Nineteenth-Century Southern Writers and the Tropical Sublime

By Lowe, John W. | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Nineteenth-Century Southern Writers and the Tropical Sublime


Lowe, John W., Southern Quarterly


The inland United States South for much of the nineteenth century was still a frontier region, despite the often rapid development of plantations and farms along river valleys. The great primeval forests, savannahs, swamps, and mountains constituted a natural world we can only imagine today, after decades of deforestation, agriculture, and urban development. Explorers and travelers were constantly awed, astonished, or terrified by the beauty, mystery, and menace of nature, and by its sudden eruptions of violence, through animals, hurricanes, floods, fires, burning heat, and bone-deep cold. The coasts, by contrast, were relatively developed, from Louisiana to Alabama, and from Savannah northward. The great exception was Florida, even though the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the nation was and is St. Augustine (founded in 1565); but much of the state remained a tropical wilderness, richly punctuated by marshlands and swamps, including the nation's largest, the Everglades. In this respect Florida had many affinities with Louisiana, whose coast was also largely swamp.

A key early writer who literally mapped the tropical South was William Bartram (1739-1823), whose father had preceded him in Florida. William, while continuing his father's Linnaean investigations, was also a gifted poet, whose language clearly benefitted from the sublime language of continental writers such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, who were revolutionizing modes of writing about nature. Burke (1757) felt that the sublime was generated by "whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a man analogous to terror" (36). Terror could be caused by the awe one feels viewing a surging ocean, a misty mountain peak, or by contemplating volcanoes or hurricanes. Sublime delight, however, is possible only when one views the source of the terror from a safe distance.

For Burke, the sublime may be beautiful, but mere beauty without an aspect of terror is inferior to the sublime. Further, "To make any thing very terrible, obscurity in general seems to be necessary" (54); the sublime, then, is the inexpressible, embodied in words that seem tangible but are actually incomprehensible, such as "heaven" or "hell." Kant (1790), following Burke but proceeding more philosophically, posits that formless objects - such as a storm at sea - require the operation of the sublime to be conceptualized. For Kant, sublime objects attract and repel, and thus provide "negative pleasure" (98); moreover, the sense of beauty, awe, or terror is not innate in the object but in the perceiving imagination, and thus not a property of nature: "We like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul's fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist . . . which gives the courage ... we could be a match for nature's seeming omnipotence" (120). At the same time, the sublime is crucial to reasoning, as it provides a vehicle for grasping the inexpressible.

As the example of the Bartrams attests, the conventions of European notions of the sublime found new registers in the New World, where classifications such as the Linnaean system had to be modified by naturalists exploring what seemed alien, if seductive, flora and fauna. William Bartram's reveries were tinged both with an Enlightenment utilitarianism and the religious sublime, as in this passage: "my chief happiness consists in tracing and admiring the infinite power, majesty, and perfection of the great Almighty Creator, and in the contemplation, that through divine aid and permission, I might be instrumental in discovering, and introducing into my native country, some original productions of nature, which might become useful to society."1 Bartram's concern with the sublime in the southern landscape and fauna would be echoed by the region's early writers, especially William Gilmore Simms and John Pendleton Kennedy.

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