Nature's "cunning alphabet": Pastoral landscape and politics in nineteenth-century American literature

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Charles N. Watson Jr.


Nature, Pastoral, Landscape, Politics, Nineteenth century

Subject Categories

American Literature


In the middle decades of the nineteenth century pastoral and picturesque landscape scenery in art and literature was at the height of its popularity and influence in the United States. Not only were writers and artists engaged in the project of constructing ordered, pastoral landscapes out of the chaotic raw material of the growing republic, the language of pastoralism had infiltrated much of popular culture. Images of pastoral nature were as much part of political and religious discourse as they were part of literary and artistic practice.

Generally understood as representing, in the words of Leo Marx, a harmonious middle landscape in which social, political, and economic conflicts were happily resolved, American pastoralism represented in concrete images the social and political promise of the United States. Yet at the same time pastoralism was reaching the height of its popularity the country was faced with numerous conflicts that both questioned the meaning of the American republic and threatened its very existence. Americans wrestled with essential questions about national identity, the costs of economic progress, the designated social roles of class and gender, and the meaning of property--especially property in humans. Through literature, protest movements, experimental communities, and religious enthusiasm, Americans struggled to define just what was the nature of America.

Antebellum writers hinged their authority on landscapes consciously constructed both to naturalize and to critique emerging social practices. Rather than using pastoral landscapes to happily resolve or elide conflicts, writers deploy pastoral landscapes as rhetorical weapons in political conflict. They manipulate the conventions of pastoral discourse, locating their narratives in either pastoral or anti-pastoral settings, to create an architecture that enacts in nature their ideological positions. That the flowering of pastoral discourses coincides with the development of indigenous schools of landscape painting and landscape architecture is of signal importance, as taste in landscape emerged as a principal signifier for determining which social groups are best suited to participate in the political process. The political debates of the middle decades of the nineteenth century are an excellent laboratory in which to examine the use of pastoral landscape for the advancement of competing ideologies by restoring the dialogical relationship between the different social groups and the landscapes they produced.

The two contests studied here, while geographically distant involve similar questions about property, class, and power in a democracy. The Anti-Rent War in New York's Hudson Valley pitted powerful landholding families against the tenant farmers on their rent roles who were demanding more control over their economic lives as well as a permanent claim to the land they worked. The abolition movement challenged not only the belief that one can own property in persons, but the entire social structure that enabled a small propertied elite to exert control over the country's economic and political life. Both movements raised essential questions about the nature of property and the consequences of social elitism. And in both cases pastoral landscapes served as the touchstone of moral and political judgment.


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