Goodness, Beauty, and the Aesthetics of Discipline in Timothy Dwight's Landscapes

By Pipkin, John S. | Journal of Cultural Geography, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Goodness, Beauty, and the Aesthetics of Discipline in Timothy Dwight's Landscapes


Pipkin, John S., Journal of Cultural Geography


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

Introduction

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. …

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