Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

By John Gatta | Go to book overview

4
"Revelation to US"

Green Shoots of Romantic Religion in
Antebellum America

Surveying the Field

As the Erie Canal opened in 1825, painters of the Hudson River school were beginning to display impressions of the sacred sublime they had witnessed in American landscapes (see fig. 4.1). Religious feeling figures no less prominently in this period's writing, much of it reflecting an array of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction we are now disposed to view collectively as environmental literature. Such expression includes familiar poems by William Cullen Bryant, fictional romances by James Fenimore Cooper, and seminal essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Our attention in this chapter focuses on these three figures. To assess the greening of Romantic religion in nineteenth-century America one must, for example, take account of Emerson's famous statement of the case in Nature. I think it pertinent to interject here, too, a reading of Emerson's relatively obscure poem “The Adirondacs.” But all antebellum writing on green themes, a domain explored with reference to major and minor authors in the following chapter as well, culminates in the work of Henry Thoreau.

There are several good reasons why Thoreau continues to stimulate discussion, even beyond English academies, as the presiding spirit of American environmental literature.1 Not only the brilliance of his verbal artistry but also the reach of his philosophic imagination set him apart from the more prosaic, commonplace sort of naturalistic chronicler. For Thoreau, the accumulation of merely factual knowledge never offered sufficient ground for understanding the essential nature of nature. No literary figure of the antebellum era grasped more deeply than he what it might mean in religious terms

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