Timothy Dwight, eighth President of Yale, traveled widely in the Northeast for more than 20 years before his death in 1817. His observations were posthumously published as Travels in New England and New York. For all its loose organization, pomposity and 'droning sameness' of style, the text reveals an extraordinary range of observation and a deep awareness of literary and philosophical approaches to landscape. In characteristically eighteenth-century fashion, he sees the aesthetic and the moral as inextricably linked. Travels constitutes a deeply tendentious and supremely ideological reading of landscape as Dwight seeks to refute the claims of condescending Europeans and reveal the supremacy of New England religion and culture, as guaranteed by freehold land and the properly regulated worship of an established church. Dwight's landscape ideal symbolically controls potentially irreligious and unruly people using several inflections of neoclassical visual aesthetics, including the framing and spatial bounding of the picturesque and the insertion of elite leaders in country seats and cities, marked off by signs of architecture and refinement. This fusion of the moral and the aesthetic amounts to an aesthetic disciplining of the landscape. In Dwight's text we also glimpse a distinctly Calvinist and Federalist landscape ideal, which differs in some ways from the symbolic landscape of agrarian republicanism.
Keywords: Timothy Dwight; aesthetic; landscape
Over the past two centuries elaboration of specialized aesthetic languages has dissociated the 'beautiful' and the 'moral' (Eagleton 1990) with profound consequences for our idea of landscape. To declare that a landscape is beautiful and consequently that it is morally good would be problematic in everyday discourse, where beautiful scenery has receded to the margins of life, to be consumed by the 'tourist gaze' (Baerenholdt et al. 2004). The aversion of positivism to both moral evaluation and subjective aestheticism has rendered it hard, and perhaps even embarrassing, to link landscapes and beauty in analytical discourses of geography (Smith 1992), while in contemporary landscape studies such a linkage is understood as an ideological claim, inviting analysis of the relations of power, partiality and exclusion such landscape readings express (e.g. W. Mitchell 1994; Cosgrove 1998).
At the end of the eighteenth century things stood differently. The ancient unity of the good and the beautiful ran through the neoclassical aesthetics of Burke, Hutcheson, Shaftesbury, Hume, and Kant (Eagleton 1990; Norton 1995; Cold 2000). Thus to take an aesthetic turn in elite or popular discourses of the time--to remark on beauty in a landscape, for example--was tacitly to claim a moral high ground, to imply that goodness was somewhere close at hand. In a specifically Calvinist view the connection was even more pointed, for might not the marks of election 'legible' virtue--be seen on the land as well as in the lives of people? And in a world under threat from infidelity, from democracy, from Jacobins and Jeffersonians, from unruly immigrants, cosmopolitans, disestablishmentarians and from the wrong-headed condescension of European observers--might not vindication and reassurance be read from a landscape which inscribed the march of improvement, Christian civilization, and an established church across New England and New York? Such was the hope of Timothy Dwight, eighth President of Yale, "moral legislator" (Fitzmier 1998), "crafty politician" (Lee, 1962), and "representative Federalist crank" (Grasso 1999).
Dwight was a Federalist, a theologian and authoritative intellectual voice in New England in the early Republic. His account of roughly 20,000 miles of travel between 1796 and 1815 was published posthumously as Travels in New England and New York (1821-1822). It constitutes one of the earliest detailed accounts of the post-Revolutionary landscape of the Northeast. The wealth of empirical information in this text has been exploited by Meinig (e.g. 1993), Schein (1991), and many other historical geographers, while Dwight's careful accounts of the physical landscape long ago caught the attention of physical geographers (e.g. Brigham 1914). The present object is to look at Travels in a different light.
Biographical, historical, and literary accounts (some of which we shall outline below) agree that Dwight's project was one of symbolic control, as he wrote out his anxieties and sought symbolically to discipline the messy, dynamic, democratic world of the new Republic to his reactionary, almost theocratic view of society, which was rooted in an idealized and selective reading of Puritan history. Indeed, although the text of Travels' is well-informed, wide ranging and factually reliable, the most striking aspect of Dwight's tone is his incessant, magisterial and moralizing 'appraisal' of the landscape. His reading and writing of the land, in short, is profoundly ideological. It is fundamentally a disciplinary construction of landscape which Dwight reads socially (affirming a social hierarchy deferential to elites), politically (in Federalist terms, opposing Jefferson, Democratic-Republicanism, and populism), and religiously (defending the hegemony of the established Congregational-Presbyterian church). Moreover, his writing draws heavily on pictorial tropes and routinely conflates aesthetic with moral judgments.
