American Literature to 1900: Reading Questions and Information

Reading Questions and Background

Friday 2/7/97

Location: [Reed College] [Department of English] [Laura Arnold][ Nation and Narration]Daily Readings

Transcendentalism and the Narrative of Nature

1. Readings:

Emerson, "Nature" (Also in reader)
Bryant, "A Forest Hymn" (reader)
Johns, Nature and the American Identity" (on-line essay with Art)

2. When Emerson began to think about writing his first book "Nature" in 1832 he envisioned nine chapters--a somewhat different format from its final 1836 version. Although he published the book at his own risk and expense, the book sold well and was met with critical acclaim (albeit some joking--see this cartoon). Amos Bronson Alcott called it "superior to Channing" and "a gem throughout" (Sealts 74). Thomas Caryle wrote asking in 1838, "More than one [person] inquires of me, Has that Emerson of yours written nothing else? ...I have lent them the little book Nature, till it is nearly thumbed to pieces" (Sealts 98). What chords does "Nature" strike in you?

3. In 1849 American painter Asher Durand commemorated the friendship of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole and American Poet William Cullen Bryant in the painting "Kindred Spirits" (unfortunately I can't find it on-line: if you find it let me know!). This fanciful portrait showed Cole and Bryant poised together on a rocky ledge discussing the beauty of the Catskill mountains. In many ways, the painting commemorates the close relationship between American Nature Literature and Artwork during this period.

4. Thomas Cole (1801-48) has been called the founder of the American school of landscape painting and was one of the leading figures in the "Hudson River School" of painting (a group of 19th Century U.S. artists who painted rural scenes, especially in the Catskills, after 1830. They focused on realistic, poetic and fanciful interpretations). Art historian Wayne Craven suggests that

What appealed to Americans in Cole's early pictures was the pristine, Edenlike wilderness that offered the world-weary soul a natural sanctuary in which to find God. Through a system called Associationism, established by several late eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers, a person could, while not knowing God directly, arrive at some knowledge of him through the contemplation of his natural works. One could perceive the glory of God in a splendid sunrise, his majesty in a great mountain range, his gentleness in a little wildflower, or his wrath in the violence of a thunderstorm. Moreover, the Romantic spirit thrilled at the awesome spectacle of interminable forest, high cliffs, and raging storms. An often-used symbol was the gnarled tree trunk, representing one of America's great natural antiquities--which Cole's patrons contrasted to the ruins of the manmade antiquities of Europe (Craven, American Art: History and Culture 200).

Please read Johns' on-line essay "Nature and the American Identity" and pay particular attention to the artwork of Cole and Bierstadt (another Hudson River School painter).

5. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was born in the backwoods of Massachusetts and began life as a strict Calvinist who was taught that "the Fall of Man had brought about the Fall of Nature" (Baym 808). What is the relationship between man, nature, and the divine in "A Forest Hymn"? How does this compare to Cole's and Emerson's views on nature?

6. To help prepare for class and the first paper, please write a one page summary of one of the chapters of "Nature." Briefly compare this chapter to either one of the paintings by Cole or Bierstadt or "A Forest Hymn."


Baym, Nina, et al. eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literture Vol. 1 , 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton, 1985.

Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Madison: Brown & Benchmark, 1994.

Minks, Louise. The Hudson River School. NY: Crescent Books, 1989.

Sealts, Merton. Emerson's Nature: Origin, Growth and Meaning. Carbondale: Southern Ill. UP, 1969.

Durand, Kindred Spirits
Pearse, "Transparent Eye-ball"
Click here to see a copy of the syllabus
url of this page -- Revised: 2/5/97
Copyright © 1997 Reed College