“We take a new route to California, never travelled before this season; consequently our tour is over a new and interesting region,” wrote Charles Stanton to his brother Sidney in a letter-addendum that he dated August 3, 1846. There he was, at the town of Independence in Missouri, preparing to start on the Oregon Trail. “How clean the sun when seen in its idea,” Wallace Stevens says, “Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven | That has expelled us and our images …” – the heaven of text – being a reaction to something that is in time and space, not of the same material as itself, “The poem is the cry of its occasion,” but also “Part of the res itself and not about it” -- both from and of. De Quincey’s snow-forest is not snow, it is, theatrically, Solitude on a stage, this snow shining with a promising impervious beauty, not like the firework-burned snow that I travelled through a few days ago as I passed the turnoff to the lake where people from the Donner Party died one after the other in a landscape of snow until they became a fable of disaster and of the hubris of Lansford Hastings, the author of a book called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, 1845, which contained a sentence outlining the route that held them up before they reached the Sierra Nevada ranges. People point the blame at him but it is unfair, says Kristin Johnson, author of Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party, 1996, because the survivors themselves, interviewed or writing memoirs, “hardly mention Hastings, except in passing.” They blamed themselves, she says, not the author of a sentence that they often had not read.
A friend of mine who was raised in Reno has told me that the people there spend a long time on the Donner Party in their high school history classes, even taking trips across the Nevada-California border to the Donner Memorial State Park, where a plaque on a statue tells you that the snow during the unusually cold winter of 1846 was twenty-two feet deep.
There is a photograph of a man sitting under trees in a forest with chopped-off portions high above his head: this was the depth of the snow and the Donner Party chopped them, here he is sitting to say that their chop was of the res and he is about the chop, afterwards: he is illustrating, they are separate, and so are you, looking.
In concordance with Hastings’ description the Donners and their people decided not to follow the established east-west route that ran north around the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. Instead they went by a southern track across seventy-five miles of bleak alkaline, a choice that, years later, caused the newspaper journalist Charles McGlashan to put these words in his book, The History of the Donner Party: a Tragedy of the Sierra, 1880: “Each jagged cliff, or pointed rock, or sharply-curved hill-top, hung suspended in air as perfect and complete as if photographed on the sky,” a sentence that I consider accurate.
The route that Hastings briefly mentioned in his Guide was not one that he had tried out himself at the time that the book was published; however when he tested it later he was successful – but when he wrote it he did not know.* “The most direct route,” he said, “for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, at Fort Bridger; thence bearing West Southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco, by the route just described.” His tone of declaration is similar to the one in the poem “found … written on the leaf of a memorandum book by the side of [John] Denton's lifeless body” (History of the Donner Party) and I wonder how much it is the general public tone of that century in English.
Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
To the dwelling-place of early youth
Our first and dearest home.
To turn away our wearied eyes,
From proud ambition’s towers,
And wander in those summer fields,
The scene of boyhood’s hours.
But I am changed since last I gazed
On yonder tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch-elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook
As it were a regal galley,
And sighed not for a joy on earth
Beyond the happy valley.
I wish I could recall once more
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But I look on scenes of past delight
Without my wonted pleasures,
As a miser on the bed of death
Looks coldly on his treasures.
The poem was printed in the California Star newspaper on February 13, 1947, as the Donner Party story was receiving its first round of publicity from journalists. I am unable to find any unbiased source that can tell me proofishly that the poem was written by Denton as he was sitting alone waiting to die in the snow (he might as well have written it weeks before: who knows) but I see that McGlashan wants it to be understood as the “cry of its occasion” when he adds, “The pencil with which it was written lay also by the side of the unfortunate man.” The gap between the impetus and the composition needs to be very short: this is his reading of the Wallace Stevens poems, which he must have seen before they were published. Jesse Quinn Thornton, putting a preface in front of the poem when it appeared in the Star, supports McGlashan’s understanding of Stevens by placing the imaginative and physical processes immediately next to one another.
On every side extends a boundless waste of trackless snow. He reclines against a bank of it, to rise no more, and busy memory brings before him a thousand images of past beauty and pleasure, and of scenes he will never revisit. A mother's image presents itself to his mind, tender recollections crowd upon his heart, and the scenes of his boyhood and youth pass in review before him with an unwonted vividness. The hymns of praise and thanksgiving that in harmony swelled from the domestic circle around the family altar are remembered, and soothe the sorrows of the dying man, and finally, just before he expires, he writes:
"Simple and intimate to the last degree, yet coming from the heart," Thornton says, "When the circumstances are considered in connection with the calamities in which the unhappy Denton was involved, the whole compass of American and English poetry may be challenged to furnish a more exquisitely beautiful, a more touching and pathetic piece." But. "After many roving years," etc, was not Denton's poem: it was the words to a song by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797 – 1839), or almost those words -- a few changes -- "weary eyes" in Bayly instead of "wearied eyes," "trees and flowers," instead of "boyhood hours" -- Denton was remembering lines that he had probably heard people singing, once upon a time, maybe when he was at home in England (he was born in Sheffield) -- part of an oeuvre that some critic in the Spectator on February 10, 1844, described in a summary: "This reflex of the feeling of the amiably genteel is visible through every part of [Bayly's] composition. Except in sportive effusions upon inconstancy, the morals he points are unexceptionable; but they are those of society at large -- nothing above its opinion, nothing lower than what the mass would avow [...] his ideas are level to the apprehension of all his readers: the intellect is never tasked to understand him; the mind need not be raised to follow him, or at least not raised above the thickness of a carpet."
*Dr Henry Heimlich uses Heimlich manoeuvre for first time, aged 96.