As representatives of "an earlier stage of civilization," Native Americans in early nineteenth-century literature were integral in conversations of race relations, cultural development, and anthropological strata. They were a baseline of humanity against which more "civilized" nations of the world marked their progress, determined the value of their own cultural advancements, and proclaimed their superiority (Flint 1). They were an object of continuing fascination for Americans and Britons seeking to reinvent themselves in the aftermath of war and revolution, but their image in these nations was used as a derogatory slur (Fulford and Hutchings 1; Flint 6--7). Suggesting that a nation had a kinship with Native Americans was becoming an unfortunately familiar shortcut to suggest disgraceful backsliding into primitive ways. Rather than view Native Americans as markers of social degeneracy, barbarism, or ignorance, Washington Irving argues in his works that these figures could be revived as a positive connecting force for Americans and Britons. He recalls a more dignified Romantic image of the "noble savage" "intelligent, loyal, and proud" to overcome vengeful memories of war and violence. The Indian characters in A History of New York and The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon are more than idle entertainments or broad caricatures; they are carefully crafted Romantic figures that embody the restorative, unifying ideals for which both Americans and Britons yearned in the aftermath of war. Irving uses Knickerbocker's History to reflect the capriciousness of public memory and the sometimes dangerous power of the biased storyteller. He exposes how the Native American legend became tainted by historians who tried to justify the ill-treatment these people received at the hands of the Europeans. In Crayon's Sketchbook, Irving continues to explore the mutability of history by showing how nations like Britain had been successful in inventing a heritage that drew their people together. Finally, in "Traits of Indian Character" and "Philip of Pokanoket," Irving fulfills the promise of the History by restoring the Romantic Indian to a position of respect and power in the American and British memory. Though Irving's writing doesn't attempt to correct the image of Native Americans enough to get at the real people behind the image society invented, he embraces the malleability of these important cultural figures to make observations on how we create and perceive history and align ourselves to the invented past. By re-examining these works through their romantic and historic intent in a transatlantic relationship, we can come to better understand Irving's position as he supported his American nationhood and sentimental British roots with a figure that resonated on both sides.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Kemp, Kara Rebecca, "Linked to His Fellow Man of Civilized Life: Washington Irving, the Transatlantic Native American, and Romantic Historiography in A History of New York and The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 3592.
Washington Irving, Native Americans, Romantic Historiography, A History of New York, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Transatlanticism