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British Association for American Studies


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 2


Issue 14, Spring 2009: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 14, Spring 2009

Occidental Odysseys to Niagara, the Prairies and the Mississippi River: British and American Views on the Three Landscapes of the West

Adam Hallett
© Adam Hallett. All Rights Reserved

This article will look at the American landscape in various frontier settings between 1825—the opening of the Erie Canal—and 1893—the supposed closing of the frontier. I will specifically be looking at British and American views of Niagara, the Prairies and the Mississippi River.

This work will begin with a brief look at historical perceptions of American nature, many of which linger in the psyche of United States citizens and commentators on the country. These nature myths lead into some first impressions of the American landscape of the East in picturesque terms by Frances Trollope. There then follows the main body of the paper, which examines British and American travel writers’ views on three instances of the sublime in American nature. I do not wish to argue that these sites are the only examples of sublime American landscape; I am merely making use of them as the most widely written about in nineteenth century. Additions to this list could include the Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. I maintain that those which form the subject for this paper were the most widely-known and discussed by tourists during the period prescribed, however.

American Nature Myths

American nature has incorporated many, sometimes disparate, myths applied to the same region. American nature could firstly be viewed as an agrarian field, land to be cultivated, sown and harvested for the benefit of man. America was also a garden, with welcoming nature placed upon earth for man’s benefit. This idea of the garden incorporates some civilised features and suggests the role of man as gardener. These first two conceptions of American nature were most strongly supported by the new country’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia, published in English in 1787, contains the famous call to farmers, ‘Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth’.[1] These two aspects, ‘the mixture of garden and forest’ with its ‘artificial rudeness’ points towards the pastoral image of America.[2] America could also be Edenic, which is similar to the garden, but without evidence of civilisation; the myths described above correspond roughly with the picturesque.

The birth of the term ‘picturesque’ is most often associated with the eighteenth century English artist and clergyman William Gilpin. It is frequently applied to the work of Claude Lorraine, the seventeenth century French painter, whose warm subtle tones depict the combination of pastoral culture (or unobtrusive artificial objects) and the natural landscape, often rolling hills or water. Picturesque is expressed by the irregularity of nature, or the contrast between the roughness of nature with civilisation, often in decaying or ruined form, such as a mediaeval castle or rustic stone bridge. In literature we can think of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’.

America could also exhibit the Romantic sublime, usually with mountains, gorges or waterfalls—an exaggeration of the picturesque, with mankind and culture absent. These natural features were often well-known to those who wished for this sanitised sense of the danger of nature and had been well-worn by tourists. The sublime, first defined by Joseph Addison and Edmund Burke was awful, terrific (in the original sense) and painful, but not necessarily lacking in pleasure: Edmund Burke’s is ‘a two-fluid theory: pain and pleasure are both positive qualities, and the removal of one is thus not equivalent to the addition of the other’.[3]

In addition, the North American continent displayed wilderness lacking in culture, which was not necessarily friendly to man, but which seemed to encourage pioneering types and could be ‘overcome’, as with any obstacle. Finally American landscape could be a nightmare: a land so wild and raw, or so immense in its exaggeration of the wildness of the wilderness that it was impossible to colonise and struck fear into those who saw it. This is beyond the Romantic sublime, and has little of what those observers would call beauty. It can still be described as sublime taking the definitions above, however. These various categories of American nature are subjective, fluid and contain similar ideas; Jefferson’s view of the West, for example, ‘was a complex map, comprising a series of interlocking images which can be simplified into three main areas: the Garden, the miasmatist debate, and the Northwest Passage’.[4]

These aforementioned nature myths represent a sliding scale from east to west, and therefore culture to nature in the nineteenth century. From England spreads the field and the garden, slowly colonising New England’s nature which began as a wilderness. This leaves the rest of America, the unincorporated states in the nineteenth century and the unknown lands as wilderness (or worse in the imagination).

