“But the place I mean is next to the river, where one of the ridges juts out a little from the rest, and where the rocks fall, for the best part of a thousand feet, so much up and down, that a man standing on their edges is fool enough to think he can jump from top to bottom.”

“What do you see when you get there?” asked Edwards.

“Creation,” said Natty, dropping the end of his rod into the water, and sweeping one hand around him in a circle: “all creation, lad.”

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

The glittering line of the Hudson River at dawn, as seen from the jagged cliffs of the Escarpment. From this point Leatherstocking (Natty) fancied he could see “all creation.” — Catskill Mountains, New York

The Catskills, New York

Washington Irving (1783-1859)
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

In the beginning, there were the woods. In the beginning, there were isolated lakes, swift-flowing streams, hidden cataracts, rocky promontories and mysterious glens. They were all set deep in the virgin forest, so overgrown that the day was as dim as dusk because the crowns of the trees spread so close together. In the beginning, there were native peoples, swiftly identified by Europeans as savages, who traveled in eerie noiselessness among the trees, silently paddled the waters, and had attached names and legends to every odd-shaped rock or outcropping.

Washington Irving’s home - Sunnyside

Washington Irving’s home – Sunnyside – is still standing, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Before Irving purchased it, the house belonged to 18th century colonialist Wolfert Acker, about whom Irving wrote his sketch “Wolfert’s Roost.” — Tarrytown, New York

In its spring and summer abundance, the New World was like an answer to a prayer. The streams seethed with fish. Rivers were named for the tribes that lived by them: the Mohawk, the Susquehanna, the Iroquois, the Missouri, the Potomac. They flowed in their channels through the thick forest unimpeded except by the occasional logjam of giant fallen trees. Here there was enough timber to build a thousand stockades and a million chapels. The soil enriched by the river deposits was fertile. Game was plentiful.

Many of the early settlers to these shores thanked God for this. They had come to the New World to exercise their religious freedoms. As Robert Spiller suggests in The Cycle of American Literature, the bounty they found affirmed their mission. The wealth they derived from it confirmed their rightness. “Perhaps in the beginning of American civilization can be found a clue to the incongruous mixture of naïve idealism and crude materialism that produced in later years a literature of beauty, irony, affirmation, and despair,”1 Spiller writes. It is tantalizing but not a little disturbing to think that the attitudes and beliefs of over three centuries ago have been passed on, like DNA, in the hearts and minds of those who followed.

How the Town of New Amsterdam Rose Out of the Mud

“The Indian traditions,” Diedrich Knickerbocker writes in A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, “affirm that the bay was once a translucid lake, filled with silver and golden fish, in the midst of which lay this beautiful island, covered with every variety of fruits and flowers; but that the sudden irruption of the Hudson laid waste these blissful scenes, and Manetho [the Indian god Manitou] took his flight beyond the great waters of Ontario.”2 In 1609, many hundreds of years after Manetho migrated north, Henry Hudson happened upon the selfsame island and its remarkable properties seemed to have been restored. Hudson’s first mate, Robert Juet, recorded that the island was “as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and goodly Trees, as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them.”

The island, of course, was Manhattan. And in the late 1700’s, when Washington Irving was born, it was rapidly overtaking Philadelphia as the most populous place in America. Irving was named after the great hero of the recent Revolutionary War. His father was Scottish and pious. His mother was Dutch and fruitful. Washington was one of the eight of the eleven Irving children who survived and he was incorrigible.“Ah,Washington, if you were only good!” was his mother’s lament.

In 1809 Irving stepped onto the literary stage in the guise of Diedrich Knickerbocker. According to the fictitious notices at the beginning of the book, the History was part of the secretive project left behind by the crotchety, inquisitive old Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker had vanished, last seen wearing a fatigued expression on the stagecoach route towards Albany, his last known address the Independent Columbian Hotel on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, where his landlord came upon the manuscript. The good innkeeper had been forced to publish the book in order to cover the old man’s debt. This was the first appearance in American literature of a mad genius character toiling away in obscurity on his undiscovered masterwork. It was the first disappearance of one as well. But though the imaginary Diedrich Knickerbocker had vanished, his creator, Washington Irving, was definitely here to stay.

