The Land as Character in New World Writing: Some Initial Comments

John processing Nash

The keeper of this blog, processing–yes, let’s call it that: “processing”–Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, June 2015. Photograph by Megan Buaas.

In the Columbus chapter of the book project, I am at a place where I am trying to noodle my way through the idea that it is this hemisphere’s land’s There-ness, its resistance to being read in such a way as to conform to Europeans’ previous knowledge and assumptions about the world, that renders if not nonsensical then at least inaccurate not just Columbus’s claims that he had found Asia but, even, Europeans’ invention of the term New World–after all, Peter Martyr’s term in its essence simply says that this place fits neatly into what was already known about the world; Europeans just hadn’t known about this particular part of it before.  On the other hand, though, I’m trying to show that New World as appropriated by this hemisphere’s peoples does make rational sense because they do take into account, a priori, the land’s Thereness.  To that end, I have been reading/thinking through/writing a section in that chapter where I am presenting an overview of various writers and thinkers from throughout the hemisphere who in some way address how the land influences culture.  From there I’ll move on to making my argument for a different way of reading the texts of this hemisphere (that part is already pretty much written).  Very indirectly in this post on an early modern map of Tenochtitlan-Mexico City, I’ve already touched on this subject via my passing mention of Edouard Glissant’s argument about the land as character and my other reading of Latin American writers this summer has led me to other writers who seem to be saying much the same thing as Glissant without too much squinting on my part.  So, for the past couple of weeks I have been reading around in cultural writing from the United States from the 19th century, along with more recent interpretations of that writing, to see if somewhere in there might be traces of that same idea of the Thereness of the land and its fully-participant role in the shaping of culture.  The short answer is that, the Transcendentalists aside and much to my surprise, there really isn’t.

Below the fold, as I say in this post’s title, some comments; no real arguments, just some observations.  The more I think about this topic, the more I realize there is to say on it.  It’s not something I will pursue at any great length in the book project, but it will help me to enhance some thinking of mine in subsequent chapters–especially my discussion of Go Down, Moses, a novel in which the land figures prominently in Ike McCaslin’s thinking about his family’s history.

For some time, I’d been running into this land-as-character idea in writing from Latin America without really realizing that that’s what I’d been running into.  This, for example, is from a book I read a couple of years ago:

[T]he history of [Mexico] is an Aztec mirror of polished obsidian, which has the strange property of converting the rays of light which strike it into dark and confused waves and of turning images into shadows. –José de Jesús Cuevas, preface to Fortino Hipólito Vera, Guadalupan Treasure (1889) (in D. A. Braden, Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries, 287)

Aside from the strangeness of exempting Spaniards from this metaphor of Mexico’s history, there also to me seems to be an implicit commentary on the material nature of the mirror itself: its distortions of light seem to be caused by the obsidian itself, despite its having been polished by its maker.  History is not only the actions of people; it is also, in some ineffable way, shaped by the land on which those actions take place, perhaps in ways that we can’t entirely determine.  This sort of thinking appears in other guises in other Latin American writers as well.  I’ve already mentioned Glissant; in a well-known essay titled “Problemática de la actual novela latinoamericana” (“Problems of the Contemporary Latin American Novel,” 1967), Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier indicates that one of the contexts that shapes Latin American experience is “distance and proportion.”  That is, he is referring to how the natural world in our hemisphere is not mere window dressing (as he says natural settings in Europe are); he notes in passing that “the first American word that passed into universal usage, borrowed by the sailors of the Discovery, is hurricane” (my translation).  I’ll be rereading Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha’s Rebellion in the Backlands and Argentine writer Sarmiento’s Civilization and Barbarism, both of which have extensive commentary on their respective physical settings and the people who inhabit those spaces, to refresh my memory of those passages.

As I noted above, in nineteenth-century cultural commentary in this country there’s a relative absence of such talk, the Transcendentalists aside–and even in their case, the land serves as a kind of mirror in which, with diligent and patient searching, we can see ourselves and come to know ourselves more truly–think, for example, of the passage in Walden in which Thoreau says, of the pond, himself, and the book we are reading, “It is the work of a brave man surely, in whom there was no guile!  He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord.  I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?”  Thus, the land remains passive; it doesn’t really do anything.  Some twentieth-century critics, though, would see the matter differently.  In “Errand into the Wilderness,” Perry Miller argues, “The covenant doctrine preached [by the Puritans] on the Arabella had been formulated in England, where land was not to be had for the taking; its adherents had been utterly oblivious of what the fact of a frontier would do for an imported order, let alone for a European mentality.  Hence I suggest that under the guise of the mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization.”  Henry Nash Smith’s “The Myth of the Garden and Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis” first quotes this striking passage from Frederick Jackson Turner’s lecture “The West and American Ideals”–“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth.  It came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”–and then almost immediately rejects it: “Rebirth and regeneration are categories of myth rather than of economic analysis[.]”  (That last statement, by the way, is the New World’s dilemma in a nut-shell.)  By far the majority of the writing from the 19th century and earlier, however, treat the land as a howling wilderness or as a resource to be owned and exploited; it is almost always seen in human terms and not on its own.

So, why this difference?  Roderick Nash’s classic work Wilderness and the American Mind (I own the 3rd edition; I just learned this morning that a 5th edition was published last year) holds out the curious and tantalizing possibility that one reason for these different perceptions of the land, its is-ness, is a linguistic one: Wilderness is an English word with Norse and Germanic roots for which no exact equivalents exist in Spanish or French.  Moreover, “the root [of the word] seems to have been ‘will’ with a descriptive meaning of self-willed, willful, or uncontrollable. [. . .] Applied initially to human conduct, the term was extended to other life forms.  Thus the Old English ‘dēor’ (animal) was prefixed with wild to denote creatures not under the control of man” (1).  I don’t want to push this any harder until I know more, but I find myself wondering if the land gets written about in the U.S. in the way that it does because the language its citizens had available to them already predisposed them to see it in, ultimately, adversarial terms, as something upon which to assert their will and make their own.  (To paraphrase Nash here, the idea of wilderness didn’t come into existence until people had created the opposite of that idea by means of farming and domesticated animals.)  There’s also the fact that, regrettably, the English did not perceived the indigenous peoples they encountered as having settled that land–they were, conceptually, little more than wild creatures themselves.  By contrast, the Spanish, not having an exact equivalent for wilderness, and encountering, in Mexico and Peru, indigenous peoples whose cultural achievements were indisputable, were compelled to think of the land in a different way from the outset.  They do not deny the land’s wildness (see the Carpentier quote above), but their basic attitude seems to be to accept the land as-is.

So, I do not know why exists this difference in thinking about the land between Latin America and the United States, but the fact of that difference does suggest to me that it might be at the heart might be connected in some way between the rather different ways each region responded to interracial commingling (yes, yes, I’m broadly generalizing here).  I have already written more on this topic here than I’ll end up saying about it in the book project; at least now, though, some of it is out of my head and on the screen.


One thought on “The Land as Character in New World Writing: Some Initial Comments

  1. Pingback: Book-project Progress | Domestic Issue

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