Northeast America

The period which concerns this article is 1825 to 1893, during which time the Northeast was most often represented by European and native writers alike as picturesque. It was civilised enough for the contrast between culture and nature to take place, and the nature on show was rural and pastoral enough not be too threatening. At the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the next, Romanticism brought the idea of what Wordsworth and Coleridge called the sublime and an appreciation of the wilder nature of the Lake District and the Alps, though as we shall see, not everything described as sublime could truly be classed as such. America, on the other hand, had the Appalachian Mountains, which were impressive but were more akin to the picturesque; they lacked the implied danger of the landscape favoured by the Lake Poets:

The Connecticut and Hudson River valleys were among the earliest tourist regions in the United States not only because they offered varied views of mountains, plains, and river and were easily accessible to the country’s centres of population, but because they featured the most civilized American landscapes.[5]

Frances Trollope left Cincinnati and her failed venture in early 1830 and began her tour of the United States which was to become Domestic Manners of the Americans. She headed east towards the more cultured United States and away from the cursed Mississippi. While most travellers to America saw the East coast first and then travelled west, Trollope had entered America through the back door and didn’t leave the path of the Mississippi for some time. The change on entering the Allegheny region which, she says ‘is a garden’ must have been dramatic. Mrs Trollope effuses lavish praise upon the scenery, talking about its ‘endless variety’, which is what she identifies as lacking in the Mississippi landscape.[6] However, even this scenery is too large:

Again and again we enjoyed all the exhilarating sensations that such scenes must necessarily inspire, but in attempting a continued description of our progress over these beautiful mountains, I could only tell again of rocks, cedars, laurels, and running streams, of blue heights and green vallies (sic), yet the continually varying combinations of these afforded us unceasing pleasure… (looking back presented) a stupendous view; but having gazed upon it for some moments, we turned to pursue our course, and the certainty that we should see it no more raised no sigh of regret.[7] (Emphasis added)

That Trollope felt no regret to be leaving this ‘unceasing pleasure’ may seem confounding; however, it is the oppression of the landscape, necessitating attention without respite which seems to cause the relief at quitting the area. In contrast, European scenery is admired because of its contrast to the culture surrounding it:

For Europeans wild country was a single peak or heath, an island of uninhabited land surrounded by settlement. They at least knew its character and extent. But the seemingly boundless wilderness of the New World was something else. In the face of this vast blankness, courage failed and imagination multiplied fears.[8]

Trollope was forced to be inspired, and the pleasure was forced also; there was no respite or variety of civilisation and thus she became bored. This is not to say that this landscape was not beautiful to Trollope: simply that as with the less salubrious landscapes of the West, there was too much of it. We will now move slightly west to Niagara Falls; the first instance of the American sublime, which eclipsed both the picturesque Alleghenies and the Romantic sublimity of the European Alps.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls was first mentioned by Europeans in 1603, though never actually seen by the explorer: he was informed of its existence by Indian guides but did not deign it worthy of a detour.[9] On the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, however, Niagara became probably the most important natural draw for travellers from across the Atlantic, as well as those closer to home. Mrs Trollope writes with excitement at the prospect of viewing ‘one of the wonders of the world’.[10] Trollope talks of herself not as a tourist, but a pilgrim completing the arduous journey to the site of her pilgrimage:

We…felt every cup of coffee as a sin, so impatient were we, as we approached the end of our long pilgrimage, to reach the shrine, which nature seems to have placed at such a distance from her worshippers (the Europeans?!) on purpose to try the strength of their devotion.[11] (Emphasis added)

As shown later, this response to Niagara is not uncommon and is reflected in the conferral of the status of a shrine by Pope Pius IX who, ‘at the urging of Archbishop Lynch of Toronto, established a ‘pilgrim shrine’ at Niagara Falls in 1861. This action bestowed upon Niagara—in the eyes of the Catholic Church at least—the same status as the most famous of Old World pilgrim centers’.[12]

Trollope’s response to Niagara is typically sublime. Superlatives gush forth, mixing the terrific awe and the pleasure which make up Burke’s idea of the sublime. Trollope begins by expressing that

terror, and delight completely overwhelmed me. I wept with a strange mixture of pleasure and of pain, and certainly was, for some time, too violently affected in the physique to be capable of much pleasure, but when this emotion of the senses subsided, and I had recovered some degree of composure, my enjoyment was very great indeed.[13]

