Nature as a Theme in the History of American Literature. Richard Wright’s "Uncle Tom’s Children"

Seminararbeit, 2012

20 Seiten, Note: 2,0

Dennis Schmidt (Autor:in)



I. Introduction: What is Nature?

II. Nature as a theme in American literary history
1. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
2. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)
3. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
4. Henry David Thoreau (1818-1862)

III. The meaning of some traditional natural symbols
1. The Tree
2. The Crop
3. The Violet
4. The Apple
5. The Snake
6. The Death

IV. The Role of Nature in Several Short Stories published in Richard Wright´s Uncle Tom's Children
1. Big Boy Leaves Home
2. Down By The Riverside
3. Fire and Cloud
4. Bright And Morning Star

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction: What is Nature?

“Nature is perhaps the most complex word in language.”1, declared Raymond Williams once. This statement is connected with Jhan Hochman's distinction between Nature and nature. He believes that Nature is a principle which is rhetorically useful and has often been associated with the “highly suspect realms of the otherworldly or transcendental”. In contrast to that, nature is an expression which can be understood rather literally, as it is a synonym for a collective of “individual plants, nonhuman animals and elements.”2

As one can see here the term N/nature itself is a very difficult and sophisticated expression. In this essay the focus will lie on the meaning of nature as our environment and surroundings. It will rather deal with different sorts of animals, plants, phenomena like night, day, sunlight, rain and others than it will concentrate on transcendence or the other world.

The essay will be separated in three parts: in the first part it will concentrate on questions like: how does it occur that nature is a topic which is so important for the history of American literature? Who were the most important American writers that dealt with nature as a main theme?

In the second part which will be rather brief, some of the most employed symbols which can be assigned to the field of nature will be presented.

And the third part it will illustrate that it is in fact possible to analyze literature concerning its natural aspects even if the text is not famous for its great employment of natural elements. The literature which will be treated is Uncle Tom's Children published in 1938 by the black modernist writer Richard Wright. This work is rather popular for its impressive demonstration of black life and the problems like discrimination, hunger and poverty blacks had to handle. So four short stories, namely Big Boy Leaves Home, Down By The Riverside, Fire And Cloud and Bright And Morning Star will be analyzed by first briefly presenting the content and subsequently picking different aspects of each story which have to do with nature and interpreting them and showing its role in the short story.

II. Nature as a theme in American literary history

In the following part of the essay nature as a theme in the history of American literature will be introduced. First of all one has to go back in history towards the settlement of this new continent or country called (North) America.

If a group of people, in this example the settlers, want to create a new existence in a nearly unexplored vast region such as it was North America in the 16th and 17th century, and they are encountered by such overwhelming natural expressions, it is obvious that the struggle of handling the new life by being dependent of natural resources in a country where they are the only human being except of some natives which they perceive as totally foreign, leave their marks in the personality and psychology of this people and their succeeding generations. This means that the settlers could not have rested untouched and unimpressed by this completely new experience of nature. The wide forests of nowadays Canada, the snow-covered mountain peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the vast plains of the Midwest or the sunny seaside of California, all that impressions are deeply rooted in the memory of each American. That is why it certainly has effected American culture which means philosophers, musicians and others and amongst them of course writers who use exactly these impressions to express their perceptions and thoughts in their works.3

“Something of these experiences emerges in the forest scenes of Cooper, […] the wooded hills of Bryant, the gloom of Hawthorne, even the brighter pages of Thoreau, though lightened there by the fields and pastures of a longer habitation.”4 Some of the authors who will be presented further down are already mentioned in this citation.

1. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

At first one hast to consider James Fenimore Cooper, an early 19th century writer of romance and “(…) convinced the world that the physical grandeur of America was adequately embodied in literature.” 5

Cooper, grown up at the edge of New York at the frontier where civilization stopped, where he just could see plenty of forest when he looked westwards, could experience the dangers of life at the verge of pure nature when he still was a child. Inspired by the spirit of the settlers, but also by the Indians, he used his genius to reflect and depict his natural surroundings by portraying the majesty of nature in his works.

The dominance of the setting which inevitably has to illustrate nature, had also an impressive effect to European intellectuals like Balzac who was like many others deeply fascinated by the pictures Cooper created in his works. By always depicting great scenes like “(…) the breathing stillness of the ancient woods […];unsullied lakes reflecting the image of fair islands and mountains and the moods of the sky […];the sound of waterfalls […] the calls of whippoorwills and wolves […] all viewed externally without passion without perception of detail … “ Cooper had the ability to make the reader feel the peace and happiness of that great nature the Almighty Creator has fabricated.6

2. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

Bryant, who also lived in the 19th century was a poet who was not only inspired by the Puritan view of the world who regarded nature a symbol of his transcendent beauty and his never ending power but also by poets like Wordsworth and add to that his experiences with nature in the solitary Berkshire country of his childhood. He described himself as a “ (…) delighted observer of external nature” who enjoyed the “glories of the autumn woods, the gloomy approaches of the thunderstorm, and its departure amid sunshine and rainbows, the return of spring, with its flowers, and the first snowfall of winter.”7

For Bryant it is true that nature affected his poetry but also that poetry made him interested in nature. If he had grown up in a busy city and not in the midst of nature and the great Pontusac forest his poetry would probably have been strongly unlike his Thanatopsis or A Forest Hymn. But on the other hand especially Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads excited his thrill for the nature which surrounded him. It is also necessary to note that Bryant published more poems with nature as a theme than any other poet in American literature.

