that the well prepared Heredia in fact found and rendered in lovely passages in his letters. Some of these seem to anticipate the Hudson River School of painting, which followed on the seminal trip of Thomas Cole to the Catskill Mountains one year later, in 1825:

...[A]s the sun set I cast a glance at the scene that surrounded me. The sun’s last rays illumined the transparent vapors that gathered around the Catskill Mountains, and made them appear to be floating in a long cloud of gold. Behind the trees rose the steeples of Poughkeepsie, and in the distance the imposing [43] Highlands. On both sides rich fields opened before the eye, and their beauty was enhanced by the soft and melancholy shades of twilight. Some becalmed sloops could be seen in the distance, and their motionless sails were reflected in the waters, along with the shadows of the mountains. The surface of the river was as smooth as polished silver, and only was stirred by the movement of our floating Leviathan. Meanwhile the sun disappeared in a sky adorned with all the brilliance and purity of that of Cuba, and the friendly Moon began to admire her reflection in the bosom of the waters.

The painterly, “panoptic” style of passages like this also may have been influenced by the “panoramas” that were in vogue at the time; such panoramas offered viewers 360° views of picturesque scenes around the world, including some from the Hudson Valley. It seems likely that Heredia visited Vanderlyn’s Rotunda in New York, which featured such panoramic spectacles.

Textual precedents also abound for Heredia’s trip west from Albany by canal boat. Roger Hecht has shown that an Erie Canal literature existed years before the canal’s official completion in October of 1825. There were tributes in verse, such as “The Great Western Canal” (1820), in which the poet Philip Freneau “expound[ed] upon his vision of the glory of a free republic. In the Erie Canal Freneau [found] evidence of the triumph of free labor and free men” (Hecht 25). American and foreign visitors flocked to travel the canal when the first segments opened, and recorded their experiences in letters and diaries. They were aided by the kinds of tourist guides already mentioned, traces of which are present in Heredia’s letters, as are essays about the canal from journalistic venues like the North American Review, from which he quotes at length. These preceding texts seem to have had a considerable influence on the young Cuban’s perceptions of his canal trip, and these are of a largely different sort than those of the Hudson River and the Niagara segments of his narrative.

Heredia’s trip from Schenectady, where he embarked upon his canal journey, to Brockport, the canal’s terminus in that summer of 1824, took just three days; another day of stagecoach travel took him to Lewiston, near Niagara. In his letters, Heredia marvels at the comfort, ease and speed of his canal trip. Compared with bone-jarring stagecoach travel, canal travel proceeded at a gentle and steady pace, and the tow mules diligently plied the towpaths all night long, making the packet boats floating hotels. On the first leg of the journey west, canal travelers like [44] Heredia were treated to pretty views of the Mohawk Valley, where neatly arranged vistas — part wild, part domesticated — opened themselves to the observing eye. Following the contemporary taste for the “picturesque,” Heredia represents scenes along the way as cuadros [which means “paintings” as well as “scenes”], as when he describes Onondaga Lake near Syracuse: “The vast expanse of calm water is very agreeable to the eye, and in harmony with the land that stretches away, perfectly level, to the foot of the hills that complete the scene [cuadro] in the distance.” ¹⁰

Interspersed with such observations of the picturesque are exhaustive facts and figures about the canal — distances, prices, tonnages, dimensions, and so forth — that Heredia gleaned from his readings. For all his poetic nature, Heredia had a quantitative and practical mind; he recognized the canal as both a technological marvel and as an example of the kind of civilizing instrument that he desired for his native Cuba. It is not surprising, therefore, that the theme of “artifice” runs through his account of the trip. The canal is “an artificial river which, violating the eternal order of Nature, has climbed the peaks of hills, compelled by the triumphant force of human ingenuity, and which pours prosperity and life wherever it flows.” ¹¹

Human ingenuity and the boons of civilization, uncannily transported by this artificial river to the wilderness, are mentioned frequently in Heredia’s account. In Schenectady he takes admiring note of a floating bookstore that “travels the canal, to serve the lovers of reading in all the towns through which it passes.” Likewise, he comments in wonder on a floating museum, “full of wax figures, portraits, paintings, and natural curiosities.” ¹² Always cognizant of the economic as well as the political situation of his native island, Heredia does not fail to take notice of New York State’s sugar maple industry, in which William Cooper, we know, had an important hand:

As the weather was fine, now and then I would spring ashore and follow the packet boat on foot along the canal bank. On one of these walks, a traveling companion pointed out to me a tree called “maple” in which they make an incision at a certain time of year, and distill an excellent, pure sugar. Cubans would not much like to see the proliferation of this tree. ¹³

Heredia also takes note of the classical names of the towns through which the boat passes: “One can only smile upon hearing the names that have been given to the towns along the canal: from Utica to Rochester, one passes through Rome, Syracuse, Palmyra, Manlius ... ” ¹⁴ Heredia had been well trained by his father in the classics, and his [45] amusement must have derived from the incongruity between the grandiosity of such toponyms and the humbleness of these new towns recently sprung from the forest. But he also understood the fierce republican sentiment that lay behind these classical place names, and that these gestures to a glorious past also heralded the rapid development of the young nation. All along the route, Heredia observes, there are new towns “that are not even mentioned in geography books published in 1823. Wherever there is a bit of clearing, one sees houses being roofed, churches under construction. It is as if the banks of the canal were being populated by magic. ...” ¹⁵ Nor does the North American spirit of competitive free enterprise escape Heredia’s notice: he describes, with amusement tinged with admiration, the frantic efforts of his boat captain on the run toward Brockport to best a rival packet boat captain in speed and number of passengers.