Trollope is trying to view the falls as a picture: a single view on the landscape, imposing the will of the observer upon it. She goes on to say that ‘it is not for me to attempt a description of Niagara; I feel I have no powers for it’ and later, ‘how utterly futile must every attempt be to describe the spot!’ before spending the next several pages attempting just such a description.[14] Later, she talks of a ‘shadowy mystery (that) not even the imagination can penetrate; but I dare not dwell on this’, she says, ‘it is a dangerous subject, and any attempt to describe the sensations produced must lead direct to nonsense’.[15] Too long spent near the falls makes one lose language, as with the tower of Babel, you are too close to God. Similar religious thought is conveyed with ‘God said, let there be a cataract, and it was so’.[16] The cataract is an example of the power of God, but also, as with the ‘shadowy mystery’, something of the incomprehensible: why is Niagara? As Christopher Mulvey points out, there is a ‘plunging into bathos that would leave the writer damned utterly before his or her public’.[17] The falls are dangerous for other reasons, too. Patrick McGreevy points out, ‘as early as the 1830s, death had become part of the lure of Niagara. Guidebooks repeated the gruesome details of accidents, suicides, murders, and narrow escapes’.[18]

Niagara can be described as a frontier location. Not only is it the frontier between British and United States North America, but it is where nature meets culture, and culture, through language, is found lacking. Several authors including Frances Trollope, Dickens and Hawthorne also have Niagara as a frontier between God and man. Interestingly, Frances Trollope describes Niagara as ‘the fall of an ocean’, linking it to the Atlantic frontier.[19] Frontiers must be seen in time as well as space; it is almost as if Trollope desires to become closer to what she feels is a timeless, transcendental scene closer to God at Niagara. Anthony Trollope, seeing Niagara 30 years after his mother, also describes it in oceanic terms, imbuing that idea with the religious connotations of his mother. Trollope asks his reader to find the spot where ‘the waters are absolutely around you’, literally recreating the experience of a voyage at sea; ‘then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant, and eternal ocean’.[20] As Peter Conrad says, ‘Travellers took up the challenge of Niagara and they attempted to act out the ritual of Romantic response in the face of a landscape that reminded them more frequently of the sea than of anything they had seen on land before’.[21]

Both Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens searched for tranquillity at Niagara and emphasised the need to be alone with one’s thoughts. Trollope writes, ‘Oh, my friend, let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother. As you stand there speak only to the waters’.[22] Dickens made precautions to be alone during his last visit in 1868, presumably to avoid a repeat of the following comment, reported in a letter to Henry Austin on the First of May, 1842.[23] His wife’s maid, he writes, ‘never looks at a prospect by any chance, or displays the smallest emotion at any sight whatever. She objects to Niagara that “its (sic) nothing but water”, and considers that “there is too much of that”!!!’.[24]

Dickens visited the falls in 1842 and found his senses battered on the approach:

I could see an immense torrent of water tearing headlong down from some great height, but had no idea of shape, or situation, or anything but vague immensity … I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on Table Rock, and looked—Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water!—that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.[25]

The author struggles to complete his sentence without an exclamation and is overcome with size. Dickens is the opposite of Anthony Trollope, who resorted to details and a guidebook description; Dickens retreats to abstracts and capitalised abstracts: ‘Peace. Peace of Mind’; ‘recollections of the Dead’; ‘thought of Eternal Rest and Happiness’; ‘Enchanted Ground ‘; ‘Darkness … Deluge—Light’.[26]

Dickens sees something of the Romantic sublime in the falls, but cannot comprehend the scale so substitutes his own opinion with a poor pastiche. He, after all, has little to go on: Marjorie Hope Nicholson, in her Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory talks of the ‘aesthetics of the infinite’, and says that ‘like men of every age, we see in Nature what we have been taught to look for, we feel what we have been prepared to feel’.[27] Dickens was completely unprepared for the scene which met him.

It is ironic that Dickens then goes on to criticise the volumes of ‘remarks and poetical effusions’ which contain pages ‘scrawled all over with the vilest and filthiest ribaldry that ever human hogs delighted in’.[28] This book can be seen as a poor mirror image of the three authors’ own attempts at describing the falls, or more correctly, a symptom of the impossibility.

