Civilization and the Wilderness -- Early American Literature
The collision of society against the wilderness in the early stages of the development of America was used often as a theme in early American literature. As "civilization" arrived in the New World and immediately encroached upon the natural world and the Native Americans who thrived in that New World there were stories to be told to reflect the conflicts and relationships that occurred. This paper explores the dynamics in the civilization vs. wilderness binary expressed in four stories -- Roger Malvin's Burial, The Pioneers, Hope Leslie and Edger Huntly.
Do "civilization" and the "wilderness" mean or signify the same thing in each of these four works?
In a general way, civilization and the wilderness do signify the same thing in each of the four works, because no matter the different themes, setting, characters and conflicts that are presented, the man v. nature sidebar story is always either lurking in the background or is a main pulse of the story. After all, the American nation, as it pressed westward, encountered countless situations where nature held the better hand -- but the humans were bound and determined to conquer nature no matter the odds against the people. That having been said, the specific answer to that question could be "no"; because in each setting there are unique personalities and situations, hence the conflict between civilization (man) and the wilderness (nature) does not specifically signify the same thing.
In Hope Leslie, it is not hard to find other themes beyond man vs. nature, in fact an overriding theme in this work is equality (albeit nature and man are woven into that theme). The novel pushes back against the American idealism of a society that should exhibit equality between humans. After all, the novel suggests, there appears to be a sense of harmony in nature, why shouldn't there be harmony between the genders? If all humans living in America stand in awe of God and Nature, shouldn't both genders share equally in the understanding of God and nature and hence be equals in their humility? These are questions raised by the novel. But of course as to men's and women's status in the society at that time (1842) were nowhere near to being equal. Nor were the Indians equal to the white settlers, and an important theme of this novel relates to the removal of Indians (which Sedgwick supports), even though besides pointing to Indian massacres of whites, Sedgwick also paints a positive and sympathetic portrait of the Native Americans. When the Pequot princess Magawisca leaves at the end of the novel that, in effect, is civilization's victory over the wilderness (represented by the Indians). The theme cannot be ignored in this novel.
The Pioneers: The civilization vs. wilderness theme is perhaps more powerful in James Fenimore Cooper's novel than in any of the other three novels. The character Natty Bumppo (whose nickname is Leather-Stocking) personifies the wilderness, a place he feels comfortable in because he has lived alone in it for forty years or so. He dresses in deerskins, he can't read or write, he is a superb hunter, and being indoors with other Caucasians makes him restless, hence, his character presents the conflict between man and Nature. This is a different approach to man vs. Nature than Hope Leslie; in this story civilization has "wicked and wasty ways," Natty says. When Natty leaves after whistling for his hound, he leaves because civilization drove him away; he would rather live in the wilderness than accept the values of the society at that time.
Natty represents the freedom that comes from living in the natural world, and juxtaposed with the responsibilities and obligations of civilization (society), Natty's world looks like a refreshing place to be.
Edgar Huntly: Charles Brockden Brown's novel is so vastly different from the other three to be critiqued in this paper, the Huntly story is night and the others are day, by comparison. And yet the natural world is there to be conquered, and indeed Huntly prefers to wander through caves and other natural world places at night, adding nocturnal images for the reader's imagination. Although there is an ample supply of wildly crazy behaviors, reason (man) in this story usually happens in daylight, and fantasy (the wilderness) seems to be presented mainly in the dark. While Huntly is tracking Edny's path (Edny is presumed to be the criminal) his effort went through "a maze, circuitous, upward and downward," Brown writes (p. 23). It was necessary to "pierce into the deepest thickets, to plunge into the darkest cavities, to ascend the most difficult heights," all of which are the barriers to feeling comfortable in the wilderness (23).
Hawthorne's Roger Malvin's Burial: First of all, as to the natural world, at the beginning of this story the oak tree and a large granite rock are used as poignant symbols. Secondly, it is interesting that Reuben Bourne would promise to return to the wilderness to bury his friend Roger Malvin, then while failing to return to the wilderness (in effect, letting the wilderness instead of humans dispose of Malvin's body) to finish that deed, he actually does return to the wilderness years later to hunt for food but accidentally and ironically he kills his son -- whom his wife, Malvin's daughter, gave birth to. Perhaps Bourne is the oak tree because he is still alive and Malvin is the granite rock. Indeed, the wilderness themes in this story are quite different than in the other stories. In fact both Malvin and Bourne were attacked and seriously injured by Indians (wilderness). One of the main themes in this story is guilt, which Bourne experiences first because he left his friend to die and rot in the wilderness, then because he kills his own son near where he had left Malvin. The deeper meaning here is perhaps that the white society should (or does) experience guilt at what people have done to the wilderness (and to the Native Americans by inference). Hence, a very different kind of nature vs. man theme but nonetheless, that binary is powerfully apparent.
TWO: How do you account for the fact that this binary is such a persistent theme in literature?
First of all, in the early 19th century, there was no industrial revolution with all its machines and factories and social dynamics to use as a backdrop and setting; there was the just the beginning of an advanced society and for the most part America was a place where pioneer families were struggling to become comfortable against long odds. Sedgwick expresses this quite well on pages 105-06 as she shines light on why the Pilgrims originally came to the New World:
"…When they came to the wilderness, they said, truly…they did virtually renounce all dependence on earthly supports; they left the land of their birth, of their homes, of their father's sepulchers; they sacrificed ease and preferment, and delights of sense -- and for what? To open for themselves an earthly paradise? To dress their bowers of pleasure, and rejoice with their wives and children? No: they came not for themselves, they lived not for themselves.
An exiled and suffering people, they came forth in the dignity of the chosen servants of the Lord, to open the forests to the sunbeam…to restore man oppressed and trampled by his fellow…to replace the creatures of God
on their natural level; to bring down the hills, and make smooth the rough places…[and they saw] a multitude of people where the solitary savage roamed the forest…the forest vanished…the consecrated church planted on the rock of heathen sacrifice…" (Sedgwick, 1842).
While that narrative by Sedgwick does point to the juxtaposition and conflict vis-a-vis wilderness vs. civilization, it isn't intended to describe why man v. nature has continued to be a consistent theme in literature. But it surely has been an ongoing theme; for example in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, in Melville's Moby Dick, -- and in the movie "The Perfect Storm" -- nature is so blatantly fiercely presented as a theme it has more potential for drama than man vs. man in most cases. Man vs. man is predictable and usually associated with war or psychological carnage; but man vs. nature is not predictable in most cases, hence, it makes for better drama. Man vs. technology is a theme later in American literary history, and in the modern world there are ample incidents (most recently the tsunami in Japan causing man's great atomic creation, Fukushima, to melt down and spew poisons into the natural world, which ironically caused the earthquake in the first place) vis-a-vis technology, nature, and man; and yet civilization vs. wilderness / nature remains a theme that is constantly used because most every literature person can relate to it.
But even though society has come a long way since the 17th and 18th and even 19th centuries when the wilderness was truly a wilderness, the theme continued to play…