Washington Irving

(1783 to 1859)

Excerpted from White on Red, Eds. Black, Nancy B. and Bette S. Wiedman, New York; Kennikat Press, 1976.


In spite of Irving's seventeen years in Europe, his search for native themes led him to contribute importantly to portraiture of the American Indian. Although his firsthand observation of Indians was limited, he was liberated om the pioneer's need to justify Indian displacement. He was able to view Indians sympathetically, bringing the perspective of a worldly man to questions of civilization and savagery.

In his first book, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Dietrich Knickerbocker ( 1809), he satirizes pretentious historians and wittily deflates some shibboleths of American history. In Chapter Five Dietrich Knickerbocker pretends to justify the rights of European colonists to the land they "discovered." He succeeds, of course, in revealing the falsity and injustice of their claims. At the end of the chapter, Irving offers a Swiftian summary of colonization; this passage is reprinted below.

In a more straightforward way, but not more devastatingly, Irving takes up the topic of displaced Indians again in two sketches added to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in 1820. In "Traits of Indian Character," Irving expresses succinctly that sympathy for wronged Indians implied in Knickerbocker's History:

It has been the lot of the unfortunate aborigines of America, in the early periods of colonization, to be doubly wronged by the white men. They have been dispossessed of their hereditary possessions by mercenary and frequently wanton warfare, and their characters have been traduced by bigoted and interested writers.
In this essay, Irving praises the Indians for courage and magnanimity, and explains their deep resentment of white injuries; he calls it "the dark story of their wrongs and wretchedness." In the next sketch, "Philip of Pokanoket,,, he brings together materials for the many nineteenth century treatments of Philip (most notably, Cooper's and Stone's). Irving's recognition of the heroism of this "true-born prince" in trying to save his people is in sharp contrast to earlier views of Philip as devilish.

In these comic and serious meditations on history, Irving helped to establish the idealized Indian; he worked from secondary sources, the northeastern Indians having been conquered and displaced by the 1820s. But Irving's treatment of the Indian does not end with these books. In 1832 he traveled across Indian territory, and recorded his glimpses of western tribes in A Tour on the Prairies ( 1835). His most intimate contact with Indians was gathered through his acquaintance with a half-breed guide on this trip. In two succeeding volumes, Astoria (1836) and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837), he continued to bring to his materials a strong sense of the beauty and dignity of Indians and an awareness of the wrongs they suffered. These two books, like other western narratives of the nineteenth century, have great importance as sources for writers of fiction, among them Poe, Melville, Hawthorn.

From A History of New York, 1809

Let us suppose, then, that the inhabitants of the moon, by astonishing advancement in science, and by profound insight into that lunar philosophy, the mere flickerings of which have of late years dazzled the feeble optics, and addled the shallow brains of the good people of our globe-let us suppose, I say, that the inhabitants of the moon, by these means, had arrived at such a command of their energies, such an enviable state of perfectibility, as to control the elements, and navigate the boundless regions of space. Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an aerial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet.

And here I beg my readers will not have the uncharitableness to smile, as is too frequently the fault of volatile readers when perusing the grave speculations of philosophers. I am far from indulging in any sportive vein at present; nor is the supposition I have been making so wild as many may deem it. It has long been a very serious and anxious question with me, and many a time and oft, in the course of my overwhelming cares and contrivances for the welfare and protection of this my native planet, have I lain awake whole nights debating in my mind, whether it were most probable we should first discover and civilize the moon, or the moon discover and civilize our globe. Neither would the prodigy of sailing in the air and cruising among the stars be a whit more astonishing and incomprehensible to us than was the European mystery of navigating floating castles, through the world of waters, to the simple natives. We have already discovered the art of coasting along the aerial shores of our planet, by means of balloons, as the savages had of venturing along their sea-coasts in canoes; and the disparity between the former, and the aerial vehicles of the philosophers from the moon, might not be greater than that between the bark canoes of the savages, and the mighty ships of their discoverers. I might here pursue an endless chain of similar speculations; but as they would be unimportant to my subject, I abandon them to my reader, particularly if he be a philosopher, as matters well worthy of his attentive consideration.

To return then to my supposition�let us suppose that the aerial visitants I have mentioned, possessed of vastly superior knowledge to ourselves; that is to say, possessed of superior knowledge in the art of extermination riding on hyppogriffs�-defended with impenetrable armor--armed with concentrated sunbeams, and provided with vast engines, to hurl enormous moon-stones: in short, let us suppose them, if our vanity will permit the supposition, as superior to us in knowledge, and consequently in power, as the Europeans were to the Indians, when they first discovered them. All this is very possible; it is only our self-sufficiency that makes us think otherwise; and I warrant the poor savages, before they had any knowledge of the white men, armed in all the terrors of glittering steel and tremendous gunpowder, were as perfectly convinced that they themselves were the wisest, the most virtuous, powerful, and perfect of created beings as are, at this present moment, the lordly inhabitants of old England, the volatile populace of France, or even the self-satisfied citizens of this most enlightened republic.