Plains and Prairies

Just as Niagara is described like the great frontier of the transatlantic ocean, so the plains are described in the same way. The sea is often described as a homogenous, overpowering expanse of vastness; the imagery and language of the American frontier is the same, with various excursions West into nature described in similar terms. The plains for Dickens are ‘not to be compared with even the tamest portions of Scotland or Wales. You…see the unbroken scenery all round you…like a sea without water…. The excessive flatness of the scene makes it dreary, but tame’.[29] For the passage over he describes ‘the wind howling, the sea roaring, the rain beating: all in furious array against (the ship). Picture the sky both dark and wild, and the clouds, in fearful sympathy with the waves, making another ocean in the air’.[30] The abundance of water, with the rain, the waves and the ‘ocean in the air’ is as oppressive as the ‘barren monotony’ of the plains[31]. Washington Irving’s 1835 book, A Tour on the Prairies, begins on the journey towards the plains and includes language which is picturesque in style, similar to Mrs. Trollope’s account of the East Coast. Here, Irving is travelling in a landscape which is interesting and beautiful to his (recently returned from Europe) eye: ‘We were overshadowed by lofty trees, with straight smooth trunks, like stately columns… of a Gothic cathedral’, and the Indians described as great gossips ‘telling whimsical stories’. Further examples of distinctly picturesque and familiar landscapes can be found throughout the early chapters: ‘we came to a meadow in which were a number of horses grazing’ and ‘The beautiful forest (which) abounded in bee trees; that is to say trees in the decayed trunks of which wild bees had established their hives’ which are described as associated ‘with the farm house and the flower garden…the heralds of civilization’.[32]

The book begins, then, with examples of Jeffersonian ideas of nature as a garden, mixing the gentle picturesque landscape with unobtrusive, pastoral imagery. The bees are one example of Irving seeing and imposing civilisation on the wilderness in A Tour; the prairie dogs are painted in a similar light. Irving concentrates on the ‘human’ attributes of these creatures, personifying them and making the wilderness less wild. These animals are given greater attention, however, as they populate the great expanse of the prairies, the great void. The prairie dogs are described as a members of a ‘republic’ and are humanised by Irving who is not alone in creating imagined society for these mammals: ‘the prairie dog is, in fact, one of the curiosities of the Far West, about which travellers delight to tell marvellous tales, endowing him at times, with something of the politic and social habits of a rational being, and giving him systems of civil government and domestic economy almost equal to what they used to bestow upon the beaver’.[33] Irving ends the section by having Crayon dream of the dogs’ personified actions: ‘I could not help picturing to myself the inhabitants gathered together in noisy assemblage, and windy debate, to devise plans for the public safety, and to vindicate the invaded rights and insulted dignity of the republic’.[34] Hence Crayon has entered into the discourse of prairie dog humanising and has populated the plain with characters, as do other travellers mentioned here when presented with homogeneity in landscape. Likewise the writer, when struggling to comprehend the scene before him, takes something cultured and known, transposing it to the nature, and the unknown; the wild prairies become America, the republic Irving knows from the East. Returning to the travel account before reaching the plains, we find Crayon again describing the scenery as picturesque; the clearings and the forests inseparable from the descriptions of Europe and New England. Crayon talks of a ‘picturesque march’ and mentions the uniform Romantic approach for viewing the landscape: ‘the foliage had a yellow autumnal tint which gave to the sunny landscape the golden tone of one of the landscapes of Claude Lorraine’.[35] Crayon does, however, join the hunters in disrupting the tranquillity of the picturesque scene: ‘there was something in this picture of the last moment of a wounded deer to touch the sympathies of one not hardened to the gentle disports of the chase; such sympathies, however, are but transient’. This can be viewed as the regression to the wild in the wilderness and the waning influence of civilisation as man travels further west, something which the other literary travellers have observed in others, but not before experienced themselves. It must be made clear, however, that Crayon is Irving’s persona, not Irving himself. Irving the author is safely using Crayon—whose name suggests a pun on the implications and impossibilities of writing on American nature—to mediate the landscape and the actual experience of the West. Crayon claims that ‘man is naturally an animal of prey and however changed by civilization, will readily relapse into his instinct for destruction’.[36] By Trying to rationalise his behaviour, Crayon is being changed by the landscape. When he set out, Irving was trying to mould the wilderness to his own means economically and creatively, much as the pioneers and frontiersman do; civilising the wilderness. However, there is something about the American West which renders this, at least temporarily, impossible. In fact, in a comic inversion, the landscape moulds and alters Crayon.

By this point Crayon has only reached the edge of the prairies and is in a liminal state (meaning on the threshold, with psychological undertones) between the picturesque forest and the sublime waste. He is truly on the frontier and fearing essentially imaginary foes in the ‘howling waste’, just as with Dickens fearing the branches of the Mississippi, as will be shown below. This is another example of Crayon populating this ‘half savage’ emptiness with characters, unable to comprehend the scene and uncomfortable on the boundary between the two worlds. These characters have taken the form of Indian ghosts, republican prairies dogs and democratic bees.

