The Depiction of North American Landscapes in 18th Century Literature

Seminar Paper, 2020

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Landscape as a Cultural Construct
2.1. Landscapes and Literature
2.2. Cultural Landscapes
2.3. Pastoral Landscapes
2.3.1. Landscapes in Traditional Pastoral Ideology
2.3.2. American Pastoral
2.4. Alexander von Humboldt’s Landscapes
2.5. M. L. Pratt and J. R. Stilgoe
2.5.1. Pratt – The Imperial Eye
2.5.2. Stilgoe – Shaped Land

3. Landscapes in Literature of the Eighteenth Century
3.1. Count Buffon
3.2 Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia
3.3. Richard Lewis - A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The definition of travel literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was fuzzy. Travel logs of scientists, explorers, colonists, and letters of simple farmers who used to observe the new surrounding world, were classified as travel literature as much as fiction which dealt which adventurous travels, diaries or poetry which described journeys, nature, the human interaction with it and the impression it left on the writer. Sometimes, even academic writers could not help but to write about the beauty or horrors of nature and attribute poetic traits to it. Landscapes, through out the course of time were experienced and interpreted differently. Travelers described them from historic, aesthetic and utilitaristic points of view. One of the most striking and prominent instances is the period between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. My observations and analysis will mostly concentrate on the eighteenth century.

This paper will analyse the perception of North American nature and its landscapes of eighteenth-century writers, explorers, and politicians in three different genres, such as poetry, notes, and travel logs. It will deal with the impressions by Count Buffon from La Histiore Naturele, Thomas Jefferson’s discoveries in Notes on the State of Virginia and Richard Lewis’ self-identification and satire in A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis.

The first part of this research paper will explain different theories which are necessary for the analysis of these works. The paper will begin with the creation of meaning which landscapes have in literature. Then it will continue with the theory of landscapes as cultural phenomena which capture human history in their every layer of development with the arrival of a new era. Especially important is the identification of humanity as an inherent part of this construct. Furthermore, the paper will explain the traditional pastoral ideology – a concept which most migrants from the Old World knew from their countries of origins and believed that it would benefit their economic growth and social virtue. American pastoral as an innovation of the New World colonies is essential for this research, as it aims at taming the seemingly virgin landscapes of Americas.

Further, it is important to examine Humboldt’s definition of landscapes as types of space and the role he assigns to humankind in their formation, recreation, and development. Humboldt paid attention to both nature and man perceiving nature as a whole, and humanity as a part of nature, meaning that there is no human free landscape. In addition to that, this paper will present the Eurocentric approach to the natural habitat in the colonies explained by Marie L. Pratt, which works well with the pastoral ideology, and Stilgoe’s theory about the creation of landscapes which necessarily involves human initiative. This theory, to some extent overlaps with Humboldt’s understanding of landscapes.

This paper will examine the concept of landscape in these three above mentioned works as a cultural construct applying these theories. The conclusions will be drawn based on differences and similarities of the respective observation of each chosen author. The question that is to be answered in my thesis is, how authors of travel literature in the eighteenth century perceived and interpreted North American landscapes.

2. Landscape as a Cultural Construct

2.1. Landscapes and Literature

Such concepts as nature and landscapes, which are present and studied on different levels in different academic disciplines are not restricted to their visual and physical appearance. Their meaning is created by more than their geography or geology. A landscape is a construct of our perception. Mere presence of traits that in common sense might signal the existence of a landscape does not mean that we are able to recognize a landscape. A landscape is brought into existence by ideology and a point of view which can be emotional or intellectual. Our assumptions are shaped by politics of our countries, our understanding of aesthetics and the utilizational potential. Depending on social class, education, gender and epoch, landscapes are experienced differently (Bending 1). Landscape is a “quasi-object” which can be interpreted, either as a physical place for living and harvesting, or as an imaginary object which is distant in its meaning.

When it comes to literature, especially travel literature, it transports more meaning than the mere description of the material environment can give. In order to explore the authors relationship to the landscape and the relationship he is trying to build up with his readers, we have to analyse the strategies and objects of attention used for a description (Bending 1). In this case we are looking at landscapes and perceiving them from the writer’s point of view. Robert Lawson‐Peebles has summarised it like as follows: ‘Descriptions of the environment are never merely empirical. They are strategies which encode the interests and concerns of the writers as well as the physical nature of the terrain, the climate, and so on’ (Lawson-Peebles 6). Thus, the landscapes we read and learn about are condensations of an extrinsic mindset, which differentiates between the physical appearance of a territory and its representational experience, which may be associated with such concepts as of nature, wilderness, and country (Bending 1).