Concerning the natural aspects of his poems one hast distinguish between his interest in earth, air and water from that in bird, insect and tree. Bryant was really some kind of expert concerning nature nearly a botanist because he used around 30 different species of birds in his poetry whose music fascinated him rather than their physical beauty and he mentioned more species of trees and flowers than any other author in American literature which is in numbers more than 30 different trees and more than 45 different flowers. Another important aspect of nature to him was wind considering the fact that nine entire poems are dedicated to an intentional tribute to the wind which is in his opinion the breath of God, amongst them The West Wind, Summer Wind, The Hurricane and The Voice of Autumn.8

3. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Whittier who was brought up on a farm at Haverhill, Massachusetts found joy in nature experiencing the contrast between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other side from the hill where the farm lay linked by the Merrimac River and its representing the countryside Whittier loved so much.

His life on the farm played a very decisive role for his poetry in which one always will find portrays of a farming country such as the “apple orchards of New England, the stone fences with their load of vine, the roads winding past small farms and ponds and glacial lakes, the brooks and placid rivers, the ocean gray in the chill fog or glancing blue under a summer sky.”9

Whittier liked it very much to sit at the seaside, watching the tides, and writing poems about the sea with all its facets: islands, storms, waves, beaches, and sailing, all these aspects occur in his literature and are cause for his popularity. But Whittier also dealt very much with flora in other words trees and flowers.

His most known works are Summer By the Lakeside, My Namesake, Monadnock From Wachusett and Questions of Life.10

4. Henry David Thoreau (1818-1862)

Probably having inherited his love towards nature from his mother the boy Henry David Thoreau used to explore nature in his childhood by walking through forests, visiting lakes and examining bushes, picking beers and watching Indians. Growing older, Thoreau gained some kind of consciousness for his addiction towards nature. He really tended to admire nature. Later on Thoreau was immensely inspired by ancient Greek and Latin writers such as Homer, whose Iliad had great influence on Thoreau's book Walden where he told the reader about his simple life at a lake. Thoreau, who was really an expert at the field of nature, could estimate the height of trees, the weight of animals or the temperature of water pretty exactly due to his lifelong fascination for nature but obviously also due to his natural talent for such things. Emerson told about him that he was a master in any physical activity: swimming, running, jumping or climbing, Thoreau was always the best he had known.

So Thoreau was also a naturalist who often concerned himself with the human body and its structure. But he also admired the Indians and their culture and can be described as a humanist criticizing the government's slavery politics, too. 11

III. The meaning of some traditional natural symbols

For Nature is a crucial topic not only in literature but also is symbolized in other arts one should have a look what different parts of Nature have as a meaning in arts in general. In the following some selected symbols will be presented and some of these can also be found in Uncle Tom's Children:

1. The Tree

The Tree as a plant was worshiped as a symbol of fertility and was linked with the cult of Mother Earth in the Middle East. But it is as well significant in Christian Mythology: In the Garden of Eden all sorts of plants grow. But in the middle of the Garden God plants the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The snake seduces Adam and Eva to taste fruits which have grown on the Tree of Knowledge and that is way mankind has to carry the aftermath of this guilt. 12


1 Cf. Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.London: Fontana, 1983, 219.

2 Cf. Hochman, Jhan. Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory, Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1988, 2f.

3 Cf. Clough, Wilson. The Necessary Earth. Nature And Solitude in American Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 5-19.

4 Cf. Clough, The Neccessary Earth, 15.

5 Cf. Foerster, Norman. Nature in American Literature. New York: Russell & Russell, 1958, 3.

6 Cf. Foerster. Nature in Amercian Literature, 5f.

7 Cf. Foerster. Nature in American Literature, 7.

8 Cf. Foerster. Nature in American Literature,7-13.

9 Cf. Foerster. Nature in American Literature, 23.

10 Cf. Foerster. Nature in American Literature, 20-36.

11 Cf. Foerster. Nature in American Literature, 69-143.

12 Cf. Impulleso, Lucia. Die Natur und ihre Symbole. In: Zuffi, Stefano (ed.). Bildlexikon der Kunst, Band 7. Mailand: Electa, 2003, 16.

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Nature as a Theme in the History of American Literature. Richard Wright’s "Uncle Tom’s Children"
Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Dennis Schmidt (Autor:in), 2012, Nature as a Theme in the History of American Literature. Richard Wright’s "Uncle Tom’s Children", München, GRIN Verlag,


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