The rest of American literary history, one might say, follows the History. It became the first American literary sensation, giving citizens a reason for pride in their native literature and making Washington Irving an early literary icon. The sacred playground of Manetho proved to be good for growing things other than flowers and trees. It has become one of the great cities of the world and the capitol of the publishing industry. Manhattan is the pushing-off point on the journey through literary America.

One Vast Expanse of Woods

Broad belts of virgin wilderness not only reached the shores of the first river, but they even crossed it, stretching away into New England, and affording forest covers to the noiseless moccasin of the native warrior as he trod the secret and bloody war-path. A bird’s eye view of the whole region east of the Mississippi must then have offered one vast expanse of woods, relieved by a comparatively narrow fringe of cultivation along the sea, dotted by the glittering surfaces of lakes, and intersected by the waving lines of river.3

The first waving line of river in the American literary imagination was the Hudson. It has its source in Lake Tear of The Clouds, in the recesses of the Adirondacks, from which it tumbles, broadens, deepens, accepts its due from freshwater tributaries and mingles with the salt waters of the Atlantic. The Hudson River’s journey, in reverse, was the route that Henry Hudson followed in 1609, and the path that many other white men after him utilized as a way to penetrate into the interior of the country for trapping and fishing, and trading with the Native Americans.

“…and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness.”

 

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

The Catskill Mountains, New York

The second chronicler of that river, and the broad belt of woods that surrounded it, was James Fenimore Cooper. By the time his first novel came out, a significant portion of the forest had been cleared and settled. Many of the Indians had been routed out. James Fenimore Cooper was born to a frontiersman who bought a large parcel of wilderness on Otsego Lake in upstate New York. Cooper’s father cleared it, built himself an estate, and established a settlement where the present day Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, now stands. Cooper’s father, apparently, was a man of formidable strength, who “often left his magnificent home at Otsego Hall to show his prowess as a wrestler in some neighboring shanty and who was killed by a political opponent.”4

In his imagination, James Fenimore Cooper cast back to a New World before the encroachment of settlers. His most enduring character is Leatherstocking, who goes by the name Deerslayer in The Deerslayer (and by other names in the other books), and carries in him what Cooper believed to be the best attributes of the Indian and white worlds. “Removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages,”5 Deerslayer was, in the author’s own words, a “seed scattered by the wayside” that had flourished.

Leatherstocking was the first backwoodsman in American fiction to consciously renounce civilization, and the first to bear witness to the inevitable settling of the once vast wilderness. He was the original rugged individualist in American literature, a man who had never read a book in his life but had amassed all he knew through experience. At a time when the young country was ripe for a literary hero of American proportions, James Fenimore Cooper supplied one.

In those early days of his writing, Cooper was convinced that American scenery had no rival. At his best, Cooper was said to “paint” scenery with his pen as well as others painted with a brush. The landscape that Cooper introduced in the early Leatherstocking novels was one of staggering natural beauty.

The Fairy Region of the Hudson

If one were ignorant of Deerslayer’s famous reclusiveness, it would be easy to imagine that he was the Indian trader on the sloop traveling slowly up the Hudson that Washington Irving met when he was a boy:

Among the passengers on board the sloop was a veteran Indian trader, on his way to the Lakes, to traffic with the natives. He had discovered my propensity and amused himself throughout the voyage by telling me Indian legends and grotesque stories about every noted place on the river, such as Spuyten Devil Creek, the Tappan Zee, the Devil’s Dans Kammer, and other hobgoblin places. The Catskill Mountains, especially, called forth a host of fanciful traditions….All these were doled out to me as I lay on deck, throughout a long summer’s day, gazing upon these mountains, the ever changing shapes and hues of which appeared to realize the magical influences in question. Sometimes they seemed to approach; at others to recede; during the heat of the day they almost melted into a sultry haze; as the day declined they deepened in tone; their summits were brightened by the last rays of the sun, and later in the evening their whole outline was printed in deep purple against an amber sky. As I beheld them, thus shifting continually before my eye, and listened to the marvelous legends of the trader, a host of fanciful notions concerning them was conjured into my brain, which have haunted it ever since.6

By the time Washington Irving was old enough to wear long pants, the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam had already spread north along the Hudson. Other settlers followed. Engravings from the time show that small towns had taken root in clefts and coves along the river’s banks like clusters of wildflowers that bloom in protected nooks and crannies along a mountain trail. It was many years later, while living in England, that Irving wrote about the region that he had passed by as a boy. In The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, he introduced the world to Rip Van Winkle.