In the eighteenth-century culture the field of nature and its landscapes is full of contradictions. It is a cultural construct, which is a product of random impressions at different moments in different societies.

There remains a powerful ambiguity in uses of the term ‘landscape,’ and that this ambiguity opens up for us some of the most fundamental ways in which a culture imagines both itself and what is beyond it. While it is tempting to imagine landscape as somehow “out there,” it is important to recognize that eighteenth-century accounts of landscape not only rely on the physicality and the metaphor of a point of view, but are focused sharply on the viewers’ sense of themselves and on their desires (Bending 2).

According to W. J. T. Mitchell ‘there is no vision without purpose [because the world] is already clothed in our systems of representation’ (Mitchell 38: 1986). Creation of a landscape might be then interpreted as the author’s self-representation which he constructs for his readers with a purpose in mind. Here we can speak of a cultural landscape (Bending 2).

2.2. Cultural Landscapes

The term ‘cultural landscape’ has multiple meanings, which, on the one hand, determine the diversity of research approaches, on the other hand, may lead to erosion of some of its meanings which have developed among archaeological, historical, geographical, social, aesthetic, and philosophical concepts. Nevertheless, the two most essential domains of this subject such as social and natural approaches, are constantly interacting one with another and continue to generate meanings. Every era has its own meaning which is important to it. Every era might be reinventing the landscape physically for socio-economic reasons, but every time it also goes along with processes of reflection, the results of which manifest in a compound of individual experiences and impressions, which are important, when nature is discussed. Thus, a cultural landscape is formed (Kolbovsky 1: 2018, Translation).

The reason why, authors write, and we talk about landscapes is that scientific approaches to nature create contrasting theories about them, which are not cohesive with each other. One theory states that our floral system lacks biological uniqueness as for its own existence or the ability to support human life anywhere on the planet. It is largely supported through Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, in which he describes the formation of Earth and its coming into being from a dry biophysical angle. The development of our planet would proceed according a natural course. He emphasises twice on the Greek philosophy which states that everything that comes into being does always come to an end and ‘perish’ (Engels). There are two problems with that. First of all, the fact that we exist, and our planet can support life as we know it, makes our nature unique to our solar system. Furthermore, as we know, humankind can only inhabit selected areas. However, these areas have to be changed in order to become suitable for living. As the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas at the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had altered their landscapes for their purposes (Deneven 369), so does every human society in every new era have to clean out vast ecosystems which are unsuitable for permanent habitation, making a landscape in which we coexist with nature unique as it suites one or few selected groups of humankind only. Each newly created landscape which is then inhabited by humankind is a typical landscape of a historical discourse (Kolbovsky 9: 2018, Translation). Knowing that, we may argue that human involvement in the course of live of Earth’s nature makes this nature unique.

As noted again by the University of Chicago professor William Mitchell, landscape might be not so much a ‘noun’ as it is a ‘verb’ because it evokes action (Mitchell 1: 2002), ‘[…] we may think of a landscape, not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but a process by which social and subjective identities are formed’ (Mitchell 1: 2002). Which can be interpreted as interaction with a landscape and an understanding process of a landscape by getting used to it and experiencing its environmental circumstances. W. Mitchell underlines here the dual nature of the landscape concept which includes a definition of a more or less stable environment and of a constantly changing cultural perception and interpretation of such environment. Cultural perception does not only have to change with a new era or society. It may well change depending on the physical perception of changing seasons, interpretation of visual changes as well as on the shifting self of the observer. According to cultural perception a landscape is almost impossible to remember and cannot be captured and reproduced for an audience entirely. There is always something that, either escapes the eye of the observer, or is being reinterpreted with a different mindset (Kolbovsky 9-10: 2018, Translation). Within the same culture or a social group, every individuum perceives landscapes differently. Each person has his or her own view and individual means of distinguishing and evaluating the input. Therefore, combined impressions of different people contain striking differences. There are different views on landscapes because different observers have different expectations and make their own demands on them. Donald W. Meinig suggested at least ten different variants of landscape perception. Consequently, we may perceive landscapes as a reflection of the forces of nature, thus referring to the concept of a virgin landscape; as a human made habitat, which contradicts with the concept of a virgin landscape; as a complete artifact, meaning that nature has provided the humankind with a clean canvas so that we have the authority to alter it according our needs; as a closed system that only functions when humankind interacts with it; as a problem, resulting in the discussion about how humankind keeps destroying nature; as property, transforming the landscape into a potential source for making profit; as a presentation of nature which comes into existence, when we cannot recognize human influence on landscapes; as an ideology which is an expression of cultural values, social structure, or a whole philosophy; as history which is captured in the landscape, a kind of palimpsest; and finally as an aesthetic value of the natural and man-made beauty that surrounds us and is opposed to the environment of a cityscape (Meining 34-46).