Even when the prose of his Erie Canal account becomes a bit more lyrical, as in his description of the cliffs and the Mohawk River rapids at Little Falls, Heredia’s Romantic vision is tempered with practicality: “On one of the high precipices could be seen an old man, leaning motionless against the trunk of a pine tree. He contemplated the raging torrent below, and seemed to be the very spirit of solitude and meditation [el genio de la soledad y de la meditación], contemplating sadly the agitation of men and the tempests of life.” ¹⁶ This passage seems to echo one in Chateaubriand’s Atala, when during their river journey through the Appalachian wilderness, Chactas and Atala spot a Native American hunter — génie de ces deserts [spirit of these wilds] — motionless on a rock cliff, resting on his bow. But Little Falls, New York, was not the Appalachian wilds: here the Mohawk River, Heredia observes, moves the wheels of mills and factories. Chateaubriand’s Native American hunter is transformed by Heredia into a local townie whose thoughts take him to the industrious “agitations” of men below.

If Heredia’s Erie Canal writings focus on human ingenuity, material progress and the industriousness of a free people — suggesting the United States as model for the Continent’s future — at the canal’s temporary terminus at Brockport his journey takes a new thematic trajectory: it becomes, in essence, a journey into a less civilized past, a pilgrimage to the Continent’s wild heart. Heredia’s description of the perils and discomforts of the stagecoach trip along the primitive “Ridge Road” near the Lake Ontario shoreline helps to accomplish this shift. When the coach pauses to cross a rickety bridge, Heredia alights to cross the bridge on foot, holding his breath as the carriage creaks along behind [46] him, boards bouncing under the heavy wheels and the horses repeatedly stumbling. Against all odds, the carriage crosses without the sorry bridge collapsing, but the episode seems a kind of rite of passage. Then the Niagara component of his narrative begins, where nearly all is sublime and transcendent.

Nearly all, because even before the 1825 completion of the canal, its effects could be seen at the falls. Heredia cannot help but note in passing the human interventions that made the Niagara landscape a different place than that evoked by Chateaubriand in 1802, or even Howison in 1822. These transformations were destined to serve a clientele, not of hearty explorers or intrepid travelers, but of tourists. Heredia notes the bridge to Goat Island, the “establishment with baths, refreshments and billiards” on Bath Island, the stairs to the bottom of the American falls, the first hotels. ¹⁷ Alterations like these, the first signals of a coming tourist boom and industrial exploitation, made Niagara a place of threatened beauty. Often cited in this regard is Tocqueville, who would write in the 1830s:

If you wish to see this place in its grandeur, hasten. If you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared. The Romans are putting steeples on the Pantheon. I don’t give the Americans ten years to establish a saw or flour mill at the base of the Cataract. ¹⁸

But no such ruminations can be found in Heredia’s letters. There is no lament that the relative speed and comfort of his trip on the Erie Canal rendered his pilgrimage to Niagara less meaningful or authentic. Always of frail health in the rigorous North American climate, Heredia surely knew that without the canal his journey to Niagara would have been unlikely.

Heredia’s solution to the dilemma posed by Niagara — a place of majestic beauty made accessible by the spoiling hand of man — is a lyrical one. In his poem, the hand of man is erased; it is the hand of God that reigns and that confers eternity to the falls as to all creation:

God his mighty hand unclenched,

In shifting clouds obscured your face,

Gave your waters his thundering voice

And crowned you with his radiant bow.

Headlong, blind, you ever race

Like the onrush of the centuries,

Boundless, timeless...!

This erasure is accomplished even in the poetic act that gives birth to the poem — a state of pure inspiration. Niagara itself is Heredia’s [47] muse: “Niagara, your terror sublime alone / Could give me back the gift divine / That sorrow had me denied.” Heredia portrays his poem not as the result of labor, but as a spontaneous gift of lyrical voice and vision, a return to the origins of poetry, as the trip to Niagara is a return to primordial Nature, and to contemplate it is to peer back in time to the biblical Act of Creation.