The tales of the old Indian trader seem like a plausible source of his inspiration and should, in the absence of any other evidence,be believed.But it also seems possible that Irving came by his considerable gifts in some more supernatural way when, as a youth, he found himself in North Tarry Town after dark. No town in the Catskills was more spellbound than North Tarry Town (the town officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1997), as Irving suggests in the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman who issued forth from the graveyard each night in search of his missing head:

I recollect that, when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel-shooting was in a grove of tall walnut-trees that shades one side of the valley. I had wandered into it at noon time, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun, as it broke the Sabbath stillness around, and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley….

From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his pow-wows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air….It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.7

As Irving described so well, the landscape along the Hudson has an air of enigmatic changefulness. The brow of Storm King Mountain can darken like the face of a wrathful god and, just a few minutes later, as a gust ushers away the wisps of rain, can look as serene as a sleeping baby. The breeze starts and stops like it is alive. It certainly is something to unsettle the imagination. The mind plays tricks.

“I hope as the spring opens, we will make another trip to Sleepy Hollow, and (thunder and lightning permitting) have a colloquy among the tombs.”

 

— Washington Irving
written to an acquaintance, 1849

Grave marking the resting spot of the beguiling Eleanor Van Tassel, thought to be the inspiration for Ichabod Crane’s love object in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It is located in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the story’s author, Washington Irving, is buried. — Sleepy Hollow, New York

All Creation

The upper Hudson was a fairyland to Irving.To Leatherstocking, the solitary wanderer, it was a transcendent vision. As Natty Bumpo in Cooper’s The Pioneers, he gave his own, more gamy, version of the splendor of the Catskills to a companion:

“I used often to go up into the mountains after wolves’ skins and bears; once they paid me to get them a stuffed panther, and so I often went. There’s a place in them hills that I used to climb to when I wanted to see the carryings on of the world, that would well pay any man for a barked shin or a torn moccasin…. The place I mean is next to the river, where one of the ridges juts out a little from the rest, and where the rocks fall, for the best part of a thousand feet, so much up and down, that a man standing on their edges is fool enough to think he can jump from top to bottom.”
“What do you see when you get there?” asked Edwards.
“Creation,” said Natty, dropping the end of his rod into the water, and sweeping one hand around him in a circle: “all creation, lad.”8

This spot, where the ridge juts out from the rest, has been identified. It is in an area known as the Pine Orchard, a revered spot in 1800’s America. But even Leatherstocking was a latecomer to that locale. Chief Shandaken’s wigwam had overlooked that inspiring scene years earlier, and it had been the scene of betrayal and revenge. A man named Norsereddin had poisoned the daughter of Shandaken and was burned at the stake.

By the first quarter of the 1800’s, the traffic going up the Hudson for something other than trade was steadily increasing. Members of the growing middle class wanted things to do with their leisure time (a new concept in the still-young country). A significant percentage of travelers, the middle class included, were after something loftier than simply seeing the sights: they were in search of “excitation of the senses.” On the exact spot where Norsereddin was punished, one of the most famous hotels in American history was built. It was known as The Catskill Mountain House, though few remember it now. The Mountain House was built at the edge of an escarpment of rock that runs jaggedly for miles along a narrow valley that the Dutch named Kaaterskill Clove.

Visitors came by the thousands up the winding Old Mountain Road (it was an old road even then), to The Catskill Mountain House, built in 1824. Along the way they passed Rip Van Winkle’s house and the spot where Rip had played nine pins with Henry Hudson and his crew. At the summit, the Mountain House, with its towering Greek Revival pillars, presided over the surrounding countryside, overlooking “all creation.”

“There the water comes crooking and winding…till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into.”

 

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

“There the water comes crooking and winding…till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into.”

