Stephen Fender

  • Landscape and Written Expression in Revolutionary America: The world turned upside down by Robert Lawson-Peebles
    Cambridge, 384 pp, £35.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 34647 9
  • Mark Twain’s Letters. Vol. I: 1853-1866 edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael Frank and Kenneth Sanderson
    California, 616 pp, $35.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 520 03668 9
  • A Writer’s America: Landscape in Literature by Alfred Kazin
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £15.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 500 01424 8

What constitutes an American writer’s landscape? In Great Britain it’s common to refer to ‘Brontë country’ or ‘Hardy country’. The Lake District belongs to Wordsworth more than to any landowner. But ‘Hemingway country’? He lived in at least thirty parts of the United States, not to mention Cuba, Paris and the Riviera. Stephen Crane’s birthplace is now a children’s playground in New Jersey, William Faulkner’s a Presbyterian parsonage. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States, from which these titbits come, provides further unwitting refutations of its own project, which is to fix American writers in their proper locales: ‘It was while walking home with a student one evening that [Wallace] Stevens ... spoke of his recent poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”. “I said that I thought we’d reached a point at which we could no longer really believe in anything unless we recognised it was a fiction.” Exactly. The ‘place’ was Hartford, Connecticut, but it could have been anywhere.

When the American writer travelled to the west of his or her more settled home, dislocation turned into disorientation. Since the settlement of the North American continent proceeded roughly from east to west, the ‘West’ was a cultural as well as a geographical experience. To Mark Twain, whose letters from Nevada and California form the bulk of this long-awaited and deftly-annotated edition by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, the West presented economic and social, as well as physical, hazards. For most of the writers represented in Lawson-Peebles’s study, too, the confrontation posed problems of style. Only in Kazin’s wide survey are American writers at ease in their surroundings.

A common response to the unexpected is a retreat to a hardened form of the familiar. Faced with landscapes that seemed to dissolve – topographies that outran the proportions of the European garden, social and political structures overturned by New World settlement and finally by revolution – Europeans and Americans alike sought inappropriately to re-impose the formal structures left behind them in their travels through space and time. Robert Lawson-Peebles’s word for this dialectic is ‘redcoatism’, after the practice of British regiments in the French and Indian War of lining up in bright scarlet uniforms only to get picked off by their assailants hiding behind trees. But the American Army itself became more regimented in this Old World sense as the Revolutionary War progressed. When, after they had gained their independence, the much more bloody revolution in France seemed to offer more radically terrifying precedents for the development of the infant American Republic, and Edward Genêt, France’s first minister to the United States, began to enlist Americans in the work of spreading revolution in Europe, American thinkers and writers came to react against the world they themselves had turned upside down. They did this, according to Lawson-Peebles, by fleeing to one of two contrasting stereotypes with reference to which Europeans had invented America: the utopian model of a pre-lapsarian Eden or the dystopian miasma of Buffon, Per Kalm and the other theorists of the degeneration of transplants.

The flight from fact to concept affected all branches of American culture. The geographer Jedediah Morse, who once planned a comprehensive study of the immense variety of the North American continent, wound up producing a survey – largely of other people’s observations – which recast the country into a Never-Never Land he called Fredonia. Europeans ‘have too often suffered fancy to supply the place of facts’, he wrote in the radical year of 1789; by 1810 he had come to think of the American hinterland, which he had never visited, as providentially shaped: quartered symmetrically, like some Medieval Mappamundi, by the two axes of the ‘Shining Mountains’ and the Mississippi River. The lexicographer Noah Webster began by embracing the possibilities of American neologism. Where Europe had ‘grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny’, he wrote in 1783, the American language should allow new usages to reflect its young and vigorous political institutions. Later, he became obsessed with the ‘disorder’ of American politics and language. By 1824, he was advocating linguistic identity with Britain.

Lawson-Peebles’s most extensive and interesting exploration of his theme centres on the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who accessed over a third of the country’s land area in one purchase from the French, then ordered it to be surveyed by a government expedition led by army captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. For Jefferson, American topography was material proof of his country’s promise. His Notes on Virginia, ostensibly an answer to queries put to him by the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, is also a robust answer to Buffon and the other degenerationists. Both the variety of American species and the sizes of individuals outrun their European counterparts, as he shows through comparative tables.

On the other hand, Jefferson was highly attentive to the proprieties of European landscape analysis. The famous descriptions in Notes of the natural stone bridge over a branch of the James River, and of the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge Mountains, establish the picturesque by means of cunningly juxtaposed evocations of the sublime and the beautiful. (The first of these terms, perhaps because American topography was supposed not to inspire it, is insinuated rather than claimed outright.)

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