Let us suppose, moreover, that the aerial voyagers, finding this planet to be nothing but a howling wilderness, inhabited by us poor savages and wild beasts, shall take formal possession of it, in the name of his most gracious and philosophic excellency, the man in the moon. Finding, however, that their numbers are incompetent to hold it in complete subjection, on account of the ferocious barbarity of its inhabitants, they shall take our worthy President, the King of England, the Emperor of Hayti, the mighty Bonaparte, and the Great King of Bantam, and returning to their native planet, shall carry them to court, as were the Indian chiefs led about as spectacles in the courts of Europe.

Then, making such obeisance as the etiquette of the court requires, they shall address the puissant man in the moon, in, as near as I can conjecture, the following terms:

"Most serene and mighty Potentate, whose dominions extend as far as eye can reach, who rideth on the Great Bear, useth the sun as a looking glass, and maintaineth unrivaled control over tides, madmen, and sea-crabs We thy liege subjects have just returned from a voyage of discovery, in the course of which we have landed and taken possession of that obscure little dirty planet, which thou beholdest rolling at a distance. The five uncouth monsters, which we have brought into this august presence, were once very important chiefs among their fellow savages, who are a race of beings totally destitute of the common attributes of humanity; and differing in every thing from the inhabitants of the moon, inasmuch as they carry their heads upon their shoulders, instead of under their arms�have two eyes instead of one�are utterly destitute of tails, and of a variety of unseemly complexions, , particularly of horrible whiteness�instead of pea-green.

"We have moreover found these miserable savages sunk into a state of the utmost ignorance and depravity, every man shamelessly living with his own wife, and rearing his own children, instead of indulging in that community of wives enjoined by the law of nature, as expounded by the philosophers of the moon. In a word, they have scarcely a gleam of true philosophy among them, but are, in fact, utter heretics, ignoramuses, and barbarians. Taking compassion, therefore, on the sad condition of these sublunary wretches, we have endeavored, while we remained on their planet, to intro duce among them the light of reason�and the comforts of the moon. We have treated them to mouthfuls of moonshine, and draughts of nitrous oxide which they swallowed with incredible voracity, particularly the females; and we have likewise endeavored to instill into them the precepts of lunar philosophy. We have insisted upon their renouncing the contemptible shackles of religion and common sense, and adoring the profound, omnip otent, and all perfect energy, and the ecstatic, immutable, immovable perfection. But such was the unparalleled obstinacy of these wretched savages, that they persisted in cleaving to their wives, and adhering to their religion, and absolutely set at naught the sublime doctrines of the moon nay, among other abominable heresies, they even went so far as blasphemously I to declare, that this ineffable planet was made of nothing more nor less than green cheese!"

At these words, the great man in the moon (being a very profound philosopher) shall fall into a terrible passion, and possessing equal authority over things that do not belong to him, as did whilom his holiness the Pope, shall forthwith issue a formidable bull, specifying, "That, whereas a certain crew of Lunatics have lately discovered, and taken possession of a newly discovered planet called the earth-and that whereas it is inhabited by none but a race of two-legged animals that carry their heads on their shoulders instead of under their arms; cannot talk the lunatic language; have two eyes instead of one; are destitute of tails, and of a horrible whiteness, instead of pea-green-therefore, and for a variety of other excellent reasons, they are considered incapable of possessing any property in the planet they infest, and the right and title to it are confirmed to its original discoverers.�And furthermore, the colonists who are now about to depart to the aforesaid planet are authorized and commanded to use every means to convert these infidel savages from the darkness of Christianity, and make them thorough and absolute lunatics."

In consequence of this benevolent bull, our philosophic benefactors go to work with hearty zeal. They seize upon our fertile territories, scourge us from our rightful possessions, relieve us from our wives, and when we are unreasonable enough to complain, they will turn upon us and say, Miserable barbarians! ungrateful wretches! have we not come thousands of miles to improve your worthless planet; have we not fed you with moonshine; have we not intoxicated you with nitrous oxides; does not our moon give you light every night, and have you the baseness to murmur, when we claim a pitiful return for all these benefits? But finding that we not only persist in absolute contempt of their reasoning and disbelief in their philosophy, but even go so far as daringly to defend our property, their patience shall be exhausted, and they shall resort to their superior powers of argument; hunt us with hyppogriffs, transfix us with concentrated sunbeams, demolish our cities with moonstones; until having, by main force, converted us to the true faith, they shall graciously permit us to exist in the torrid deserts of Arabia, or the frozen regions of Lapland, there to enjoy the blessings of civilization and the charms of lunar philosophy, in much the same manner as the reformed and enlightened savages of this country are kindly suffered to inhabit the inhospitable forests of the north, or the impenetrable wildernesses of South America.

Thus, I hope, I have clearly proved, and strikingly illustrated, the right of the early colonists to the possession of this country; and thus is this gigantic question completely vanquished: so having manfully surmounted all obstacles, and subdued all opposition, what remains but that I should forthwith conduct my readers into the city which we have been so long in a manner besieging? But hold; before I proceed another step, I must pause to take breath, and recover from the excessive fatigue I have undergone, in preparing to begin this most accurate of histories. And in this I do but imitate the example of a renowned Dutch tumbler of antiquity, who took a start of three miles for the purpose of jumping over a hill, but having run himself out of breath by the time he reached the foot, sat himself quietly down for a few moments to blow, and then walked over it at his leisure.

Scanned by John Puckett, tagged and corrected by Adriana Rissetto 12/96 at the University of Virginia

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