 

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

“The Leap” of Kaaterskill Falls. — Catskill Mountains, New York

It was a time of flowering for English prose and the arts. The Romantic Movement among the English poets was well underway. And an aesthetic system had been established in Europe that sorted scenery into the categories of the sublime and the picturesque. A picturesque scene was one that featured the rustic or tumbledown imprint of man upon it (a farm scene, or a ruined castle). A sublime scene starred nature at her most dramatic (towering cliffs, lofty cataracts, dizzying precipices).

The Catskills were sublime. Once at the Mountain House, one could wander along the Escarpment and look down into the dizzying depths of Kaaterskill Clove and beyond to the ribbon of the Hudson. The trails ran round the hills of the Pine Orchard, providing access to Poet’s Ledge, Fat Man’s Delight, Badman’s Cave, Fawn’s Leap, Rip’s Lookout Point and Artist’s Rock.

Certainly, such a visual spectacle was not lost on artists. Among the first visitors to The Catskill Mountain House was Thomas Cole, in 1825. Cole went back to New York City with some canvases and was discovered when he hung three of them in a bookstore window in New York City. One of those paintings was titled “Lake With Dead Trees,” its subject South Lake, one of the two small lakes visible from the Escarpment, that once had the bare trunks of dead trees rising from its surface. Cole became the reigning expert on the Pine Orchard, and he produced dozens of paintings of the area that were suffused with the sublime. Here were gnarled trees, high ledges overlooking great depths, waterfalls, the play of sunlight on the land,skies in moods both threatening and benign.The“Artist’s Rock,” on the trails in the Pine Orchard, was Cole’s rock.

His personality and the scenery drew others, including his pupil, Frederic Church. Nearby Palenville became an artist’s colony. This first American landscape movement became known as the Hudson River School. However, its subjects extended beyond the region to other pastoral landscapes of the Northeast and eventually, as the century wore on, to the West, to the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite on the vast canvases of Albert Bierstadt. The Hudson River School celebrated what America had that the Old World did not: uncultivated newness. As the early American romantic poet, William Cullen Bryant, wrote, “The new world was fresher from the hand of him who made it.”9

“The rock sweeps like mason-work, in a half-round, on both sides of the fall, and shelves over the bottom for fifty feet; so that when I’ve been sitting at the foot of the first pitch, and my hounds have run into the caverns behind the sheet of water, they’ve looked no bigger than so many rabbits. To my judgment, lad it’s the best piece of work that I’ve ever met with in the woods.”

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

“The rock sweeps like mason-work, in a half-round, on both sides of the fall, and shelves over the bottom for fifty feet; so that when I’ve been sitting at the foot of the first pitch, and my hounds have run into the caverns behind the sheet of water, they’ve looked no bigger than so many rabbits. To my judgment, lad it’s the best piece of work that I’ve ever met with in the woods.”

— James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers, 1823

“The Leap” of Kaaterskill Falls. — Catskill Mountains, New York

The Best Piece of Work That I’ve Ever Met With in the Woods

Kaaterskill Falls epitomized the vertical sublime. Here is Leatherstocking’s description of the remarkable spot:

There’s a fall in the hills where the water of two little ponds, that lie near each other, breaks out of their bounds and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But the hand that made that ‘Leap’ never made a mill. There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks; first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creatur’ that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the river looks like flakes of snow afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers itself together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat rock before it falls another hundred, when it jumps from shelf to shelf, first turning thisaway and then turning thataway, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain….there has that little stream of water been playing among the hills since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it. The rock sweeps like mason-work, in a half-round, on both sides of the fall, and shelves over the bottom for fifty feet; so that when I’ve been sitting at the foot of the first pitch, and my hounds have run into the caverns behind the sheet of water, they’ve looked no bigger than so many rabbits. To my judgment, lad it’s the best piece of work that I’ve ever met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.10

It was a slower age, in those days. Thoughts on paper unfolded in a leisurely fashion. But the best writing was clear and vivid. The ponderous dullness which characterized much writing of the Puritan age had passed. Nearly everything was a revelation. As Thomas Cole put it, “All nature is here new to art. No Tivolis, Ternis, Mount Blancs, Plimmons, hackneyed and worn by the pencils of hundreds but primeval forests, virgin lakes and waterfalls.”11 Under the spell of the “Fairyland” of the Catskills, writers like Irving and Cooper and artists like Cole and Church granted the region a depth and majesty that was meant to rival that of Europe.

