Week 8: The Age of Romanticism
The Romance of the Wilderness
to the Week 8 Schedule)
Frontier in American Literature
Over the Readings
Related to the Readings
Frontier in American Literature
A Question of National Character
For more than a century, American intellectuals
looked about for something in the American experience worth writing about,
worth the effort. Even through the writings of Henry James in the
late nineteenth century there remains the not-so-faint uneasiness that
America amounts to little more than D. H. Lawrence's American "muck heaps
of gold." America might well be a land, as the University of Chicago's
Dr. Boutnoy, professor of the famed historian Frederick Jackson Church,
once observed, whose motto ought to be, "No one welcome here except on
business!"--that America was "first a business enterprise, a nation only
The Frontier Fever
But America was discovering a subject
worth writing about, worth the effort--it was the "untainted," expansive
American wilderness. Europe had long since lost any open range and
territory, but the American frontier was wide open. For its entrepreneurs,
the frontier represented commodity ready to exploit and market. For
those fleeing tyrannies abroad, the frontier represented new opportunity
to begin again where reward matched each ounce of invested labor.
For the American intellectuals, the frontier and wilderness took on a spirituality
best translated in Ralph Waldo Emerson's touchstone essay, "Nature" (1844).
The Hudson River Valley and Mountain
In the late 18th century and at the turn
of the 19th century, Americans began flocking to the outdoors. Excursions
into the Hudson River Valley in upper state New York were spurred by the
popularization of its vistas by America's first artistic school of painting,
the "Hudson River School,"
attracting both artists and writers alike. The most famous New York
hotel of its day, the Catskill Mountain House, perched on a peak overlooking
the goblin-ridden "Sleepy Hollow," would draw visitors for 144 years.
Artists and writers alike flocked to the Mountain House to take in the
natural beauty of the landscape and all its changing colors stretched out
spectacularly before it. Asher
B. Durand and Thomas
Cole, two of the most popular painters of the school, were close friends
with William Cullen Bryant who admonishes "Cole, The Painter, Departing
for Europe," to "keep that wilder image bright where upon [his] great canvas
By the end of the nineteenth century, no
fashionable hotel bar would be complete without a majestic landscape by
Bierstadt, or Thomas Cole, or others inspired by the trackless beauty
of the great American frontier. Americans on excursion just couldn't
get enough of the distant frontier, but America's future was tied to a
moving, not a static frontier. "Go West, young man! Go West!"
cried the journalist, Horace
Greeley, and with the discovery of silver and gold in the Nevada Comstock
and the gold fields of the California Esmeralda, thousands of young men
did just that.
The Disturbing Issue
The disquieting "a-hem" that kept coughing
up in the background, of course, was the "Indian question '--what to do
with all the Indians between the Eastern seaboard and the Pacific Ocean--each
one a specific obstacle in the way of what clearly everyone agreed was
America's "Manifest Destiny." In his monumental work, The Great
Frontier, Texas scholar Walter Prescott Webb notes the four options
that European settlers enjoyed as they addressed the question "face to
face": 1) to intermarry with the indigenous populations, 2) to live beside
them in community, 3) to segregate themselves, or 4) to exterminate them.
Mark Twain, originally no "Indian lover," to be sure, came around to a
more favorable estimation of America's "red men"; he once composed in his
notebook an imaginary conversation between two army officers on the western
frontier: "Well, Sergeant, how many Indians did you all kill today?"--"'Bout
200!"--"How much you reckon that cost the gov'ment?"-- Oh, 'bout a million
dollars!"--"Heck, we could have given them all a college education for
that much!" In a nation where Indians were allocated a rung on the
social ladder lower than slaves who were accorded by law in some southern
states the status of only 3/5ths human, the French solution of intermarriage
was worse than the hanging offense of miscegenation between a white man
and his slaves.
While the horrific and systematic extermination
of the "Native Americans" continued unabated until the mid 1890's with
the last attack at Wounded Knee, a number of American writers championed
the indigenous people as they encountered them. One of the earliest
accounts in Mourt's Relation recalls the harvest ceremony
that lasted for more than four days in the Plimoth Colony, what many note
as America's "First Thanksgiving." Both Benjamin Franklin and Washington
Irving wrote favorably about Indian character, and St. Jean de Cèvecouer
speaks tollerantly of the Indian in his Letters from an American Farmer.
