Landmarks of American Nature Writing

10. Landmarks II: The Peaks of Otter

"[T]he mountains of the Blue ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America," Jefferson announced in his Notes. Today we know better, but compared to Monticello (truly a "little mountain" at 867 feet high), these 4,000-foot peaks still soar.


Charles Lanman. Letters from the Alleghany Mountains. New York: Geo. P. Putnam, 1849. McGregor Library. Shown: Letter XXI: "Harper's Ferry, June 1848."

Although Charles Lanman mistakenly gives the height of the Peaks as 5,000 feet and says they are the highest mountains in Virginia (that claim is held by Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet), he correctly observes the reason for his overestimate: "Owing to the circumstance that the country on one side is nearly level, and that the surrounding mountains are comparatively low, their appearance is exceedingly imposing." Lanman's discussion of the Valley of Virginia also appears in his Adventures in the Wilds of the United States and British American Provinces (1856).

Henry Clay Pate. The American Vade Mecum; or, The Companion of Youth, and Guide to College. Cincinnati: Morgan, 1852. Shown: "Peaks of Otter," opposite "Major Radford and the Old Maid; or, A Trip to the Peaks of Otter."

One of the more curious volumes on exhibit, Henry Clay Pate's American Vade Mecum was written in 1852 as a promotional tool for the University of Virginia. Included in the text as much for entertainment as for education, "A Trip to the Peaks of Otter" offers a striking description of the residents of the town of Liberty (now Bedford): "They, indeed, are the very princes of freemen; breathing, as they do, the pure breezes of their own blue mountains, and daily learning lessons of liberty and independence from the wild bird that soars in unobstructed flight and proud defiance about the towering summit of the Peaks of Otter."

Henry Morgan. A Description of the Peaks of Otter, with Sketches and Anecdotes of Patrick Henry, John Randolph and Thomas Jefferson, and Other Distinguished Men, Who Have Visited the Peaks of Otter, or Resided in that Part of the State; also, A Description of the Natural Bridge and Other Scenery in Western Virginia. Lynchburg: Printed at the Virginia Job Office, 1853. Shown: Title page.

Henry Morgan wrote A Description of the Peaks of Otter (1853) while traveling through the South as an itinerant Methodist minister. Although Morgan's Description features the hyperbolic rhetoric and pious sentimentalism common to many Victorian writers, aspects of his theological imagery can also be found in more moderate doses in the work of such modern writers as Annie Dillard (case 19).

David Hunter Strother. Virginia Illustrated: Containing a Visit to the Virginian Canaan, and the Adventures of Porte Crayon and His Cousins. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857. Barrett Library. Shown: "South Peak of Otter, from the Hotel."

Born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), David Hunter Strother was best known for his illustrated sketches, which appeared regularly in Harper's Magazine. From 1854 through 1856, Harper's published--under Strother's nom de plume, "Porte Crayon"--five fictionalized articles based upon a trip Strother had taken up the Shenandoah Valley into the Piedmont. The tremendously popular series was collected in 1857 as Virginia Illustrated.

The Peaks of Otter: A Monograph of the Religious Experience of a Young Man. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1859. Shown: Title Page.

Attending a religious revival near the Peaks of Otter, this anonymous "young man" ascended the peaks for inspiration after experiencing a conflict in his soul. There, he says, "the thought of the infinite majesty of the Creator of all I looked upon, which was but a small portion of the great earth, entered my mind and overpowered me. Solemn awe took possession of me: I felt the littleness, the nothingness of man, which thus brought into comparison with nature and nature's God."

Samuel M. Janney. The Last of the Lenapé, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1839. Shown: "The Peaks of Otter."

In "The Peaks of Otter," Samuel Janney first gives praise "To Him whose potent voice the word but said,/And mountains started from their ocean bed." Beholding the national landscape from the peaks, he then foresees the greatness of America's destiny and breathes a "fervent prayer" to the nation, "That like thy scenery may thy virtues shine,/And bear the impress of a stamp divine."


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