Crayon, as with Dickens, likens the prairies to the sea; sublime in its vastness and emptiness: ‘A thunder storm on a prairie as upon the ocean derives grandeur and sublimity from wild and boundless waste over which it rages and bellows’; while Beatte hunting buffalo is ‘skirting along the horizon like a privateer in full chase of a merchantman’, populating this ocean with civilised figures.[37] Later, on this vast ‘ocean’ of ‘grassy undulating, or as it is termed, rolling country’ (further similarities to the sea), Crayon espies a cliff and makes use not only of the maritime metaphor, but also once more populates this wild expanse with something familiar to him; not the American republic this time, but the quasi-fairytale world he earlier wrote of in Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and one of his best known work Tales of the Alhambra (1832):

To the south west on the summit of a hill was a singular crest of broken rocks resembling a ruined fortress. It reminded [him] of the ruin of some Moorish castle crowning a height in the midst of a lonely Spanish landscape. To this hill (they) gave the name of Cliff Castle.[38]

Crayon also likens the journey over the plains to one at sea, with the boredom of unchanged landscape rendering anything different as disproportionately exciting:

After a tedious ride of several miles we came out upon an open tract of hill and dale interspersed with woodland. Here we were roused by the cry of Buffalo! Buffalo! The effect was something like that of the cry of a sail! a sail! at sea.[39]

And a little later: ‘The sight of any human being in this lovely wilderness was interesting; it was like speaking a ship at sea’.[40] Any break in the scenery is interesting, be it a rocky outcrop, woodland, or animal. Likewise, the ever-present threat of Pawnee attack is almost a welcome distraction to the travelling group who seem to grow increasingly weary on reaching the plains; there is something oppressive about the lack of interest. Crayon only describes the landscape in terms of desolation and lack: ‘The landscape was vast and beautiful. There is an expansion of feeling in looking upon these boundless and fertile wastes’.[41] Here it seems that Irving is feeling the sublime, but is unable to express it fully. He instead tamely calls it a ‘waste’ then compares it to the ‘close dungeon of innumerous boughs’ of the woodland. The vivid descriptions of the woodland and picturesque scenes have been replaced by an increasing interest in the troupe, flashes of animal interest (the buffalo, prairie dogs and wild horses) or imaged foes such as the Pawnees. It is interesting to note here that Crayon talks of the hunter who raises the alarm as ‘the author’ of ‘wanton fabrication’ which mimics Crayon’s own problems tackling writing about the prairies: namely, that if there is nothing to describe all that remains to be done is fabricate.[42] The narrative is peppered with Indian stories, designed to distract and entertain hunters with tales about the land in which they are travelling, but also detached, as the real prairie is not obviously interesting and full of adventure. The adventure for the rangers is of their own making: endless hunts or chases giving bursts of adrenaline to alleviate the boredom. It is notable that Crayon even begins to partake in these mounted hunts when in the prairies proper, after having earlier chastised the impetuous youngsters of the group for chasing after anything which moves. This is portrayed in perhaps the most exciting passage of the work as a whole: the Buffalo chase which ends with Crayon removing the tongue of one of the beasts as a trophy. The stories are designed by Irving to add interest and flavour to the narrative, one in which much of the excitement promised and hinted at by the omnipresent Pawnee threat. The suspense which these stories and the chapter subtitles create, often intriguing and exciting, ultimately disappoint. This increasingly leaves the reader with a wry smile at Irving’s artfulness in consistently building up, then gradually releasing suspense, normally through a comic event.

One of the most striking examples of the barrenness and hostility of the landscape comes after a brief buffalo chase:

There is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie. The loneliness of a forest seems nothing to it… There the imagination is left free to picture some livelier scene beyond. But here we have an immense extent of landscape without a sign of human existence. We have the consciousness of being far, far beyond the bounds of human habitation; we feel as if moving in the midst of a desert world… The silence of the waste was now and then broken by the cry of a distant flock of pelicans stalking like spectres about a shallow pool. Sometimes by the sinister croaking of a raven in the air, while occasionally a scoundrel wolf would scour off from before me and having attained a safe distance, would sit down and howl and whine with tones that gave a dreariness to the surrounding solitude.[43]

The prairies here are given sinister attributes, as are the creatures inhabiting them; the mood is successfully created by use of both sound and sight. This is the description of a literary imagination, I would suggest, which has embellished the actual scene somewhat. The loneliness is all the more acute after the ‘delirium of the chase’ and again Crayon concentrates on that which he can describe, the animals and the loneliness, ‘spectres’ on the prairie but the most concrete things which can be put to article. At this point Crayon, as with the rest of the group, is mentally and emotionally tired, and perhaps so is Irving, from the pressure of trying to bring the prairies to life and revisiting the barrenness which needs to be recorded for the reader.