But the "romance of the Indian" begins with the Leather-stocking
Idealization of the "Red Man"
James Fenimore Cooper idealized the sachems
of the Mohican tribe, set apart from the depraved and blood-thirsty Iroquois,
in his five-volume series featuring the American nobel savage, Chingachgook,
and his stalwart white companion, Natty Bumpo, America's first fully developed
frontier hero. Cooper had had little, if any, direct contact with
Indians in and around the Cooper family estate at Otsego Lake, New York,
when he began to write about them. The two heroes were sagacious
champions of the right, that sense native-born to anyone who lives simply,
one-on-one with nature and nature's God--a Christian God, of course.
They developed throughout the five novels a cunning "woodcraft" which pulled
them out of scrape after scrape. In "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,"
Mark Twain lampooned Cooper's idealized red men who more than championed
mother nature, but rather seemed to be an extension of nature itself.
Savage vs. Noble Savage
The romance of the indigenous people of
North America was the elaboration of the "Noble Savage" concept that dates
to the eighteenth-century French Jean Jacques Rouseaux, who claimed that
people who grow up in nature, removed from the entrapments of society,
live a more pristine, if not more fully human existence. Traffic
with society, so the logic of the concept goes, necessarily compromises
away native human traits and natural abilities, what St. Jean de Cèvecouer
refers to as "certain constitutional propensities." In short, the
"Noble Savage" is an innocent who knows no evil and who lives his or her
life in an idylic state of natural splendor.
Hoxie Neal Fairchild (The Noble Savage)
traces the origins of the "Noble Savage" concept to the stories brought
back to the European courts by explorers, the celebrated appearance of
selected indigenous people in the same courts, romantic philosophy about
the "nature of nature," and the popularization of the "savage" as side-show
accoutrements. In time, the concept fed the utopian movements, like
Brook Farm and the Oneida communities. Thoreau, however, found a
compromise, as one must assuredly do, since few have ever found it possible
to live completely outside human community. Even Thoreau enjoyed
his occasional visitor to his cabin at Walden Pond where they would discuss
politics and philosophy for hours, and to sustain himself, he sold his
vegetables to friends in Concord.
The Literary Legacy
The "Noble Savage" flourishes well into
the twentieth century with William Faulkner's old Sam Fathers, half black,
half Chichasaw chief to whom the Sunday primitives come once a year to
repeat their annual, ritual hunt for the Bear. Only after Ike McCaslin
does what Sam his mentor, has taught him, only after giving up the flimsy
"mechanicals" of civilization--the watch, his compass, and the gun--will
he be eligible to meet the Bear--on its terms--and when it happens, the
experience is nothing short of transfiguring epiphany for the young boy.
Come to the wilderness and learn what, says Faulkner, is the only thing
worth writing about, all the "old verties and truths of the heart which
alone make good writing" . . . "without which any story is ephemeral and
doomed"--"love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."
Some of St. Jean de Cèvecouer's "constitutional propensities," no
Over the Readings
Philip Freneau’s Poetry
1) Cite evidence of the gothic and adventurism
in “The Indian Burying Ground.”
2) What suggestion of an emerging Romantic
motif is demonstrated by “The Yellow Violet?”
Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy
1) What two American folk types are featured
in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”? To which one is Irving sympathetic?
2) Be able to reconstruct a literary burlesque
found in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
William Cullen Bryant’s Poetry
1) On the basis of your reading of “To
Cole, On Departing for Europe,” be able to contrast European and American
2) In what ways might “Thanatopsis” (which
means a “study of death”) be considered unconventional? What features suggest
it as a Romantic poem?
3) What elements in “The Prairies” suggest
a Romantic mood? What is that mood?
Related to the Readings
Theory of Correspondence and "Associative Writing"
Romantic Conception of Nature and Spirit
Flowering of Romanticism: Sentimentality and the "Ubi Sunt" Theme
and The Noble Savage
Neo-Classical and Romantic Motifs
The Remote and Far Away
This page was last modified
on August 27, 2004,
and is maintained by
Dr. Geoffrey A. Grimes.