A Tour of the Pandemic: Irving Dodges Cholera Outbreak, Travels West to Oklahoma Territory

Oneil Myrie photo

–Photo by tyrese myrie from Pexels.

BY TRACY HOFFMAN
President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Last week, I got caught up reading Washington Irving’s journals. It happens from time to time. I was digging for Irving’s thoughts on Columbus and political commentary to tackle conspiracy theories fluttering through Twitter.

Instead of picking up Columbus and political cues, however, notes about cholera in New York caught my attention. Upon returning from Spain, after having been abroad for seventeen years, Irving was touring surrounding areas of New York, and he was dodging disease in the process.

We’re familiar with Elizabeth Bradley’s discussion of Irving being quarantined as a youth in Tarrytown during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak, which may have inspired “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Because of Bradley’s assessment, I kept thinking about how the outbreak of 1832 may have inspired A Tour on the Prairies, published in 1835.

The 1832 cholera outbreak was another episode of disease hysteria during Irving’s lifespan. Flipping through Irving’s journals reminds us how often he and his contemporaries endured such outbreaks. Noting his commentary about cholera makes me want to review his thoughts on disease in A Tour on the Prairies, particularly where he records native illnesses. It’s quite likely that his comments on Native-Americans in that book came from these 1832 scenes from his journals prior to the prairies.

Rather than commenting too much today, I’ll throw out some quotes from Irving’s 1832 journal to let you see what I spied. In future blogs, I may have more to say after I think about these passages in unison with A Tour on the Prairies.

Here we go:

On Saturday, August 4, 1832, Irving writes: “Albany half deserted on a/c of the cholera” (p. 7).

Editor’s note on August 4 journal: “The plague prompted Latrobe to write that during ‘the second week in July, after being witnesses to the panic caused in New York by the outbreak of the cholera, we prepare to follow Mr. Irving to Boston’ (Rambler, I, 42); this same plague was still raging in New York in early August and caused WI’s early departure” (p. 7).

On Saturday, August 18, 1832, Irving writes: “pleasant drive to Oneida—The latter a small village on a pretty creek—fine wooded hills inhabited by the Oneida Indians—find the Count at Oneida (villa) Castle Stroll out with him to Indian village—Indian ill with fever. Gentlemanlike fellow—handsome squaw have picture of GWashtn.—worked mat—Squaw light—slender make [–] small feet & (arm) hands—Soft talk[.] walked up between cornfields to hill commanding a view over the rich plain” (p.16).

In response to Irving’s August 18 journal, “Leave Trenton Falls –1/2 past 7—in post wagon stop at Trenton,” a Twayne editor’s note states: “Whether the decision to change routes was made as a result of news he heard in Trenton or whether he had made the decision earlier is not clear; at any rate, WI decided that the cholera which was rapidly spreading through the northern part of the United States and had reached Utica, New York, imposed too great a threat and he wrote to Peter: ‘I shall leave that place out of my route …though hitherto I have never avoided the malady, nor shall I do so in the course of my tour; simply observing such genteel diet and habits of living as experience has taught me are best calculated to keep my system in healthful tone’ (PMI, III, 32)” (p. 15).

I haven’t done too much with 1832 cholera and the 1835 book, and I’m not sure it’s worthy of much further investigation. However, at the very least, any upcoming lecture I may give involving Tour on the Prairies needs adjustment. In addition to wanting to prove his patriotism after being abroad for seventeen years, Irving’s decision to go on a buffalo hunt out west may have also been prompted by the desire to escape from the cholera epidemic. Irving may have considered set-aside lands for natives in the Oklahoma Territory as an oasis from disease.

Until my next post on a Washington Irving Wednesday, please stay healthy.

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Works Cited, Consulted

Bradley, Elizabeth. “What ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Tells Us about Contagion, Fear and Epidemics.” 30 October 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-legend-sleepy-hollow-tells-us-about-contagion-fear-and-epidemics-180953192/. Accessed 22 July 2020.

Ross, Sue Fields. The Complete Works of Washington Irving, Journals and Notebooks vol. V. Twayne, 1986.

Wilford, John Noble. “How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis.” 15 April 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/15/science/15chol.html. Accessed 22 July 2020.

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Feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. If you need a thoughtful reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays. If things get hectic and other jobs and responsibilities take precedence over author society business, my email responses might get backlogged, and therefore be delayed by weeks or months. However, I will eventually get around to reading and responding to all messages, most likely on Wednesdays.

Published in: on July 22, 2020 at 2:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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