Pet Book #5: Documentality and Situation

I’m interested (in perhaps a non-bibliographic way, insofar as my concern here is with the content of the book) in the structure of Astoria as a historical narrative. Irving writes in his introduction that his contact with JJ Astor came about immediately after Irving’s own tours of the prairie, and that Astor suggested he write about the Astoria venture “because its national character and importance have never been understood.” Already, Astoria sets out as an ideological project: the book as an attempt to offer up a document of the unexplored West, a fetish for the expansionist beliefs of early 19th century America.

It is where Irving builds his story, however, which I found most notable: since Astoria is meant to be a non-fictional text, its author requires primary sources. In this case, Irving took “the journals, and letters also, of the adventurers by sea and land employed by Mr. Astor,” only undertaking the project of writing this account “provided documents [emphasis mine] of sufficient extent and minuteness could be furnished [to him.]” He proceeds to describe these documents, letters and journals narrating the expeditions by sea and across the mountains, “together with documents illustrative of savage and colonial life on the borders of the Pacific.”

Astoria becomes, then, a narrative extrapolated from a documentary history which must be situated in a) the historical moment of early 19th century America and b) the specific spatial history of the West. In Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge, she describes American Slavery As it Is (a document, ironically, published less than a decade after the first edition of Astoria) as “alter[ing] the contexts of advertisements describing runaway slaves by recognizing their value for republication in the North… embedded in local newsprint these advertisements had been documents, to be sure, but collecting them and reproducing them in another context for another audience made them know-show with much greater force.” The re-situation of documents discloses the role of situation in meaning making, which also takes place in Irving’s resituating of the documents and letters from the expedition into popular consciousness – they change from being paper-bound traces, artifacts of the expedition, “[including] business papers…full of tedious and commonplace details” into a compelling, ideological work: “Because it implies accountability, knowing and showing together constitute an epistemic practice to which ethics and politics become available, even necessary” in Gitelman’s words.

In this case, the form of the documents is also wound up in their ability to “know-show”: the task or “trouble of rummaging among” these letters and journals is absolved of the reader, and the knowledges contained in the documents are re-situated in the format of the book as a weird, textual documentary, which reveals something about the power of the book to engage in this process of knowing and showing.

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