Predictably, the return voyage’s account is rather rushed, with the occasional spark of picturesque description, but it seems as though both Crayon and Irving are now tired of the exertions of the tour, and A Tour respectively. The effort to prevent the narrative from becoming homogenous during the prairies just as the effort of preventing the tour from becoming homogenous has taken toll on both Crayon as narrator and Irving as writer, and, it may be argued, the reader. It is with a sense of relief on all parts that the final sea metaphor of the book is played out with the sighting of familiar civilisation akin to the sighting of land on a long and arduous sea journey: ‘Beatte climbed a high tree commanding a wide prospect, and took a look out like a mariner at sea. He came down with cheering tidings’; and thus ended Irving’s ‘foray into the Pawnee Hunting Grounds’ with Irving adhering to the idea of danger and adventure to the last.[44]

While Irving never truly comes to terms with the ‘howling waste’ of the prairies, he uses his persona to come to terms with the sublime American landscape and creates a sophisticated approach to the prairies. This, along with the episodic nature of the account, is a sometimes successful attempt at seeing the prairies on their own terms, though more often than not the picturesque rears its head to make Irving long for the culture of the East, and Europe in particular. With the bees and more particularly the prairie dogs, however, Irving begins writing an American culture upon the landscape, leaving something which is neither European culture nor natural wilderness.

The Mississippi

Like the prairies, the Mississippi is another example of American nature’s giant scale. Mrs. Trollope entered America for the first time up this river and her description is nightmarish. Like the plains it is vast and unchanging, described by Trollope as a ‘dreary scene’ with ‘an aspect of desolation’.[45] Dickens, too, seems to be haunted by the Mississippi:

And still there is the same, eternal foreground. The River has washed away its banks, and stately trees have fallen down into the stream. Some have been there so long, that they are mere dry, grizzly skeletons. Some are almost sliding down, as you look at them. And some were drowned so long ago, that their bleached arms start out from the middle of the current, and seem to try to grasp the boat, and drag it under water.[46]

As Christopher Mulvey points out, ‘the Mississippi had to be seen in time as well as in space’ it was so large.[47] Both Frances Trollope and Dickens wrote as little about the river as possible, despite the fact that it was a significant part of their trip; just as with Niagara, it rendered the authors lost for words, unable or unwilling to write about it. All three landscapes are inhabited with figures, real or ghostly, to detract from the scene and give the authors something to write about; at Niagara it is painters and tourists, allowing the writers to see the falls by mediation. On the plains there are the prairie dogs and the imagined bands of Indians—Irving’s book abounds with fearful descriptions of noises and half-seen figures—all false alarms. On the Mississippi there are, and I quote Frances Trollope, ‘no objects more interesting than mud banks, monstrous bulrushes, and now and then a huge crocodile luxuriating in the slime’—Mrs. Trollope appears not to find crocodiles interesting![48] While Dickens makes ghosts of the tree stumps and sawyers.

So what option is there for coming to terms with the sublime of the American landscape, if trying to the view them from the Old World perspective does not work? One possible solution is to make use of the landscape and treat it as a great American theme. Mark Twain is perhaps the most well-known writer on the Mississippi and knew the river from childhood. He let the river name him, rather than trying to impose himself on the river; hence Samuel Clemens becomes Mark Twain. In the autobiographical Life on the Mississippi the young traveller yearns to be an authentic man of the Mississippi:

“Going to heave it clear astern? WHERE’re you going with that barrel! For’ard with it ‘fore I make you swallow it, you dash-dash-dash-dashed split between a tired mud-turtle and a crippled hearse-horse!”

