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The same old New World?

June 30th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Tex

Since the discovery of the American continent, Europeans saw the land I call home as the objectification of Nature, good and bad.  Coming to a relatively unpopulated region, the European explorers, settlers, and thinkers were faced with a lot empty land-space upon which their imaginations and philosophical principles were able to impose a number of interpretations.  Interestingly, a lot of those interpretations were positive, even glowing, as in Michael Drayton’s 1615 ode “To the Virginian Voyage.” He interprets the unknown continent as “Earth’s only paradise” where a “golden age” reigns and “nature hath in store/Fowl, venison, and fish,/And the fruitful’st soil/Without your toil/Three harvests more,/All greater than your wish.”

More than a hundred years later, the same optimistic view of the land had increased to the point of admitting something of religious enthusiasm that saw America as an Arcadia and New Jerusalem where the Golden Age of poets would find its manifestation in time, space, and substance.  Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s epic-esque (and laborious) commencement poem, “A Poem, On the Rising Glory of America” (worth reading even for nothing more than seeing how far college graduation speeches, and sentiments, have changed) paints a prophetic vision of American grandeur sweeping from sea to sea, and arising out of the fruitful interaction of American philosophy with the riches of the American soil.

The European tradition of viewing America as the objectification of Nature reveals something about European views of Nature generally, and the importance they placed on it as concept.  Thomas Hobbes and, later, John Locke based a good deal of their theoretical inquiries on a certain view of Nature and natural man.  By appealing to a supposed state of Nature which was prior to any historical accounts of human activity, these men meant to justify certain political and philosophical ideas for their own time.  Hobbes argued that the state of Nature was so wretched that it impelled men to enter into contracts with one another for their own preservation.  Locke argued that men in Nature, prior to entering society, were perfectly happy and peaceful until they began to greedily seek for more than they could rightly or justly own.  Each of these men, and a number of other European thinkers, appealed to America and various accounts of the native peoples living there to justify their theories.

The people who came to America and added themselves to the material from which an “American self-conscious” would be formed came for a variety of different reasons.  There were explorers, missionaries, religious dissidents, merchants, and philosophers, and they all, no doubt came for a number of reasons.  However, as different as their reasons were for coming, they all had grown up in societies that had been shaped and effected by a strong emphasis on Nature as ideal that must be accounted for and dealt with in some manner.  To some, Nature was an unmitigated good while others saw it as being hardly distinct from chaos.  With these views behind them, the individuals in America responded to the wilderness they found themselves in varying ways.  History records that the majority of those who came sought to impose some semblance of order on the wilderness and attempted to cultivate its resources for their own benefit.  It is in this way, through the daily interaction with Nature (at times a struggle, at times a delight) that the American self-conscious was shaped.

For Brackenridge, like Drayton before him, the riches of America were to be found in the garden-like properties of her uncultivated land.  The prospect of a luxurious and benevolent Nature in need of the civilizing hand of a wise gardener, inflamed the imaginations of many Europeans traveling to the New World.  Hoping for the confluence of a wise and rational philosophy exercised in harmony with a pastoral countryside, many new Americans saw themselves as master-gardeners and benevolent cultivators of a new civilization.

People who are searching for a better life (as many of the Europeans in America were, albeit according to varying definitions of “better life”) are, by their actions, casting judgment on their previous way of living.  If life in America was better because more natural, they no doubt objected to the highly unnatural mode of life in European cities.  If life in America was better because free, they no doubt objected to the the worldly influences of unjust rulers in European countries.  If life in America was better because of its commercial potential, they no doubt objected to the limits of the markets they were leaving behind.  While the specifics of the good life were disputed among the people who settled America, they had this in common: they wanted to find, establish, and enjoy the good life in a way that they had been unable to in Europe.  Understanding America as the objectification of Nature motivated the settlers to alternatively tame or cultivate the land (and people) they encountered.  Their successes and failures in these projects exerted a heavy influence on the way they viewed themselves, America, and their hopes for the future.

I leave it to Mere O readers to weigh in on the ways such initial optimism has shaped the American identity.  Was the New World really new or were Americans bound to recognize the same old, same Old World over time?  And what has happened to the pastoral view of America as a garden of paradise?  Have we lost this impulse in our thought and practice altogether?