Beavers, Mountain Men, and the Avant-garde

A Purely Literary Look at Washington Irving’s Astoria

Astoria is about the sea and the fur trade in the American West, which were also two of James Fenimore Cooper’s main themes. (It was Cooper’s maritime novels that drew Joseph Conrad from landlocked Poland to the sea, and Wild West fur trade novels have long been a staple of European fantasy fiction). Irving’s Hawaiian chapters also anticipate Melville’s “Typee”, published ten years later, reminding us that America started off as a maritime frontier nation delivering exotic products to the world market. And finally, the Alaskan digression anticipates Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”.

The American fur trade was all about beaver, and this book was written at almost exactly the same time as Henry Murger’s historic but not especially good book Scènes de la vie de bohême. In Murger’s book the early bohemian Jean Wallon scratched out a meager living producing copy for the French hatmaker’s journal, “Le Castor” (“The Beaver”). This is an interesting coincidence, according to me: after all, a high proportion of the North American fur traders were of French descent and spoke French of a sort, and they lived free of the bonds of civilization (albeit at the price of near-starvation and the constant risk of sudden death) to a degree that effete French bohemians could only dream of. (Of the bohemians, only Petrus Borel the Lycanthrope and Arthur Rimbaud ever really left Western civilization, to my knowledge; Murger himself ended up semi-prosperous and, for all we know, wearing a beaver hat).

From the very beginning there were writers on the fur-trading frontier, and one of the ship captains in Irving’s book complained that his officers are wasting too much of their time on their journals (which have unfortunately not come down to us, since everyone on his ship was later killed in a dispute with the locals). Except for Irving, however, none of these fur trade authors were very good, and none were at all bohemian or avant-garde. (One of the earliest was a botanist from the Linnaean Society).

The last literary traces of the vanishing fur trade in world literature were Susan Sontag’s birth father, the fur trader Jack Rosenthal (who died on the job in China), and perhaps we might also add Sartre’s dedication of La Nausée to “Le Castor”– his nickname for Simone de Beauvoir. (Some say de Beauvoir got this nickname as a bilingual pun on her name, some say it was because of her prominent teeth, and some say it was because of her diligence. As far as I know nothing smutty was intended).

Irving’s Astoria is also a damn good book John Jacob Astor’s visionary but unsuccessful attempt to establish an American trade foothold on the Pacific Coast (at that time also claimed by the Spanish, the British, and the Russians. You should read it if you’re interested in that kind of thing.






Published in: on March 1, 2016 at 8:42 pm  Leave a Comment