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The cultural perception of the American land: a short history

Par Mireille Chambon-Pernet : Professeur agrégé en CPGE - Lycée Ampère, Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 20/11/2012

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The importance of land and nature in the American culture is widely known. The Pilgrim Fathers who landed on the coast of the Massachussetts in 1620 were looking for freedom which was both spiritual and material. The latter derived from land ownership, as a landowner called no man master. Yet, in 1893, Jackson Turner announced that: “the American character did not spring full-blown from the Mayflower” “ It came out of the forests and gained new strength each time it touched a frontier”.

In America, the vision of wilderness was twofold. It was either a threat or a garden of Eden. There was the Northern vision – supported by Franklin – including industry and technology and the Southern vision defended by Jefferson which emphasized the idealized agrarian society.

Immediately after the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson asked for an important expedition aimed at gathering information about the territory to be launched. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was headed by Meriwether Lewis who was Jefferson’s secretary. It was successful in helping gauge the potential of the territory both in its scientific and more surprisingly in its literary dimensions. Maps were drawn, a new commercial route leading to the Pacific coast was open, yet, their journal carries strikingly artistic references when it comes to the description of a romanticised landscape:

I wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa, a Titian, or the pen of thomson, that I might be enabled to give the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificient and sublimely grand object which has, from the commencement of time, been concealed from view of civilized man. But this was fuitless and vain. I most sincerely regretted that I had not brought a camera obscura with me, by the assistance of which even I could have hoped to have done better, but alas, this was also out of my reach. (June 13th, 1805)

Rosa (1615-1673) was a painter, an engraver and a poet. His imaginary and desolate landscapes were praised by the Romantics. James Thomson (1700-1748) is the author of a long romantic poem called “The Seasons”. It is also worth noticing how much the allusion to painters and the “camera obscura” point to a visual imagination. The ‘camera obscura’ is a scientific tool which was used by Holbein – among others – to render life-like portraits. Here the authors drew the portrait of a nature which the scientist suddenly envisages as a divine work of art. The religious reference to the Garden of Eden is implicit. Moreover, since they were men of their time, they also projected a romantic mental chart over the unknown therefore guiding their readers’ approach to this new land. They gave names to the places they saw as a way to appropriate the land which is in keeping with the particular relationship the American man has with HIS land.

Evening Landscape by Salvator Rosa, 1640-1643

Evening Landscape by Salvator Rosa, 1640-1643
Source : Wikimedia, Creative Commons (CC)

The travel journal by Lewis and Clark was published in 1904. That is to say one hundred years after it had been written. In the meantime, American people had had the opportunity to read other tales concerning the exploration of the continent such as those by Jonathan Carver (1710-1780) entitled Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766,1767 and 1768 and the Notes on the State of Virginia (1784-1785) by Jefferson as well as Alexander Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels in the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804. Jefferson sat down with the scientist to discuss about his discoveries. His book conjured up visions of warm dark jungles and brilliantly colored birds. It conveyed a strong sense of adventure and drew many scientists and artists from Darwin to Frederick Church to the least known parts of the US territory. Humboldt talked about ‘eternal verdure’, he described ‘the great harmonies of nature’. He wrote ‘We seek in vain the traces of the power of man; we seem to be transported into a world different from the one that gave us birth’. He described an empty virgin land where everything could begin anew including a national literature. The scientist had discovered this land of new beginnings. It was up to the artist to transform it into a symbol, to celebrate it.

Five years earlier, William Bartram’s Travels (1791) had projected romantic ideals over the American landscape. His book had been acclaimed in Europe and Coleridge or Wordsworth drew inspiration from it. After Humboldt’s narrative was published, Europe then acknowledged the primitive forest of the New World and it became an emblem of beauty as the Romantics perceived it.

Nature – be it real or imagined – became the preferred refuge of the American Artist. Nature unspoilt and free was thus set apart from the new nation’s materialistic passions.

Washington Irving belonged to this first literary generation. After having spent 17 years in Europe he came back to his country in 1832 and set out to make his country the subject of his literary production. In A Tour On The Prairies 1835 he described a trip to the West :

Here one of the characteristic senes of the Far West broke upon us. An immense extent of grassy, undulating, or as it is termed, rolling country, with here and there a clump of trees, dimly seen in the distance like a ship at sea; the landscape deriving its sublimity from its vastness and simplicity.

As Anne Wicke states it, here again, the landscape belongs to the category of the sublime. It is worth underlining the sudden vision that is described with the words “broke upon us” which reinforces the impact the vision has and the nautical comparison with “like a ship at sea” which foreshadows Melville’s metaphor of the prairie sea in Moby Dick and other references to Melville comparing groups of whales to bison herds going across the Illinois and Missouri prairies in chap 105.

