West of Winthrop: Landscape and Language in the Washington Territory

Article excerpt

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. …