Image and Influence of the Oklahoma Prairie in Washington Irving’s Tour of the West

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This work is a textual study of Washington Irving’s book: A Tour on the Prairies which he wrote as a record of his trip in 1832 through what is now Oklahoma. He traveled with Henry Ellsworth, the first commissioner of Indian Affairs appointed by President Andrew Jackson, a travel writer, and a young Swiss count. Their excursion though the unsettled, pristine landscape is recorded in Irving’s book; however the book becomes a testament to the impact of environment on the language of the writer. This book is close examination of how the geography of Oklahoma informs Irving’s rhetoric, how it shapes his image of the West, and how it transfers his preconceived western mythology into a pure image of the Oklahoma prairie.


“Linda L. Steele’s analysis of Washington Irving’s A Tour of the Prairies in this present study, The Environment and the Self, resonates at three levels: the cultural psyche, Romantic ideology, and personal experience. In the first instance, American writers and readers have long joined in a symbiotic cord of identity through land and landscape. In the second, since the fusion of American Romantic ideology through the work of the Transcendentalists, writers and readers have raised that cultural transaction to a philosophy of awareness and intuitive knowledge with benefit for the individual. And finally, with the strong pragmatic individualism in the culture, members within it have found meaning through the architecture of their birth landscape and its early nurturing contribution to self understanding. Typically, that self understanding finds congruence in a haunting sense of alienation and isolation, but the feeling is a comforting one to ponder before returning to the corresponding alienation and isolation of respective groups which claim individual loyalties….. Her work, The Environment and the Self: An Examination of the Image of the Prairie and the Myth of the Frontier in Washing Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies, provides a new and elevated approach to one of Irving’s less read works and promises to put the book on a new level of interpretation. (From the Commendatory Preface) Gladys S. Lewis, PhD

“In The Image and Influence of the Oklahoma Prairie in Washington Irving’s Tour of the West, Dr. Linda Steele expresses in words the feeling that many people develop over a lifetime about progress and its effect on the environment. Change brings loss. Even what some may consider positive change means losing the past. Because of the venue for her study, Oklahomans should find this book particularly interesting as a specific account of our state's colorful past. Steele's contention that "the frontier is not a place, but the prairie is" crystallizes the thesis and main intent of the book. Although other criticism of Irving focuses on his major works, Steele's life on the prairie in Nebraska and Oklahoma has prepared her to write this book. She looks at actual experience, giving readers a feeling of returning to early day Oklahoma. She visits the actual locations of the original tour, and her descriptions bring life to Irving's era and his work. Through her words, we can see the prairie as it was and as it is. After reading the book, one is motivated to visit the locations to see the monuments that Dr. Steele describes…..the book affects readers in a profound way. Dr. Steele's careful analysis causes readers to confront their own cognitive dissonance between the need for progress and the desire to preserve nature.” - Mary Spelman, Ph.D., University of Central Oklahoma

“Scholars generally associate Washington Irving with his humorous rendition of romanticized tales. Even when they turn to his travel writing, they tend to view him as a sentimental, Eurocentric writer of the picturesque, one who concentrates on the pleasantries of European culture, and, when he writes of the American West, avoids controversy, ignoring the exploitation of the West and instead depicting scenic landscapes inhabited by caricatured frontiersmen and Native Americans. Dr. Linda Steele has challenged these prevalent readings of Irving. While demonstrating that Irving is often thoughtful, almost brooding, as he responds to the prairie, Steele asserts that his depiction of this American landscape transcends the romantic frontier metaphor and sheds light on this environment’s impact on Irving himself. Steele’s in-depth analysis of A Tour of the Prairies provides scholars with an innovative approach to Irving’s travel writing, demonstrating that, in fact, Irving presents his readers with both a rendition of the beauty of the rugged Oklahoma plains and a sensitive indictment of those who raped the land, scarring the landscape with their refuse and destroying its magnificent wild horses and buffalos in their path. In the end, she asserts that Irving himself changed as he experienced the prairies, rejecting the frontier myth he had at first bought into, while developing deep sympathies that leave him profoundly connected to the prairie through which he traveled…..Steele demonstrates that Irving conclusively asserts the positive impact the prairie has had on him, while further emphasizing the negative impact his traveling party has had on the environment. Steele’s argument is most convincing. She systematically, intelligently, and gracefully analyzes this travel narrative, correcting our notion that Irving is simply a comic writer of the East by stressing his importance as a serious interpreter of the American West. Steele also illuminates Irving’s foresightedness in understanding the imminent threats to this environment. While others of his time viewed the prairie and its creatures as endless, Steele points out, Irving became woefully aware of their finite nature. Such prescience demands that scholars reconsider Irving’s travel narratives of the West, both for his insights into the beauty of the prairie as well as its vulnerability in the face of “civilization.” Steele has, indeed, pioneered a new approach to Irving scholarship.” - Dr. Deborah Israel, Ph.D, University of Central Oklahoma

Table of Contents

Table of Contents:
Preface, Acknowledgements
1. The Discussion So Far
2. Wonder and Adventure: Expectations and Experience in the Opening Sections of A Tour on the Prairies
3. Immersed in the Prairie: A New Image
4. By Horses and Buffalo: The Fulfillment of the Image and the Self
5. The Beauty and Significance of Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies

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