Landmarks of American Nature Writing

9. Landmarks I: Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry, Jefferson claimed in his Notes, is "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature" and "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." Not every traveler agreed. Though a very great man, our third president was "no little of a humbug," according to one character in William Gilmore Simms's Southward Ho! (1854), who found the Shenandoah Valley more to his liking.


John Edwards Caldwell. A Tour through Part of Virginia, in the Summer of 1808. In a Series of Letters, including an Account of Harper's Ferry, the Natural Bridge, the New Discovery Called Weir's Cave, Monticello, and the Different Medicinal Springs, Hot and Cold Baths, Visited by the Author. New York: H. C. Southwick, 1809. McGregor Library. Shown: "Harper's Ferry, 11th June, 1808."

The road to Harpers Ferry, Caldwell says, is "miserably bad, but the country beautiful and the land good; the approach to the ferry is strikingly picturesque, and after crossing, ascending the hill, and viewing the junction of the Shenandoah and the Potowmack . . . the mind is lost in wonder and admiration, and my pen in vain attempts a description of the scene itself, or the feelings I experienced in contemplating this great work of nature!"

Francis Hall. Travels in Canada, and the United States, in 1816 and 1817. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1818. McGregor Library. Shown: Bird's-eye view of Harpers Ferry.

An English army officer, Francis Hall visited Harpers Ferry in December 1816, after which he traveled southward to the Natural Bridge and Monticello, where he spent a night at Monticello with Jefferson. As Hall notes in his Travels, much of the experience of Harpers Ferry is in the getting there:

Your road lies down the side of the mountain, strewed with splinters and fragments of rock, which slide from beneath your horse's feet: immense masses of rock project their bold angles, so as frequently to leave a cramped and difficult passage; meantime the mountains stretching up on every side, and partially beheld between the scattered pine trees, seem contracting round with a deepening breadth of shadow and gloomy grandeur, until you find at their base the united Patomac and Shenandoah, boiling over their incumbered channel.

St. Leger Landon Carter. Nugae; or, Pieces in Prose and Verse. Baltimore: Printed by Woods and Crane, 1844. Barrett Library. Shown: "The Girl of Harper's Ferry."

Borrowing language from Jefferson's account of the scene, St. Leger Landon Carter finds the human prospect more desirable than the natural one in his first stanza:

	Ah! tell me not of heights sublime,
		The rocks at Harper's Ferry,
	Of mountains rent in the lapse of time--
		They're very sublime--oh very!
	I'm thinking more of the glowing cheek
		Of a lovely girl and merry,
	Who climb'd with me to yon highest peak--
		The girl of Harper's Ferry.

William Gilmore Simms. Southward Ho! A Spell of Sunshine. New York: Redfield, 1854. Shown: Pages 176-77.

One of the most important literary figures in the antebellum South, William Gilmore Simms is best remembered as the author of the Colonial and Revolutionary romances The Yemassee (1835) and The Partisan (1835). In Southward Ho!, Simms criticizes what he considers Jefferson's extravagance in praising Harpers Ferry, insisting that the view, though picturesque, is far from the sublime spectacle described by "the sage of Monticello."

Nathaniel P. Willis. American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature. From Drawings by W. H. Bartlett, Engraved in the First Style of the Art. Vol. 1 of 2 vols. London: George Virtue, 1840. Barrett Library. Shown: "The Valley of the Shenandoah, From Jefferson's Rock."

The text that accompanies this illustration of Harpers Ferry offers a primitivist interpretation of the landscape popular in the mid-nineteenth century:

It is difficult, at least for me, to stand on any eminence commanding a landscape, wild, yet formed for a blest human residence, without seeing in it the forfeited inheritance of the red man. The unpicturesque new village of the white man, his mill, or his factory, does not convey to my imagination an image of happiness; and I regret the primitive rover of the wild, who neither blackened nature with smoke, nor violated her harmony with brick and shingle.

Souvenir of Harper's Ferry. Harper's Ferry, W. Va.: Walter E. Dittmeyer, 1906.

This Souvenir of Harper's Ferry, published at the beginning of the twentieth century, offers a two-page summary of local history followed by an album of photographs portraying the river junction and town. "Harper's Ferry is often called the 'Switzerland of America,' and rightly so," this booklet announces. "The prospects are magnificent, [and] the walks and drives lead into three states": Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.


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