The intertwining of fiction and reality participated in the creation of literary America. By combining the mythified lives of real frontier heroes such as Davy Crockett and a fantasy-like backdrop – a nearly primeval forest – James Fenimore Cooper created his character Natty Bumppo. Here, Cooper seemed to inscribe himself in the tradition of Tall Tales, thus giving an opportunity for his readership to identify with the heroes who helped their nation take possession of the unknown. Cooper nicknamed Nat Bumppo “The Pathfinder” therefore clearly highlighting the existence of the character solely in relation with a space viewed as symbolic.

It foreshadowed what Charles Olson (1910-1970) would later say : “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” Journalists and columnists writing in East Coast newspapers were critical in shaping the view the urban and cultivated East had of the West. Very early on a need for national literature rooted in the American land was felt. The politics of identity in the building of the American nation were at stake. As early as 1815, William Tudor, who was the first head columnist of the North American Review, aimed at showing how much the American landscape could inspire artists.

The region in which these occurrences took place, abounds with grand and beautiful scenery, possessing some peculiar features. The numerous waterfalls, the enchanting beauty of Lake George and its pellucid flood, of Lake Champlain, and these lesser lakes, afford many objects of the most picturesque character; while the land seas from Superior to Ontario, and that astounding cataract, whose roar would hardly be increased by the united murmurs of all the cascades of Europe, are calculated to inspire vast and sublime conceptions. (North American Review, 1815)

This need for a national literature was further exacerbated when a British clergyman sneered at Americans when asking “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book ?”

The romantics believed that Nature had some inherent qualities: truth, beauty, independence and democracy. In the natural world, people could come close to the lost innocence of their origins. Europe could not compare when America had such a vast expanse of wilderness. Nature being endowed with such virtues, it became a motive which differentiated American Art from British Art. As Emerson put it : “My book should smell of pines.”

All those texts as well as the paintings produced in America at that time depict the same view of space based on the sublime expanse of land, wild and infinite, radiating energy and power. Man plays new roles in this relationship with American nature : the hunter, the backwoodsman, the solitary traveler exalted by the splendor of the scene he is contemplating, the pioneer, the cowboy. For these writers, Nature also came to represent what was real, concrete, and unpretentious, which may be summed up as the essence of the American character. John Muir called glaciers, avalanches and torrents “the pens with which Nature produces written characters most like our own.”

The painters of the Hudson River School began focusing on the landscape as a source of national pride among whom Thomas Cole who is considered to be the founder of the school (1801-1848) and whose landscapes were very popular. Their aesthetic vision was strongly influenced by romanticism. They saw American nature as a manifestation of God.

Cole, who would pray before starting each painting session expressed his Acadian vision of the American landscape through the use of chiaroscuro thus aiming at rendering grandiose vistas meant to present nature as a place of moral uplift. Such a stance was quite striking at a time when -in the eyes of most- raw wilderness was perceived to be either a commodity waiting to be used or a place where reason gave way to passion and the devil.

River in the Catskills, 1843, Thomas Cole (American, b. England, 1801-1848)

River in the Catskills, Thomas Cole, 1843
Source : Wikimedia, Creative Commons (CC)

Frederick Church (1826-1900) was a pupil of Cole’s. He painted landscapes of increasing realism as he travelled the continent extensively in the wake of Humboldt’s publications and fame. He is well-known for his contribution to Luminism and his depiction of atmospheric phenomena such as rainbows, fog, mist and sunsets which accentuated the feel of his realistic paintings. The best known of which is Niagara (1857), a large canvas that toured America and England between 1857 and 1859 as the Hudson River School landscapes came to symbolize American vitality, independence and nationalism

Niagara Falls, from the American Side, 1867, Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900)

Niagara Falls, from the American Side, Frederic Edwin Church, 1867
Source : Wikimedia, Creative Commons (CC)

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is famous for his uncommonly large canvases featuring sweeping landscapes of the American West, notably the Yosemite valley and the Rocky Mountains. He joined several journeys of the Westward expansion to gather material for his paintings.  Two of them are in the Capitol. They feature European explorers arriving to find pristine land.

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865 Albert Bierstadt, (American, b. Germany, 1830-1902)

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt, 1865
Source : Wikimedia, Creative Commons (CC)

All of them exacerbated the feeling of belonging Americans felt for this land which was newly theirs. They emphasized the spiritual link between the landscape, the land and its beauty and the people who lived in it. The landscape as painted by the artists from the Hudson River School is reminiscent of Claude Lorrain, John Constable or John Turner. Nature is here portrayed as being a romantic expression of what lay before the painter’s eyes. Moreover, due to the significant size of the paintings, the viewer was drawn into them to participate in an almost mystic experience as the landscapes were reminiscent of natural cathedrals. The use of light conveyed some dramatic undertones and human beings were – if present – reduced to miniature figures lost in a harmonious world. A new Garden of Eden was thus laid before the public from the Eastern coast who came to assimilate these nearly mythical landscapes to a realistic depiction of the West.

