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Romanticism set up opposition to the Neoclassic insistence on order and hierarchy by championing individual freedom through man's relationship to nature.
In an essay entitled "The Cultural Significance of the American Wilderness," Roderick Nash notes that early settlers in the New World were not Americans at all, but transplanted Europeans who regarded the land as a spiritual and physical void which had to conquered and civilized in the name of Christianity and progress.
Because it was an unknown entity with bizarre animals, unusual topography, and strange indigenous inhabitants, the wilderness represented a place where community and consensus would be put in peril by the total absence of European law, religion, and civilization.
And, as Cole scholar William Cronon has suggested,"in the lazy turn of the great oxbow--echoed by the circling birds at the edge of the storm-- we can make out the shape of a question mark: where is all this headed?
" The concerns expressed in Cole's painting reflected the debate among Americans.
To achieve our "manifest destiny," Americans had to create a pastoral middle landscape of rolling hills and prosperous farms, much like the terrain of Cole's painting.
Essay Of Man By Alexander Pope - American National Identity Essays
By the middle of the Nineteenth century, cities and towns were blooming across the east and the midwest, and people were looking for ways to ease the toil of cultivating and harvesting the American garden.
Early New England literature, art, and folklore presents the wilderness as the place where reason succumbs to passion and the devil can seduce and corrupt even the holiest in the community.
In other early colonies, particularly Pennsylvania and Virginia, the wilderness represented the Garden--a place to be tamed and cleared for the establishment of a human community.
When Frederick Jackson Turner announced in 1893 that "the American character did not spring full-blown from the Mayflower," but that "it came out of the forests and gained new strength each time it touched a frontier," his speech punctuated nearly three centuries of examinations into the American wilderness.
From Jamestown and Plymouth Plantation to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the subsequent expedition of Lewis and Clark, to Turner's "Frontier Thesis" at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the geography and ecology of the American continent was the center of debate among Americans.