Despite the marginalization of aesthetics and morality in positivism, recent work in humanistic, cultural and theoretical geography has comprehensively reaffirmed the centrality of these dimensions to human understandings of place and landscape, thereby providing tools analyse texts such as Dwight's Travels. Thus Tuan (e.g. 1993, 2003) has been consistently concerned with the aesthetics of what we see and how we behave ('moral beauty'). In a more formal theorization Sack (1997) treats aesthetics and morality simultaneously as perspectives (points of view) and forces, suggesting that they operate in analogous ways in the constitution of geographic identity and place (p. 217). They are analogous, for example, in their potential movement along an axis from the local and partial to the global and universal, and in their potential to be articulated consciously in reasoned judgment and rationales for action, or to be naturalized as the unexamined mores and customs of a particular place.
For Eagleton and others, much of the importance of the aesthetic in post-Enlightenment discourse lies in its utility as a register of class interest, property relations, and social power (e.g. Bermingham 1987; W. Mitchell 1994). For example Eagleton places the aesthetic "at the heart of the middle class's struggle for political hegemony" (p. 3), an operation demonstrated in geographic terms by Duncan and Duncan (2001). In particular, Cosgrove (1998, 2008), Cresswell (2003), Olwig (2002), and D. Mitchell (2000, 2003) have drawn attention to landscape symbolism as an ideological product, unraveling the operations of reification, distancing, gendering and concealment inherent in the notion of landscape as it expresses group interests, but also functions as an active force doing work, as D. Mitchell puts it, in shaping individual and collective views of the world.
Some of this geographical work on landscape has dealt specifically with the world of the early Republic, showing how landscape aesthetics functioned simultaneously to represent and mystify the massive reshaping of landscapes in agrarian England and Revolutionary America (e.g. Cosgrove 1998). This paper is intended as a contribution to this understanding of symbolic landscape and ideology in the early years of the United States. Dwight's work is of interest to cultural and historical geographers concerned with this epoch because his view is so distinctly positioned in New England, in Federalist politics, and in Calvinist religion. As such it differs in its shadings and emphases from the landscape ideal of 'agrarian republicanism' articulated by Thomas Jefferson (whose thought and politics Dwight abhorred), which is the ideal most often addressed by geographers. However, an account of Dwight's work may be of more general interest to cultural geographers concerned with ideology and aesthetics, precisely because Travels is such an extraordinarily tendentious text. In its paradoxical straining between the old and the new, between Calvinist virtue and neoclassical aesthetics, and in its love-hate relationship with cities, progress and democracy, we can see with particular clarity the ideological work of aesthetics in constructing symbolic landscapes.
'Pope' Dwight (as his opponents called him) was a monumental figure in the secular and religious worlds of the early republic (Figure 1). His distinguished Congregationalist ancestry included Thomas Hooker and Jonathan Edwards. He was a formidable theologian and polemicist to whom David Hume, Deists, Daniel Shays, atheists, Count Buffon, Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution, southern slaveholders and the Hudson Valley Dutch were almost equally abhorrent. Although his family was torn by the Revolution, Dwight firmly cast his lot with the revolutionaries and served as a chaplain with Washington's army (Kafer 1990). He possessed extravagant literary ambitions, probably seeing himself as the first great literary figure of the new republic. The critical consensus is that his accomplishments qua literature came nowhere near his aspirations (e.g. Silverman 1969). It is a numbing trial to read his literary flights, which include a biblical verse epic The Conquest of Canaan (1774), an attack on skeptical European philosophers in The Triumph of Infidelity (1788), and a long pastoral Greenfield Hill (1794), which is a loving picture of his ideal landscape (but see Wells 2002).
For many years negative views of …