By 1807, with the arrival of the first steamboat and the development of Eastern railways, technology started intruding upon this Garden of Eden. Leo Marx evokes “the machine in the garden”. And in the early era of the American Renaissance, that is to say in the 1850’s and the 1860’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau expressed some concern for the changing landscape.

In Walden written in 1854, Thoreau focused on Nature with a capital N. The third part of his book reflects his beliefs that the study of the natural world is a spiritual pursuit. In Thoreau’s writing, man seems to be caught between God and Nature. The way Thoreau describes the pond is both scientific, measuring its width and depth, therefore objective and spiritual as the place appears as a cathedral for him to commune in. This twofold stance is reminiscent of that of Lewis and Clark towards the nature they discovered. Nature is not seen as an obstacle but rather the source of the spirit behind the American character. The later chapters of Walden describe a spiritual communion with the natural world that would eventually make Thoreau along with Humboldt and Muir one of the founders of our modern appreciation of nature and ecology. Since Thoreau’s vision makes it clear that Nature and the Land are sacred and holy for the American character, therefore they should be preserved as American monuments.

The first effort to set some land aside was made by Abraham Lincoln who signed an act of congress ceding the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California in 1864 (ten years after Walden was published). It became the Yellowtone national Park in 1872. It is here worth mentioning the fact that the Forestry Bureau which led to the establishment of the US Forest Service was created in 1905. Let us not overlook how any trace of Indian settlement was eradicated from the land which was converted into national parks and how much the method used echoed that of the eitheenth century English aristocrats who often removed peasants and even whole villages to create their pastoral landscape parks (cf. Raymond William The country and the city).

At the end of the 19th century the two visions ie the pastoral ideal vs. the vision of a land of plenty, a nurturing mother whose infinite resources may be tapped, relentlessly clashed. It was the time of tycoons and businessmen making money from the riches of a land seen as a cornucopia. The preserved West which had been so grandiosly depicted was then turned into a lure for tourists through the nascent tourist industry which used the paintings of the romantics to build the myth of the West.

This ambivalence towards nature is still prevailing today. In the artistic field, Robert Smithson’s use of nature with the help of an excavator to build his spiral jetty is a compelling case in point when it comes to nature being seen as waiting for man to impress its will upon it, while Andy Goldworthy carefully crafts his artwork with natural elements that he finds in the location he has chosen and then lets nature run its course as part of his performance.

As far as environment is concerned, one needs just look at Sarah Palin’s wish to drill oil wells in Alaska and the recent decision by B. Obama to refuse that the Grand Canyon be subjected to mining.

On the philosophical chapter, such a view of the powers of nature and wilderness is felt in today’s American society. Education through nature is still highly valued. As for Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn who journeyed through the land and embodied innocence unspoilt by education, today, first-hand knowledge and pragmatism characterize Americans’ approach to education in keeping with the idea that being confronted to the regenerating power and the purity of wilderness will give you a sound heart. It echoes Mark Twain’s “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience”. In many an American’s opinion, nature’s teachings offset bookish knowledge. Such teachings are what makes a man a true American. Mark Twain said “Soap and education are not as sudden as massacre but they are more deadly in the long term.” In recent years, Mr Obama has been fiercely criticized for his sophistication and the fact that he goes to independent bookshops while on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. On the other hand, G.W. Bush was admired for working on his ranch, felling trees and taking care of his cattle.

Notwithstanding these contradicting views, as long as the West and its forests exist, Americans feel they have managed to balance the boon and the bane of civilization.


Anne Wicke :Le rêve de la page blanche : litterature et expansionisme in La destinée manifeste des Etats-Unis au XIXe siècle. Ed Ellipses 1999

Joshua Johns : A Brief History of Nature and the American consciousness. 1996 AS@UVA

Mark David Spence : Dispossessing the Wilderness : Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. Oxford University Press 1999

Raymond William : The Country and the City : Oxford University Press, 1973

Donald Worster : Environmentalism for Outsiders : http//theamericanscholar.org/environmentalism-for-outsiders

Brenda Wineapple : Voices of a Nation : http//theamericanscholar.org/voices-of-a-nation


Pour citer cette ressource :

Mireille Chambon-Pernet, "The cultural perception of the American land: a short history", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2012. Consulté le 20/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/le-reve-americain/the-cultural-perception-of-the-american-land