Landscapes have changed in a very significant way. The course of this change was set by human history. Landscapes as a medium which connects the past and the present, provide humankind with a sense of a ‘self’. This makes them ‘palimpsests’, which record each stage of human history (Meining 34-46). Landscapes that we nowadays find most valuable for their aesthetic or ecological features were once formed by efforts of many generations with a purpose of a better and less complicated living (Kolbovsky 9-10: 2018). From Deneven’s description of American landscapes we may deduce that this transformation takes place with the arrival of every new epoch. The aesthetic pleasure which we experience while observing a landscape can be interpreted as a forgotten utility, meaning that utilitarian objects from past eras become aesthetic in later ones (Kolbovsky 55: 1999).

For writers and readers of the eighteenth century, it was important and problematic to understand the ‘landscape […] as representational’ on the one hand, but on the other hand also as providing access to the concept of ‘”nature”’ which is one of the most indirect representations of the ‘world’ (Bending 2).

Summarizing these arguments, we can roughly define the cultural landscape. A landscape can be considered cultural, when human involvement, in its development, has changed the relationship and ways of interaction of details and natural phenomena so much that it acquired new qualities which are different from the original natural state. The cultural influence shapes cultural landscapes which we may consider as areas of sustainable development, achieved via realization of generational experiences in transformation of ecosystems and rational use of natural resources in the process of the collaboration of nature and humanity.

2.3. Pastoral Landscapes

2.3.1. Landscapes in Traditional Pastoral Ideology

The term ‘pastoral’ in itself comes from economy. A pastoral economy is based on domesticated animals. Resources for living and surviving are obtained by means of these animals. A pastoral landscape in this case, can be defined as a landscape which is being used to live in and prosper. However, in order to be able to survive and to harvest in a selected area, it has to be “domesticated”. As previously stated in this paper a selected ecosystem has to be altered to become suitable for living.

While the term is connected to shepherds’ lifestyle and consequently, agriculture due to its Latin etymology, its idea of mastering the nature reminds of early landscape alterations by indigenous people of Americas which have been taking place about two centuries before colonists learned to cultivate crops. Timothy Sweet elaborates that the creation of a pastoral landscape would be ‘the transformation of forest and prairie into a beautiful, agricultural middle landscape between the wilderness and the city [and it] could only be achieved by removing the original occupants of the land’ (Sweet 2).

While the nineteenth century paintings and literature show us ‘Pastoral landscapes [which] celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature [:]’ (Rabb)

The scenes are peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas, and fattened livestock. Man has developed and tamed the landscape – it yields the necessities we need to live, as well as beauty and safety. [Progressive pastoral settings also added for example railway lines] (Rabb).

we should not forget that the humankind learned to alter the environment according to his needs, especially for purposes of agriculture and animal husbandry long before the American pastoral politics.

2.3.2. American Pastoral

During the course of the seventeenth century the Indians were driven out of ‘the American pastoral scene’ (Sweet 1). However, they kept attacking and destroying the colonists’ agriculture. In a way they became a ‘threat to […] the colonial economy [of] North America (Sweet 1). Thomas Jefferson states in his Notes on the State of Virginia that an agricultural society is meant to support and stimulate ‘substantial and genuine virtue [and] happiness and permanence of government’ (Jefferson 175). In Jefferson’s notes, Leo Marx also found the tendency for the pastoral to drive the Indians out from the civilization, as they were and outnumbered by colonists and Jefferson was ‘not endorsing the Indian style of life […]’ (Marx 118-123).

The pastoral literature follows the dichotomy which was present in art. It split the subject in two focuses. ‘[W]riters sometimes acknowledged the initial presence of the American Indian in the landscape, […] like painters they generally focused on either the Indian wilderness (often retrospectively […]) or the white pastoral scene […]’ (Sweet 6). One of these two focuses was the Indian landscape and the other one was the white landscape.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Depiction of North American Landscapes in 18th Century Literature
University of Osnabrück  (Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft)
Asymmetrical Nature(s)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
depiction, north, american, landscapes, century, literature
Quote paper
Anton Schmidt (Author), 2020, The Depiction of North American Landscapes in 18th Century Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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