He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, twenty-four years before his six-month tour of the West commenced. He traced a family line on his father's side to John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On his mother's side, he claimed among his forebears the evangelical Jonathan Edwards, the foremost theologian-philosopher in America, and Timothy Dwight, of the literary coterie at Yale College known as the Connecticut Wits. Theodore Winthrop accordingly had the expectations of literary greatness thrust upon him. A scion of New England gentry, descendant of seven college presidents, he graduated at the top of his Yale class in 1848. Thereafter he lived and worked abroad, tried his hand at legal practices in St. Louis and New York, socialized with prominent landscape painters, and composed the four novels and three nonfiction books on which his slender reputation rests. He died young, in a botched Civil War battle he helped plan.
Winthrop's temper, education, and pedigree center him squarely in the master narratives of Euroamerica. With money in his pocket and estimable attire, he toured the territories of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in 1853. His ensuing adventure books, set in the waters and mountains of the West, reveal the social constructions of nature and culture accessible to well-heeled New England aesthetes. What his books fail to reveal about that nature and culture is even more significant. The Washington Territory in particular, where he spent most of his sojourn in the West, was a place of racial and ecological turmoil at the time he was writing. It was moving from an "open" frontier to a "dosed" frontier, that is, one where Euroamerican dominance would become a permanent state (Lape 13). Indians were dying from diseases, bullets and drink, their economies transformed by white contact, their ancestral lands and lore usurped and ridiculed. Winthrop alludes to conspicuously few of these historical tensions, even though he traveled 320 miles under the guidance of Klallams and Klickitats, whose tribal names he planned to adopt to entitle his most enduring book, until a Confederate bullet and his editors' whims eclipsed his plans.
That most enduring book, a travel account entitled The Canoe and the Saddle, and its companion text, the western-genre novel John Brent--both published posthumously in 1862--share documentary value for the study of exploration and adventure during the period. They divulge some of the ways that privilege and presumption shaped the West. The nonfiction book has accorded Winthrop a reputation as an ecological prophet of the Pacific Northwest who, long before the first Earth Day in 1970, composed a moving elegy for the untouched wilderness of an America that was disappearing fast. Critics have praised the book for decades. Yet, in hindsight, Winthrop's reputation may seem spurious and undeserved. For students of American studies, and for ecological critics in particular, Winthrop's racial and religious intolerance complicates his environmental record. His elitist outlook generates a highly partisan view. Just as a beauty strip of standing trees along a highway camouflages clear-cut logging scars on distant hills, so the splendid scenery of Winthrop's travel narrative camouflages or obscures offensive sites of conquest and imperial power.
In The Canoe and the Saddle, which time has proved to be the most popular of his books, Winthrop exercises a painterly eye on the seashores, peoples, forests, and storms of Washington Territory. By education and inclination, Winthrop is a writer of the Hudson River School: a visual art movement that indulges in rhapsodic scenes that attend keenly to color and landscape space. The painter Frederic Edwin Church--whose Heart of the Andes has been called "America's first one-man, one-picture blockbuster" (Hughes)--mentored Winthrop and served to model and inspire his work. Considered ideologically, however, Hudson River artists tend to overlook history and ignore the injuries inflicted by manifest destiny in their earnest valorization of landscape. Using a theoretical concept that environmentalists know today as ecopornography, I shall argue that Winthrop's privileges and predilections drove him toward an exploitative regard for the land.
To Find One's Way along through Life
"It was my own fault that I looked for gold-bearing quartz, and so found it bogus and a delusion. What right have we to demand the noble from the ignoble!" (John Brent 8-9)
Winthrop's father, a merchant who owned a library of 2,000 volumes, died when Theodore was twelve. Even at that age, though, he recognized the family tradition as one of "intellectuality, patriotic soldiering, devotion to cause, and constant connection to Puritanism" (Colby 18). Admitted to Yale at fifteen, he was expelled early in his sophomore year for breaking windows in younger students' rooms (Eliot 6). He returned the next year, more complaisant, "somewhat fastidious in dress," a Yale classmate wrote, "but decidedly aristocratic and a man of high principles" (9). Following college, the graduate embarked on a tour that took him throughout Western Europe, permitted him a polyglot's ostentation, and heightened his taste for great art and cuisine.
The influence of visual arts on his developing sensibilities proved profound. In Paris he spent time with his college classmate Richard Morris Hunt, who was then studying architecture, and with Richard's brother William Morris Hunt, who was studying art. Both men went on to make enduring reputations for themselves in their fields. Meantime, in 1850, two years after finishing at Yale, Winthrop was mapping out a book on art. All that came of that, however, was a lecture entitled "The Fine Arts in America," delivered in 1856 (Woolf xi). In New York, at the Tenth Street Studio Building where Winthrop rented workspace in the mid-1850s, the painters Frederic Church and Sanford R. Gifford likewise had their studios. Winthrop "delighted to haunt the studio of his friend Church, the painter, and watch day by day the progress of his picture, The Heart of the Andes" (Curtis 10), which was later displayed in the Tenth Street Studio, where a skylight naturally illuminated the commercially triumphant painting. Viewers paid 25 cents to see it. Church, an entrepreneur, had arranged for concurrent publication of pamphlets of this painting by the Reverend Louis LeGrand and by Winthrop-his first published work. The painter "received an additional tribute in the form of a two-piano 'march' in New York by the composer George William Warren" (Carr 14). In the many years of their relationship, Winthrop and Church took journeys to the Adirondacks and Maine, one account of which Winthrop wrote up at great length as "Life in the Open Air," coyly naming Church "Iglesias" there. On that Maine trip, which took the men paddling a canoe and hiking far up Mr. Ktaadn, Winthrop watched Church work and praised his technique. Winthrop might have flourished as a gentleman of leisure and independent wealth, and his mother might have supported him, but instead he felt driven to make himself a fortune.
In Paris he met American millionaire William H. Aspinwall, who took him under wing and became his employer off and on from 1851 to 1854. Winthrop first tutored Aspinwall's son in New York in 1851, then headed back to Europe to find the pupil a place at a Swiss school. In the States again, he bought paintings for Aspinwall's art gallery, at one point paying "$300 for a Thomas Cole landscape" (Cantwell 119). Mostly, though, he copied papers and received a clerk's salary. Eventually he moved to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company that Aspinwall founded. That position took him …