Keep That Earlier, Wilder Image Bright

Cooper’s enthusiastic promotion of American landscape waned, after he published the first Leatherstocking tales and traveled extensively in Europe. Although at first he resisted, he gradually fell under the spell of the picturesque and sublime scenery he encountered there, especially in Italy, until at last, when he returned to the United States in 1833 and then wrote about it, he had this to say of his trip up the Hudson: “These rocks strike my eyes as much less imposing than formerly. The passage is fine but it is hardly grand scenery.”12

There was a sad ending to The Catskill Mountain House as well. After the attention of tourists wandered in the 1940’s the hotel failed. The funicular railway fell to rust. The hotel’s massive Greek Revival shape reigned above the Kaaterskill Clove for another 20 years. Slowly it was stripped of all its appurtenances and its massive columns, as numerous plans for restoring it were hatched and discarded. Eventually its hulk was sold to the State of New York. Irresistible to explorers and growing steadily more dangerous, on a winter’s night it suffered the same fate as Norsereddin had before it. The State burned it to the ground. Flames shot high in the air above the Escarpment and, on the next morning, the monument was gone.

Perhaps William Cullen Bryant, the first well-known poet of America and a close reader of literature, had Cooper in mind when he penned this poem to Thomas Cole:

Sonnet—To an American Painter Departing for Europe

Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies:
Yet, Cole! Thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thy own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes—savannahs where the bison roves—
Rocks rich with summer garlands—solemn streams—
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams—
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goes—fair,
But different—every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.

In the beginning of America, the land was peopled by the Native Americans whose line of thinking was so different from the white man that they seemed as primitive as the people at the dawn of man. In a sense, America telescoped the history of man. What had been a slow and gradual process of clearing the land and establishing cities in Europe took place in a few brief generations in the United States. And as a result, that early, wild image was fresh to any eye of the 1800’s that was open to apprehend it.

Some American writers have documented how traces of the wilderness have slowly receded over time: the arrowheads, ancient fire pits, cave paintings, vestiges of the old growth forests or swamps, the cellar holes of settlers who made a go of it and gave up but weren’t completely swallowed up. Other writers have focused on the wildness that still remains. Others do not confront it at all in their writing. But it is there, that earlier, wilder America, like the view from a precipice over a rolling, wooded land punctuated by silver strands of river. And if we look out into the distance, something ancient and wild looks back, sometimes makes its presence felt in the soughing of the breeze or a darkening of the sky. In the beginning, we found America in the wilderness.

A Journey Through Literary America

$35.00

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Explore the fascinating stories of 26 great American authors with images of the places that inspired them to write. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers. With over 140 photographs throughout, the images add mood and dimension to the writing – and they are often shockingly close to what the featured authors described in their own words. Lushly illustrated, and beautifully designed, the book is as much of a pleasure to look at as it is to read.

This is a volume for the literary enthusiast, the armchair traveler or the intrepid reader. It is a handsome and beautifully illustrated companion for those who seek to learn more about authors they have read and those who wish to discover new writers.

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  1. Robert Spiller, The Cycle of American Literature, 6.
  2. Washington Irving, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, 186.
  3. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, 3.
  4. From the Introduction to The Deerslayer by Basil Davenport, Dodd Mead edition, 1979.
  5. From the Preface to The Deerslayer (Dodd Mead edition).
  6. Irving, Spanish Papers, Vol. 2, 482-483.
  7. Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
  8. Cooper, The Pioneers, 229.
  9. Quoted in Roland Van Zandt’s The Catskill Mountain House. Original source unknown.
  10. Cooper, The Pioneers, 231-232.
  11. Thomas Cole, quoted in The Catskill Mountain and the Region Around, 1867, Source: Van Zandt, 215.
  12. Cooper, Home as Found, 114, Source: “Epiphany at Ischia: The Effect of Italy on James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Landscape Painting,” Allan M. Axelrad, 1993, http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/suny/1993suny-axelrad.html ( July 2009).
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