Winter 2012

On Western Waters: Anglo-American Nonfictional Narrative in the Nineteenth Century

Author
Rolena Adorno
Abstract

Anglo-American westward expansion provided a major impulse to the development of the young United States’ narrative tradition. Early U.S. writers also looked to the South, that is, to the Spanish New World and, in some cases, to Spain itself. Washington Irving’s “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” (1828), the first full-length biography of the admiral in English, inaugurated the trend, and Mark Twain's “Life on the Mississippi” (1883) transformed it by focusing on the life and lives of the Mississippi River Valley and using an approach informed by Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quijote de la Mancha.” From Irving’s “discovery of America” to Twain’s tribute to the disappearing era of steamboat travel and commerce on the Mississippi, the tales about “western waters,” told via their authors’ varied engagements with Spanish history and literature, constitute a seldom acknowledged dimension in Anglo-America's nonfictional narrative literary history.

Rolena Adorno, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2003, is the Reuben Post Halleck Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. Her recent publications include The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative (2007), which was awarded the Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize by the Modern Language Association, De Guancane a Macondo: estudios de literatura hispanoamericana (2008), and Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2011). In 2009, President Obama appointed her to a five-year membership on the National Council on the Humanities.

Anglo-American expansion into the West and far West of North America provided a major impulse to the development of the young United States’ narrative tradition. Travel accounts figured prominently, and most, from Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies (1835), to Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1847–1849), to Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), looked westward. In fact, U.S. nonfictional literature was born on the lands and waters of western exploration. This phenomenon inspired the internationally renowned Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges to remark in 1967, while holding the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard, that in the United States, even the American West seemed to have been invented in New England.1

America’s early writers looked not only to the West but also to the South, that is, to the Spanish New World and, in notable cases, to Spain. Washington Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of .  .  .

Endnotes

  • 1Jorge Luis Borges, “An Autobiographical Essay,” in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969, ed. and trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970), 255.
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