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American Literature and Environmental Reform

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman. By Cecilia Tichi. Yale. $18.50.

Perry Miller’s greatest service to the study of American literature was his insistence that New England’s settlers, despite their thorny dogma and cloying self-righteousness, were, all in all, not that different from men of the 20th century and so could be appreciated by them. His massive and erudite descriptions of the “New England mind” stress not only the Puritans’ theological niceties but the incisive explorations of human psychology which were continued by such 19th-century writers as Hawthorne and Melville. Moreover, Miller’s achievement is the more impressive because, as much as he rode the crest of the wave associated with “the history of ideas,” his methodology yielded substantive results and has not become a mere period-piece like the efforts of V. L. Parrington and Thomas Wertenbaker. This explains why the best recent scholarship on Puritanism (for example, the work of Sacvan Bercovitch and David Hall) contains frequent allusions to Miller’s formulations, even if these studies are intentionally revisionist. But in the years since Miller’s death other scholars have given us a spate of works whose scarcely disguised purpose is to pounce upon what he “missed.” From the hands of Darrett Rutman and Richard Slotkin such books have emerged as genuine and necessary correctives to our understanding of and relation to the Puritan mind, but others of these efforts are merely strained attempts to make the New England colonists speak to currently fashionable academic interests.

Cecilia Tichi’s New World, New Earth unfortunately falls into this latter category. As Miller often did so brilliantly, she wishes to trace an archetypally American idea or image from its Puritan origins to the 19th century and beyond, but in this study her arguments for such connections are not overly convincing. Are we really to believe that William Bradford and John Winthrop concerned themselves with such an idea as “environmental reform”? Of course not, at least not in the way most of us will interpret the phrase blazoned forth on the cover. The reader soon learns that “historically” the reform of the environment has not meant “curbing industrial pollution, highway construction and the like,” but instead implied “aggressive topographical change, much of it thought to be “corrective” or “reparative” or a “refinement” of the natural landscape,” a description which could very well apply to any colonial settlement struggling for survival and integrity. Is the phrase “environmental reform” useful for more than the publisher’s promotional blurb?

Tichi believes so. Finding the prophetic Book of Revelation a stronger influence on early Americans’ attitudes toward the land than the more often cited Book of Genesis, she wishes to show how one strain of American literature displays a “driving aspiration to reform the New World environment conjointly with reform of the spiritual and political life of the nation.” Such an argument would, of course, offer partial justification for what the settlers did to the American land and its native inhabitants, and also might form an interesting complement to recent studies of civil millennialism in the new nation. But as Tichi works through the earlier years of her study, she often seems to present the Emperor’s new clothes: from the 17th century to the 19th she finds only two “major” examples to illustrate her argument. Rather than feeling the exciting tug of the intuitive line Miller suggests, for example, from Edwards to Emerson, Tichi unconvincingly splices bits and pieces from Puritan writings, asking the reader to hold this limp cord while waiting to discover how the works of Edward Johnson and Joel Barlow epitomize the ideal of environmental reform in early American literature and point the way toward Walt Whitman, “the Literatus of the New Earth.”

One major problem with Tichi’s book is that the reader never is sure whether her study deals with American culture broadly defined, as she says it will in her introduction, or, as her title suggests, more strictly with established works of American literature. Unlike Slotkin, whose recent treatment of the theme of regeneration through violence in early American literature already has become an established classic, in large part because of its comprehensiveness, Tichi picks and chooses so selectively among her sources that one wonders what has been left uncovered. To discuss George Bancroft’s vision of America’s millennial splendor in his monumental History of the United States, but not Francis Parkman’s equally important (and relevant) historical endeavors; or James Fenimore Cooper’s disenchantment with America’s course of empire, but not Herman Melville’s comparably bitter feelings, seems a bit specious. Even after the author’s clever stage-settings—how many of us, for example, have regarded Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence as “a literary meld of scriptural authority, civil engineering and technics”?—will the many readers who purchase this book because of its fashionable title remain interested enough to wrestle with Barlow’s works (Tichi even admits that The Columbiad is a “literary dinosaur”) to discern how this poet sometimes shared Johnson’s “convictions about site preparation for the messianic New Earth”? Probably not, especially when they grow progressively disenchanted by Tichi’s reluctance to bring them to more significant texts.

