In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx chronicled how the American literary tradition responded to the advent of Industrial Age machinery throughout the nineteenth century. The reaction was ambiguous. The arrival of the machine was framed by the pastoral ideal that represented America as a garden positioned precariously between the wilderness and civilization. For some, the appearance of the machine heralded the dissolution of the garden. For others, the machine was to be assimilated into the garden. Most, however, seem to have cared little for the garden.
In “The Celestial Railroad,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s revisiting of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrims rode a railroad in ease foregoing the travails of Christian’s journey. To their dismay they discover in the end that the railroad brought them not to the gates of the Celestial City, but to its infernal opposite instead. More likely than not, Hawthorne’s readers would have taken a more sanguine, if not downright utopian view of the railroad. A view not unlike that depicted in John Gast’s “American Progress” in which the railroad appears as an emblem of progress and empire.
John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)
These conflicting perspectives on technology and its place in American society run straight through the nineteenth century, across the twentieth, and into the twenty-first. Enthusiasts have consistently carried the day, but the critical counterpoints have never been insignificant. The contrapuntal tradition in Marx’s account was animated by an ancient literary convention that assumed real-world significance in the American context. This tradition of pastoral or Arcadian criticism sought to mitigate the perceived ills occasioned by the unbridled advance of civilization without advocating a return to the wilderness. The garden was thus positioned as a middle way between two poles.
As such, the garden was dependent on the two poles for its identity, in particular it was constituted by an evolving conception of “wilderness” that has itself been shown to depend on the advance of civilization. Tracing the evolution of the concept of “wilderness” in American thought is the aim of William Cronon’s 1995 chapter, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”
In the opening paragraphs, Cronon makes the following provocative, counter-intuitive claim: “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” A little later on he adds, “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.”
Of course, Cronon is not making a claim about the facticity of the natural world. It is there with or without us. He is making a claim about the idea or concept of the wilderness in American culture. It is a concept with a history and, as Cronon notes, early on the wilderness carried very different connotations than those it picked up during the nineteenth century. It was first the howling wilderness, a liminal and inhospitable place that could evoke holy dread. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Thoreau could declare, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” A massive transformation had been effected in the symbolic value of the wilderness.
Cronon attributes this transformation to sources that he groups under the heading of the sublime and the frontier. Regarding the former, Cronon writes, “In the theories of Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, William Gilpin, and others, sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.” Consequently, it was both a majestic and inspiring place as well as a site of trepidation and dread. By the latter part of the 19th century, “the terrible awe that Wordsworth and Thoreau regarded as the appropriately pious stance to adopt in the presence of their mountaintop God was giving way to a much more comfortable, almost sentimental demeanor.” The sublime landscape was domesticated; it was, we might say, merely beautiful, picturesque. Cronon traces the evolution through the mountaintop experiences recorded by Wordsworth, Thoreau, and John Muir. Their moods differ, but for each the experience evokes a worshipful response – the mountaintop as cathedral.
The frontier and everything that it came to represent for Americans supplies the second set of associations that transformed the cultural value of the wilderness. In Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous formulation, the frontier was the crucible of American character. “Seen in this way,” Cronon explains, “wild country became a place not just of religious redemption but of national renewal, the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American.” Of course, Turner produced his thesis just as the frontier was closing and so the frontier myth possessed a nostalgic and elegiac tone from the start: “Those who have celebrated the frontier have almost always looked backward as they did so, mourning an older, simpler, truer world that is about to disappear, forever.”
The wilderness then was freighted with religious and national symbolism and it was constituted as that which was receding and withdrawing before the incursions of civilization. It was at this time that, according to Cronon, “ Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists.” These tourists
“brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled. For them, wild land was not a site for productive labor and not a permanent home; rather, it was a place of recreation. One went to the wilderness not as a producer but as a consumer …”
Cronon sagely goes on to observe,
“Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.”
“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated,” Cronon concludes further on, “could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.” The binary of wilderness and civilization, in other words, abandons the garden ideal altogether.
“To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”
As I read him, Cronon’s discussion anticipates more recent debates about the relationship between offline and online experience. It would seem, for instance, that wilderness dualism presaged digital dualism. Moreover, his critique of the early wilderness tourists raises important questions for those who would today advocate greater degrees of disconnection. See, for example, Alexis Madrigal’s sensible point in “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” and compare it to Cronon’s own question:
“Why, for instance, is the ‘wilderness experience’ so often conceived as a form of recreation best enjoyed by those whose class privileges give them the time and resources to leave their jobs behind and ‘get away from it all?’”
The remainder of Cronon’s essay raises further suggestive parallels and in the next post in the series I’ll take those up.
My thanks to Eric E. for pointing me to Cronon’s article.