I wished I could talk like that.[49]

An integral part of Twain’s understanding of the Mississippi landscape and American fiction is that he can, by the point of writing at least, ‘talk like that’. The Mississippi became the backdrop and integral character in his best-known work The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Likewise, Washington Irving lets his persona, Geoffrey Crayon, become written on by the plains landscape, finally losing his exaggerated Eastern manners in exchange for participating in a Buffalo hunt and cutting out the tongue. Though Irving himself (as opposed to his persona) is perhaps unable to accept the West to the extent that Twain does the Mississippi, he does write two further books after his Tour on the Prairies, exploring his interest of the West and the men who live there. Twain tries to break down the mediation and get to know his subject, writing what he sees using his knowledge of the language and history, as well as persona, like Irving. The grand scale is broken down to a local level and becomes a metaphor for the size of America and its aspirations. By incorporating these landscapes into his writing Twain leaves us with more fiction that fact, true, but fiction which is not driven by the myth and history stemming from European ideology or theory. Twain also seems to offer a means of coming to terms with the might of Niagara. As with the Mississippi, Twain takes the subject and does not try to find in it the sublime, but the American art of speculating and dollar-worship. Writing a satirical examination of the commofication of the scene, Twain replaces the awe of earlier writers with irreverence and comedy. He finds the ‘Indians’ (who are, it is revealed, actually from Limerick, Ireland) making souvenir moccasins. Trying to talk to these souvenir merchants in the rhetoric of the Native Americans he finds himself attacked and, he says, to ‘add insult to injury, they threw me over the Niagara Falls, and I got wet’.[50]

University of Exeter


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), p. 164-5.

[2] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London: Oxford U.P., 1964), p. 93.

[3] Walter John Hipple Jr, The Beautiful, The Sublime, The Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory (Carbondale: The Southern Illinois U.P., 1957), p. 87.

[4] Robert Lawson-Peebles, Landscape and Written Expression in Revolutionary America: The World Turned Upside Down (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2008), p. 152. The ‘miasmatist debate’ refers to the idea that out of the many rivers, swamps and lakes of America comes a ‘syphilitic miasma that infected all who breathed it’ and was a symptom of the general degeneracy of the West—including its people and landscapes—which affected and infected Europeans (Ibid. 39).

[5] John Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (Amherst: University Massachusetts Press, 1998), p. 49.

[6] Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) (Gloucestershire: Nonsuch, 2006), p. 153. Henceforth, DM; ibid. p. 154.

[7] Ibid. p. 155.

[8] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (London: Yale U.P., 1982), p. 26.

[9] Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p. 7.

[10] DM, p. 283.

[11] Ibid. p. 294.

[12] Patrick V. McGreevy, Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p. 34.

[13] DM. p. 296-7.

[14] DM. p.302.

[15] Ibid. p. 297.

[16] Ibid. p. 299.

[17] Christopher Mulvey, Anglo-American Landscapes: a Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1983), p. 197.

[18] Imagining Niagara, p. 42.

[19] DM, p.297.

[20] Anthony Trollope, North America, Vol. 1. (Philadephia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.,1863), p. 105. Henceforth NA; ibid. p. 106.

[21] Peter Conrad, Imagining America (London: Routledge; Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 188.

[22] NA. p. 111.

[23] Christopher Mulvey, Anglo-American Landscapes: a Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1983), p. 195.

[24] Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol.3, House, Storey, et al. (eds) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 231. Henceforth, Letters.

[25] Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846) (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1910), p. 238. Henceforth AN.

[26] Ibid. pp. 238-9.

[27] Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: the Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: Norton, 1967), p. 1.

[28] AN, p. 241.

[29] Letters, p. 200.

[30] AN, p. 14.

[31] Ibid. p. 216.

[32] Washington Irving, ‘A Tour on the Prairies’ (1835) in The Crayon Miscellany (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), pp. 25-6, 29.

[33] Ibid. p. 108.

[34] Ibid. p. 110.

[35] Ibid. p. 35, 41.

[36] Ibid. p. 51.

[37] Ibid. p. 59, 98

[38] Ibid. p. 61.

[39] Ibid. p. 72.

[40] Ibid. p. 87.

[41] Ibid. p. 97.

[42] Ibid. p. 77.

[43] Ibid. p. 100.

[44] Ibid. p. 119,122.

[45] DM, p. 17.

[46] AN, p. 190.

[47] Christopher Mulvey, ‘Ecriture and Landscape: British Writing on Post-Revolutionary America in Mick Gidley and Robert Lawson-Peebles (eds) Views of American Landscapes (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1990), p. 108.

[48] DM, p. 17.

[49] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 34.

[50] Mark Twain, Sketches, New and Old (New York: Oxford U.P., 1996), p. 70.