For example, Tichi is particularly interested in the relationship of the ideology of environmental reform (what she, following Lewis Mumford, often refers to as “technics” or “engineering”) to aesthetic achievement in literature. In her earlier chapters she claims that when authors were too concerned with the concept of environmental reform and its actual implementation, their literary achievement was not as significant as it would be, say, in Whitman, who “avoided the mimetic problems” of more “programmatic” writers by considering the idea of a New Earth as an evocative symbol rather than a social imperative. She includes Cotton Mather and Henry Thoreau in Whitman’s line of descent, but does not discuss an essay like Thoreau’s “Walking,” which, despite Emerson’s claim that his friend Henry failed to engineer for all America, has in its lyrical description of America’s topography more than enough suggestion of millennial expectation to warrant discussion in this study. Although he was not an explicator of the Book of Revelation, by his own admission Thoreau read more of the Eternities than the Times, and other of his works—especially Walden —certainly deserve the same space Tichi gives an early review of his, “Paradise (to be) Regained.” Similarly, her treatment of Mather stresses his paean to the city of Boston, Theopolis Americana (1710), more than the Magnalia Christi Americana; but after Bercovitch’s detailed elucidation of how the latter incorporates an elaborate sense of the meaning and destiny of America, it seems odd not to give it more extended treatment.

Tichi does show that here and there in American literature authors have regarded the New World as somehow connected to their visions of the moral and spiritual regeneration possible on the western strand—Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which she treats well, is an obvious example. But Tichi wants her thesis to seem as provocative and significant as Leo Marx’s in The Machine and the Garden, a book which, while serving as one of her models, treats the colonial background much more successfully, if selectively. Her claim that in America there is a “literary tradition urging programs of environmental reform” simply is an exaggeration, an attempt to catch the reader’s eye without providing enough argument to fix his attention as unalterably as Marx does in his study. If some late 18th and early 19th-century authors recognized that moral perfection might be attained more easily in an environment free from Europe’s seemingly boundless corruption, Tichi still needs to demonstrate more persuasively how these authors carried more than the usual intellectual baggage for their age, something she might have accomplished if she dealt more thoroughly with the information available in recent studies of the religious ideology of the Revolutionary and Federal periods, information which would have enabled her to trace how theological concepts were translated into the aesthetic sphere. Indeed, she is most successful when she discusses exceptions to this complex tradition, someone like Cooper, whose disappointment with America’s social failures led to savage attacks on American democracy in his later novels. Her treatment of Bancroft in the same chapter is not as successful, primarily because she does not investigate fully enough his connection to a millennial strain which has its roots at least as far back as Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins, two 18th-century theologians whose speculations on the Millennium were an essential part of New England’s cultural heritage.

Thus the book is flawed by its very cross-purposes. As the title suggests, the urge to “reform” the American land was profoundly rooted in theological imperatives; but because of Tichi’s desire to have the reader consider the embodiment of this idea in imaginative literature, she fails to delineate these theological connections with enough authority. Further, in struggling to establish an aesthetic of environmental reform in the colonial period, she sometimes forgets that, for many of the authors she discusses, aesthetic achievement was never as important as the “programmatic” attempt to enlist the rank and file in the cause of the New Jerusalem: the New Heavens always were more important than the New Earth. In the 19th century, when a secular millennium seemingly could be attained through technological wonders, a different environmental debate began, the one in which Tichi really is interested and in which the merits of swift technological transformation of the American land were hotly debated. But while she gives a succinct overview of the issues raised in this 19th-century dialogue (including arguments by such varied figures as the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and the pioneer environmentalist George Perkins Marsh), Tichi fails to persuade us that this debate was intimately connected to a tradition begun two centuries earlier when the Arbella landed on these shores.

The disappointment this book engenders is not attributable solely to the kinds of intellectual confusion noted above, but is augmented by such carelessness as typographical errors—no fewer than ten, including actual changes in type face—and sometimes strained diction. It takes a while, for example, to appreciate the precise import of Tichi’s statement that “At about the turn of the eighteenth century (1797), Freneau suggested in his verse, “To a Field Orator,” that the Puritan forebears’ cherished millennial doctrine was really the self-delusion typical of the ranting field orator blind to leonine human nature actually so discordant, angry, murderous.”

Even more importantly, New World, New Earth raises questions about the distance scholars will go to make the Puritans our very contemporaries. In Franz Kafka, Miller could find the same intellectual and spiritual problems encountered by the Puritans because the problems were indeed the same. One has more trouble believing, as John Seelye would have us in his Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature, that we cannot understand colonial America without acknowledging the almost mystical power fluvial images had over the settlers. Similarly, at the end of Tichi’s book we are asked to believe that somehow the modernist poet Ezra Pound and the Puritan militia captain Edward Johnson are united in a tradition which saw America’s topography linked to its moral and spiritual ascendancy. This might be so. But our assent to the proposition is about as meaningful as our saying that all we humans are literally brothers and sisters because we have a common ancestry in Adam and Eve. For many people Tichi’s oddly woven fabric simply will not wash.


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