“It's sort of what we have instead of God.” This classic remark by Brett Ashley, a character in Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), epitomizes both the modern crisis of faith and our inescapable need to embrace either religion or some proxy vehicle of commitment to values beyond ourselves. In Ashley's case, the substitution amounts to a negatively phrased moral resolution. Her decision “not to be a bitch” is what she has instead, and what enables her to “feel rather good,” if not sanctified.1 Particularly since the Victorian era, other forms of surrogate religion—including literature, science, psychotherapy, and social reformation—have also competed for favor throughout Western culture. In America, though, no path for pursuing self-transcendence has seemed more enduringly accessible than the one leading nature devotees into the continent's own forests, fields, river valleys, and mountains.
By the nineteenth century, this preoccupation with American nature might be cynically regarded as a surrogate not only for organized religion but also for the contrasting wealth of material artifacts and prestige of high artistic culture attributed to Europe. Thus, Hawthorne complained in the preface to his final romance, The Marble Faun(i860), set in Italy, that his native land with its “commonplace prosperity” had no civilized ruins, “no antiquity, no mystery” comparable to Europe's and conducive to imaginative inspiration.2 Nonetheless, what many Americans of Hawthorne's era thought they still had to believe in and venerate “instead of ” all these things was American Nature, God's own plenty of undeveloped land on a scale of beauty and majesty unsurpassed in the known world. “I must tell you that there is something in the proximity of the woods which is very singular,”3 the French emigre writer J. Hector St. John