Washington Irving was America's first internationally acclaimed author, perhaps most famous for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and "Rip van Winkle." After spending 17 years traveling through Europe in search of stories, Irving returned to the states and embarked on a series of nonfiction works, including histories, biographies, and other works.
In this newest addition to the Library of America collection of American literature, James P. Ronda collected three of Irving's most intriguing adventure epics in one definitive volume: "Three Western Narratives." He includes "A Tour on the Prairies," "Astoria: or Anecdotes of an Enterprize [sic] Beyond the Rocky Mountains," and "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville."
A Tour on the Prairies
In "A Tour on the Prairies," Irving takes us with him on his exploration of Pawnee country, into regions that had not yet traversed by white men. Irving's narrative is a romanticized retelling of his adventures into these unexplored Western lands, which is now part of Oklahoma. As he writes in the beginning, "Who can tell, when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence; or when he may return; or whether it may ever be his lot to revisit the scenes of his childhood!"
Irving says, "There is something exciting to the imagination and stirring to the feelings, while traversing these hostile plains, in seeing a horseman prowling along the horizon." The weather was perfect; the game was plentiful; and the "glorious country" spread out "far and wide in the golden sunshine." His descriptions of the dangers of the hunt are remarkable, though the thrill of the chase often overwhelmed any fear of danger or death.
In his quixotic quest, Irving witnesses strange and almost-unbelievable episodes. And, along the way, he learns something of the traditions and culture of the Native Americans, devouring their myths and legends with awe. He hears the story of a young warrior who was visited, and guided, by his bride in ghostly form. After his retelling of the tale, which he'd heard by the fire, Irving writes: "I give this simple little story almost in the words in which it was related to me as I lay by the fire in an evening encampment on the banks of the haunted stream where it is said to have happened."
After a month of venturing through the unchartered territory, Irving returns to civilization, only to find that he felt restricted. He missed sleeping in the open air. As he writes: "The atmosphere seemed close, and destitute of freshness; and when I woke in the night and gazed about me upon complete darkness, I missed the glorious companionship of the stars."
Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprize Beyond the Rocky Mountains
After venturing off into the uncharted plains, and writing about his travels, Irving undertook another project: a narrative describing the expedition of John Astor's company. "Finding that I took an interest in the subject," Irving explains that John Astor "expressed a regret that the true nature and extent of his enterprize [sic] and its national character and importance had never been understood."
Initially, Irving employed his nephew, Pierre, to sort through the mountain of papers: journals, business papers, letters, and account sheets. Irving drew from Pierre's notes, and also consulted the journals of Lewis and Clark, Bradbury, Breckenridge, Long Franchere, and Ross Cox. From these materials, Irving creates a work that is "of a rambling and somewhat disjointed nature," detailing "expeditions and adventures by land and sea."
This narrative is even more poignant in that the places of which he speaks are long since passed away, or changed beyond recognition. Even as Astoria was in its early stages of settlement, they experienced a terrible loss. Tonquin, the company ship, was blown up as the final revengeful act of one of the surviving members of the crew. With that terrible blast, Irving writes: "The ship had disappeared, but the bay was covered with fragments of the wreck, with shattered canoes and Indians swimming for their lives or struggling in the agonies of death; while those who had escaped the danger remained aghast and stupefied, or made with frantic panic for the shore."