To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here. The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall. However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written. It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time. When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later. Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs. Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.
For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry. But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.
I’ve been gearing up to get some writing done now that the semester has ended, and while reviewing work on Cabeza de Vaca I’d written back in the summer, I found myself recalling some writing and thinking I’d done about the journals of Lewis and Clark from a long time ago. Specifically, I have found myself thinking how the Journals participate in a kind of writing produced in this hemisphere from the very earliest days of the Encounter, writing initially resulting from Europeans’ completely-unanticipated encounter with the material fact of the land, flora, fauna, and peoples (not only indigenous peoples but also, within a few generations, the bewildering variety of peoples of mixed race) of this hemisphere–a manner of writing, by the way, that persists into our own times. This is an idea I keep returning to in my work; no doubt that will continue to be the case.
A page from Meriwether Lewis’s journal for February 24, 1806. The fish is a eulachon, or candlefish.
Way back when I was still at the University of Mobile, I once tried to teach an abridged version of the Journals as part of a course on the themes of nature and wilderness in 19th-century American writing. At the time, I was struck by a dramatic shift in the rhetorical style of the entries: while the expedition is moving across the Plains (which, relatively speaking, was familiar territory for the expedition, even if only indirectly via the French), the entries have a staccato, just-the-facts-ma’am style to them. However, almost immediately upon entering the Rockies–land which no white man had yet seen–the language switches to a much more narrative style: the prose becomes, in effect, another map of the journey, another record of the expedition’s movement through space and time that had not been so necessary while they were still on the already-mapped Great Plains. In addition, the Journals have several pages like the one you see here: drawings of animals and plants and topographical features compete for space on the page with language describing it. It is as though Lewis and Clark felt that even the material reality of the various specimens the expedition collected and sent back to Thomas Jefferson, along with language used to describe them, did not suffice to convey the experience of these items. Frank Bergon, in his introduction to the edition I taught that class from, captures the style of the Journals well when it makes that stylistic shift:
Conventional rhetoric and cultural assumptions also break down as the facts of the actual country, animals, and native peoples of the West give shape to new forms of perception. Language itself has to be altered to describe a new country and its native inhabitants; words coined and twisted and adapted to the occasion in the journals produced the addition of more than one thousand new words to the American language. In gradually abandoning attempts to present their experience through conventional aesthetic forms and expressions, the explorers seem to let the wonder of the country and its incredible wildlife speak more and more through plain fact and events. (xviii)
The first-edition (1942) jacket for the novel Faulkner wanted to be called simply Go Down, Moses. Image found here.
It’s been a while since I have reported on my progress on the book project. I thought I’d use this post to both comment on that and to do some sketching out of some work on it I’ll be taking up over the Christmas break. To spare the uninterested, the rest of this post will appear below the fold. If you do click to read on, apologies in advance for some of the Inside Baseball quality of what you’ll run into.
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.