Heredia represents his experience at Niagara as a liminal one — at and of the Edge. Liminal experience at Niagara was to become, and remains to this day, commodified. In 1824, this experience was not quite yet a tourist commodity, but it was already a literary one. The texts that preceded him gave Heredia the script for this experience. In his Niagara writings, progress, comfort, technology, labor, ingenuity, artifice, and the language of measures, prices, dimensions — all of which predominate in his Canal letters — give way to primitivism, danger, wildness, spontaneity, transcendence, and the oracular poetic voice. The denouement seems almost inevitable:

It was hard for me to leave that place behind, and before I did I returned to the edge of the American falls. I stood contemplating them for a while, and as I turned to leave, scarcely had I moved away from the rock upon which I had been standing, when I saw it break off and tumble into the abyss with just the light pressure from my feet as I stepped away. That rock, upon which I had thought I was safe a few seconds before, had fallen where no human feet would ever tread upon it again. I shuddered ... ¹⁹

Heredia closes his Niagara travelogue with this brush with death — the ultimate liminal experience. It announces a personal transformation, inspired by the natural sublime at the doorstep to the great North American wilderness. That transformation, foretold by his Romantic readings and realized through the poetic act, was more compelling to the young Cuban, ultimately, than the technological transformations of which the Canal was a harbinger, and which he so admired — transformations that forever would alter Niagara and the vast continent beyond.


1. The poem was first published in Heredia’s Poesías (New York: Librería de Behr y Kahl [Impr. de Gray y Bunce], 1825). In January of 1827, an anonymously translated version of “Niágara” appeared in the United States Review and Literary Gazette, a journal edited by William Cullen Bryant. It seems that Bryant at least had a hand in the translation. A fragment of the poem appeared in the National Reader in 1827 and in subsequent editions of that [48] textbook for American schoolchildren, and Longfellow included the poem in his The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845).

2. Jorge Febles traces a line from Heredia, through the nineteenth-century Cuban Romantics and José Martí, to late twentieth- and twenty-first-century autobiographical writings by Pablo Medina, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Virgil Suárez, Carlos Eire, and Román de la Campa. “Am I Who I Am?: Identity Games in US Cuban Literature,” in A Companion to US Latino Literatures, ed. Carlota Caulfield and Darién J. Davis (Woodbridge, UK and Rochester, NY: Tamesis, 2007), 67-87.

3. The most complete collection of Heredia’s correspondence can be found in the edition by Ángel Augier, Epistolario de José María Heredia (La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 2005). The author of the present article has translated into English and will publish most of Heredia’s correspondence from the years 1823-1825, the period of time that he spent in the United States.

4. That Cuban was Tomás Gener (1787-1835), who had been a Cuban delegate to the Spanish Cortes, and who fled Spain following the restoration of the monarchy in 1823. An acquaintance of Heredia, he lived in exile in the United States until he returned to Cuba in 1834. In a letter to his wife of 5 July 1824, Gener reported having seen the poem in Heredia’s hand, recorded in a hotel guest book at Niagara. See Gustavo Adolfo Mejía Ricart, José María Heredia y sus obras (La Habana: Molina y Cia., 1941), 123, note 387.

5. Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

6. Published in Saratoga Springs by G.M. Davison, 1821.

7. Cited from Heredia’s letter to his Uncle Ignacio (Ignacio Heredia Campuzano), Albany, June 7, 1824. Translated by the author of the present article, as are all subsequent citations from Heredia’s letters and poetry. This passage bears some resemblance to the opening paragraph of Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” published in 1819. The author owes this observation to an anonymous evaluator of his translated edition of Heredia’s letters and poetry, in preparation.

8. In his edition of Heredia’s Obra poética (La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1993), Ángel Augier (p. 561) notes that the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí owns a draft of Heredia’s poem “Atenas y Palmira,” in which in Heredia’s hand is the annotation “Versos escritos después de haber visto los panoramas de Atenas y Palmira” [Verses written after having seen the panoramas of Athens and Palmyra]. This points to the strong possibility that Heredia visited Vanderlyn´s Rotunda when the latter exhibited a painted panorama of Athens in 1825. In 1828, a few years after Heredia´s Hudson River trip, the Bowery Theater in New York offered a show titled “A Trip to Niagara, or Travellers in America,” which included a painted diorama that unrolled Hudson Valley background scenes as the play progressed.

9. Roger W. Hecht, The Erie Canal Reader (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003).

10. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Lewiston, NY, June 15, 1824. [49]

11. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Utica, NY, June 11, 1824.

12. Both quotes from Heredia’s letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Utica, NY, June 11, 1824.

13. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Utica, NY, June 11, 1824. An effort to produce maple sugar in large quantities to supply markets on the Eastern seaboard had taken place from 1789-1795. Led by William Cooper, this effort sought to replace the refined white sugar imported from the West Indies with this New York product, not only as a profitable commercial venture but also with the added humanitarian benefit of replacing a form of production that depended on massive use of slave labor with local production by small farmers. See Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 119-34.

14. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Lewiston, NY, June 15, 1824.

15. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Lewiston, NY, June 15, 1824.

16. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Utica, NY, June 11, 1824.

17. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Manchester, NY, June 17, 1824.

18. From a letter to his mother. Cited in McKinsey, p. 155, who takes the quote from George Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 310.

19. Letter to Ignacio Heredia Campuzano from Manchester, NY, June 17, 1824.