Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Weekly Reading Response #3

[Jay Jay]

Kolodny, Annette.  The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.  Print.

Chapters Read:

  • “Unearthing Herstory”
  • “Surveying the Virgin Land”
  • “Laying Waste Her Fields of Plenty”
  • “Singing Her Past and Signing Her Praises”

Annette Kolodny is amazing.  Amazing, and brilliant.  Her writing captured and held my attention the entire time I spent reading through her book.

In chapter one, “Unearthing Herstory,” Kolodny introduces her theory that not only did the New World landscape function as an object of domination and exploitation, but that it also represented land-as-woman.  Kolodny describes the consequence of such a metaphor as “the total female principle of gratification—enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose, and painless and integral satisfaction” (4).  This metaphor of land-as-woman contributes to “America’s oldest and most cherished fantasy: a daily reality of harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine” (4).  This fantasy is recorded in American history, via both our living memories and our literary products.  Kolodny goes on to describe what she thinks is unique about American pastoral—Americans look the pastoral metaphors as literal, not just literary truths.  In drawing together and then connecting literary and literal pastoral metaphors and experiences, Americans created an “uniquely American pastoral vocabulary” that captures and conveys the “American pastoral impulse” (8).  These two major concepts, that of the land-as-woman, and of the American pastoral connecting literary and literal reality, form the backbone of Kolodny’s book as she draws upon American men’s writings, both fiction and non-fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  (The fifth chapter, which Blake and I decided to skip for now, addresses the twentieth century.).

Chapter two, “Surveying the Virgin Land,” covers the years 1500—1740 and explores the language used by writers to describe the New World.  The language is highly sexualized but also split into a binary: filial homage/erotic desire.  Kolodny describes the distinction and creation of pastoral imagery in both the South and the North, touching briefly on the manner in which Southern writers managed to delete highly sexualized allusions from literature about the New World’s landscape.  New England attempted to “limit the scope of pastoral possibilities” in order to distinguish themselves from the dangerous “sensuously abundant ambience” of the South (19).  The writers believed that if their colony was painted as a perfect paradise in which no labor was necessary to flourish, they would only attract lazy, slothful immigrants.  In promotional publications from New England, a fine line is seen between recruiting immigrants with the promise of paradise and the reminder for the need for human labor.

Kolodny believes that the American pastoral contains inventible conflict: “that which is contained within the matrix of the feminine…must inevitably fall helpless victim to masculine activity” (24).  This pattern of a destructive masculine power overwhelming a vulnerable feminine matrix is repeated throughout American history and literary products (letters); the pastoral stasis cannot be contained because its components, the feminine matrix, is too volatile (24).  The pattern can be pulled from both history and our literary record because Americans tried to enact pastoral metaphors and imagery in their own lives, despite the inherent conflicts and tensions.

The third chapter, “Laying Waste Her Fields of Plenty” covers works from the eighteenth century.  Kolodny examines the ways in which Jeffersonian agrarianism is transformed from an individual’s fantasy into a cultural whole, as expressed in both history and literature.  The American pastoral paradox is a theme which Kolodny returns to over and over again in her book, pulling from a wide range of literature and history for evidence of the cost for American’s mastery over the landscape: our “emotional and psychological separation from it” (26).  Philip Freneau’s works connect America as a woman (such as Lady Columbia) to a feminine landscape, thus strengthening the land-as-woman metaphor.  Freneau’s works contain dual and conflicting pastoral imagery, switching between a cultivated Auburn (Arcadia) and a primitive and wild Paradise.  What is interesting about Freneau is that he challenges the myth of mankind’s rebirth in Paradise (the New World); Freneau, according to Kolodny, insists that mankind merely brought European corruptions with him to the New World, starting the inevitable destruction of the garden/paradise (51).

