Irving Types: Romanticized Natives, Potentially Offensive Stock Characters



Tuesday, September 25, 2018

In 1832, after being abroad for seventeen years, Irving embarked on a buffalo hunting trip through Oklahoma Territory.

He kept a journal during the adventure, and even though he claimed a book was not his intent, Irving nevertheless published A Tour on the Prairies (1835) based on the journey.

My thoughts today take me to Irving’s sketches about Native-Americans in The Sketch Book (1819-1820). I’m also reminded of his travels with the Hoffman family into Canada among natives there, where he was evidently given an Indian name–“Good to All.”

In recent class discussions, my students and I have compared Irving’s romanticized views of natives with perspectives from earlier writers such as Mary Rowlandson, particularly with regard to King Philip.

Some scholars have dismissed Irving as a racist simply based on his stereotypical handling of an African-American servant in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I’m thinking of the decades-old article by Kenneth T. Reed.

When you consider other types in “Sleepy Hollow” such as the coquette and the Connecticut Yankee, and also understand what a huge impact the theater had on Irving’s writing, it’s unfair to say he’s only singling out a race or gender or culture. He presented men, women, all races and cultures in unflattering ways, depending on the stock character and/or scene he was explaining.

Irving’s sympathy and perhaps empathy for the plight of natives can also be translated into his views about other people groups, too, it seems to me.

Stories and descriptions about Native-Americans in The Sketch Book, A Tour on the Prairies, and his next two histories/biographies, Astoria and Captain Bonneville, give us a better assessment of Irving’s picture of the American landscape and contribute to the rich texture of Irving studies.

Published in: on September 25, 2018 at 4:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I happen to be re-reading The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, which has many of the romanticized passages to which you refer. But as in all of Irving’s books, particularly those based on other sources, such as Astoria and the Columbus books, his narrative can take on a very different tone, especially when depicting atrocities committed by whites. This is just one example from Bonneville: “We cannot but remark that both in this affair and that of Pierre’s Hole the affray was commenced by a hostile act on the part of the white men at the moment when the Indian warrior was extending the hand of amity. In neither circumstance, as far as circumstances have been stated to us by different persons, do we see any reason to suspect the savage chiefs of perfidy in their overatures of friendship. They advanced in the confiding way usual among Indians when they bear the pipe of peace, and consider themselves sacred fromattack. If we violate the sanctity of this ceremonial, by any hostile move on our part, it is we who encur the charge of faithlessness; and we doubt not that in both these instances the white men have been considered by the Blackfeet as the aggressors, and have, in consequence, been held up as men not to be trusted.”

    Irving was an early nine-teenth centure writer (who really was more eighteenth century in some regards) and can certainly be considered racist or sexist when read without any sort of historical context. I think few 19th century writers are blameless in one respect or another.


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