Chapter 7


The Innocence and Wildness of Nature: Charles W. Webber and Others

Far into the nineteenth century, writing about the Wild West expresses contradictory attitudes about nature: it is portrayed as wicked and yet also as an unsullied source of strength and virtue. Charles W. Webber, a Kentuckian who spent time in Texas and later at Princeton Divinity School before moving to New York to work for the magazines, was one of the first writers to exploit these attitudes toward the wilderness of the West. From 1844 to 1856, Webber wrote numerous essays, articles, and stories. Webber's Old Hicks, the Guide (1848), declared superior to Melville's Typee and Omoo by at least two leading journals of the day, grapples with the same problems Cooper did--namely, how to move the sentimental plot beyond love stories and indian fights--and ultimately bases its resolution on values which Webber supposes to be revealed in the light of nature: honor, justice and right. The essence of civilization is demeaning struggle, Webber suggests, and therefore the natural physical freedom of Webber's Texas Rangers' exempts them from moral bigotry.

Both Webber and Melville wrote about adventures in remote parts of the world--the Peaceful Valley in the Upper Canadian and the idyllic island of the South Seas, respectively--and both used the simple life of savages to indict the stifling refinement of civilized American society. After Old Hicks, Webber's subsequent unsatisfactory efforts to tap into the symbolic, restorative power of the wilderness reveal that this conception of nature was losing force and vitality. Melville went on to severely criticize such thinking in Moby Dick.

The writings of Henry David Thoreau contrast the wildness of nature with the lifelessness of civilized society at every turn, and his enthusiasm for the westward impulse--"ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness"--led him to envision a rejuvenated society of people more in touch with primitive existence. Melville, by contrast, thought of nature as not necessarily good or evil, but as terrible and magnificent. He dramatizes the fear-inspiring machinations of nature in his account (in Chapter LXII of Moby Dick) of the sheltered Vermont colt's frenzied discomfort with the musky scent of an Oregon buffalo pelt. There are unseen evils in the world, Melville insists, his masterpiece forming an indictment of the unfounded optimism of Webbers' and Thoreau's transcendental conception of nature.

Chapter 8