Perhaps there is reason behind many writers’ hajj to this picturesque Pennsylvania river.
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Upon looking at the serene water surface and the trees that provide a soothing shade, no wonder writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and George G. Foster were fond of exploring this part of the American wilderness. With its name being Lenape for “catfish stream,” this site would be the perfect stream to explore.
In some ways, these writers provided a glimpse into the American country that was somehow hidden and preserved. George G. Foster, who was a journalist in the early 1800’s, made note of the Wissahickon in his fifth Slice as one of the sites in Pennsylvania which was pristine. Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay “Morning on the Wissahickon,” vividly described his trip to the Wissahickon.
They both use the word sublime to describe the Wissahickon. Definitely, the description of the landscape can provide any writer the inspiration for literary creativity. An early reference to the Wissahickon came from William Cobbett, who described the hills and the trees. Foster vividly explained what the Wissahickon looks like, with the large trees, a dam, a rocky bank, and a log cabin. Poe also talks about the large trees, the mossy shores, large hills, and the rich plateau.
Foster talked about how the Wissahickon is so grand, it makes people feel insignificant being there. Poe also said that if the Wissahickon were to flow through Britain, it would be the theme of every bard’s song (before being sold to aristocracy to build houses on). Foster says that the Wissahickon cannot surpass any other river, though Poe compared it to the rivers of the Old World. While Americans like Foster could appreciate the Wissahickon’s majesty, Poe mentioned how the British tourists thought that the Wissahickon encompassed only a small portion of beauty that they witness.
He also mentioned that unlike the European landscapes, the American landscapes require the traveler to walk amongst it. The outdoors in general can impact any traveler’s health, specifically with lower levels of depression. So it is little wonder why the Wissahickon would be a place that provides inspiration to writers, especially if it would help them come to terms with any mental disorders.
When Poe had heat exhaustion and laid to rest, he started imaging the Wissahickon before colonization and then saw a black man petting a gazelle. In this way, Poe has an almost spiritual fascination with the Wissahickon. Indeed, there was even said to have been a monastery dedicated to Protestantism founded in the Wissahickon by Kelpius and his Rosicrucian followers. One of the followers, Christopher Witt, would eventually leave behind a library with books on medicine, botany, and astrology which would be inherited by Benjamin Franklin.
To this day, the Wissahickon remains an important part of Pennsylvania and wider American history. There are even opportunities to explore this creek along with the Friends of the Wissahickon, which is an organization dedicated to educating people about it.
Taylor, George Rogers, and George G. Foster. “‘Philadelphia in Slices’ by George G. Foster.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 93, no. 1, 1969, pp. 23–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20090260.