It is in this chapter that Kolodny addresses some of the major themes of American pastoral fiction.  One theme is the note of nostalgia for an “irrevocably” lost pastoral landscape.  The other is a romantic depiction of the landscape as nurturing and protecting human children, which references the filial relationship of the landscape as maternal, and humans as her children.  Kolodny mentions the device of the Indian persona, but I’m not quite sure if that’s an actual American pastoral theme or just one she found in Freneau’s works.

The pattern of a “primitive, passive, pastoral” landscape versus an “active, cultivated Arcadia” (52) appear in Freneau and other eighteenth century American works.  The works of Crevecoeur are described in depth by Kolodny, and I must admit, I’ve never read any of his works but now I am curious about the Farmer James persona he created.  What I thought of as important to take away about Crevecoeur is his fascination about the fraternal social community, which is highly idealized and linked to pastoral imagery.  The relationship between man and nature enables and fosters a civilized relationship between man and man, a “primal fraternal harmony.”  A literal understanding of what it means to be a “husbandman” is required in order for economic success in the Jeffersonian agrarian way of life—farmers, not hunters, are to be the backbone of American society.

However, all is not perfect in both the historical and literary worlds of the eighteenth century.  The “backwood settlers” present a threat in two ways.  One, the backwood settlers break apart family relations because they are hunters and often leave their families behind as they forage for game.  Two, hunters do not uphold the fraternal pastoral community itself, which then threatens the pastoral ideal of farmers working together as a community of brothers.  I think the third threat is the feminine aspect of their way of life, if I’m reading Kolodny correctly.  The hunters live on the edge of the frontier, close to the woods and in uncivilized settlements.

In Crevecoeur, Kolodny finds a growing ambivalence at what the future holds: “continued and unlimited cultivation” (64).  This ambivalence is represented in the pattern of the paternal deity versus the receptive maternal ambience.  The paternal deity stands for the activities of civilization in contrast to the maternal ambience of nurture in exchange for passivity.  The relationship Americans had (and continue to have) with the landscape is found through the themes of passive mother/feminine, and active father/masculine.  However, these relationships are shrouded in ambivalence, danced around, or hinted at—none of the writers that Kolodny has referenced so far will dare to make explicit the tension that exists.  Americans experienced and expressed contradictory experiences with the land-as-woman metaphor.  On the one hand, there is the “regressive pull of maternal containment” in which the mother demands passivity (67).  On the other hand, there is “the seductive invitation to sexual assertion,” the incestuous impregnation of the mother land by the masculine children (67).  Complicating matters further, Kolodny asserts that these contradictory images, both the Mother and the Virgin, were mentioned in tandem with the expansion and opening of new territory in the New World.

The ambivalence that Kolodny locates in Crevecoeur is strengthened in the nineteenth century, leading to a literature influenced and informed by “nostalgia and regret” (70).  The nineteenth century is discussed in chapter four, “Singing Her Past and Signing Her Praises.”  I’m going to skip going over in depths the readings from this chapter since I’m primarily interested in exploring the eighteenth century for my first paper.  I will say however that I found the chapter highly informative, especially as I’ve never actually read any of John James Audubon’s works (though I have of course seen his art work).  Kolodny also examines James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, and the Revolutionary War romances by William Gilmore Simms.  I’ve only read The Last of the Mohicans by Cooper, but I have checked out from the library Rural Hours by his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper.

While Kolodny examines only works by men in her book, she provides excellent informal guidelines for locating the land-as-woman metaphor in literature that can be expanded to women writers.  One of my goals is to find American women writers who contributed to this metaphor and/or challenged it in their own writing, either fiction or non-fiction.  Kolodny states repeatedly that Americans attempted to merge their literary pastoral imagery with their reality.  She urges critics to look at the daily experience of someone who pursued this reality of a “pastoral possibility,” which is what I’m hoping to do for my first paper.  Her example of Audubon is a perfect template, in my opinion, because he was an individual who did attempt to create and record a reality of pastoral possibility, and in doing so, recorded and left behind the contradictions and tension that resulting from his pursuit.  Wish me luck!

~Jay Jay

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