Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Lay of the Land

Full title: The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975)

Audubon's roseate spoonbill, looking very feminine.

Author: Annette Kolodny, professor of American lit and culture at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She got her PhD at Berkeley in 1969, and she was in the middle of a lot of student protest, which lends new resonance to the People's Park intro to this book. Wikipedia says that after Lay was published, Kolodny was denied tenure (at UNH, as far as I can tell...damn unclear Wiki language) and sued on the basis of "sexism and the violation of academic freedom" (she won). She now lists her interests as "issues of gender difference in responses to the frontier, with a special emphasis on multicultural confrontations on the American frontiers"; also "feminist literary criticism and theory and American women writers, especially the colonial period through 1860." Her second book is The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (1984). Her latest book is not one of literary criticism: Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century (1998).

Argument: Kolodny argues that the relationship between the American man and the American land has been persistently gendered in our language and literature. The land has been seen as female, and described as either a mother (a life-giving, pleasant presence) or a sexual paramour (a "virgin" ready to be fertilized). Because of this, American men are caught in a double bind. If the land is your mother, and is prepared to deliver you into a pre-adolescent pastoral state where all your needs are met, then how could you plow/mine/dam/develop her body? If the land is a virgin, waiting to be fertilized, then how could you deny her the plowing/damming/mining/developing that she desires? The conflict between these two masculine imperatives creates a sense of guilt in the male psyche, and that guilt leads to ever-more destructive actions.

Kolodny is specifically politically motivated - she is an environmentalist, seeking to create new ways of relating to the land in order to change actions. She believes that this metaphor is not just literary, but controls daily life and creates ideologies which have real effects on events. Thus, she believes that we must choose between "allowing our responses to this continent to continue in the service of outmoded and demonstrably dangerous image patterns, or [placing] our biologically - and psychologically - based 'yearnings for paradise' at the disposal of potentially healthier (that is, survival-oriented) and alternate symbolizing or image systems" (159).

Germans love Leatherstocking. What does that do to this argument?

Engages with: Kolodny was a student of Henry Nash Smith (Virgin Land) at Berkeley; she engages directly with Leo Marx (Machine in the Garden) over the dead body of Robert Beverly (K. believes that Marx doesn't see that "pastoral is not a habit of mind, but a habit of action" [16]); she cites RWB Lewis' The American Adam; she says that a lot of her thought - but not all! - could be traced to Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955). Most of all, K. returns over and over again to a book by Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970), which was apparently a Freudian analysis of the topic.


Surveying the Virgin Land: The Documents of Exploration and Colonization, 1500-1740:
Early colonists displayed a range of attitudes toward the land-as-woman. Some saw "her" as treacherous; some as a virgin waiting for her lover; some as a despoiled woman who had been treated badly by the first to arrive. Thus, "the new American continent had become the focus for both personalized and transpersonalized...expressions of filial homage and erotic desire" (22). Works cited: diaries and tracts of Robert Beverly, John Peter Purry, William Byrd, the "Planters Plea" (the 1630 complaint of a bunch of Georgia planters who thought that they had been sold a bill of goods by the transatlantic publicity about America), John Woolman.

Laying Waste Her Fields of Plenty: The Eighteenth Century: In this century, agriculture and the image of the yeoman farmer created "inevitable tension between the initial urge to return to, and join passively with, a maternal landscape and the consequent impulse to master and act upon that same femininity" (27). A short analysis of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) forms the foreshadowing intro.

The Visionary Line: The Poetry of Philip Freneau: K. then discusses Philip Freneau, who she sees as a liminal figure who swung back and forth between celebrating the maternal/pastoral of the "new world" and fretting about the harbingers of destruction he saw in men's actions toward the land.

The Dubious Pleasures of an American Farmer: Crevecouer's Letters and Sketches: The second part of the section deals with J. Hector St. John de Crevecour's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (1811). K. sees JHSJC's works as evidence of the conflict between the yeoman ideal and the actuality of American society. Speaking against those who have called JHSJC's later "Letters", such as the "dying slave" letter or the episode in which Farmer James is forced to leave his farm, as anomalies, K. locates the center of JHSJC's ambivalence and worry about the future of pastoralism in these violent interludes. K. says that Farmer James sees that "the total female matrix of attraction and satisfaction" (in agriculture, for example) "offers not only protection and nurture, but also arouses sexuality and the desire for exclusive possession" (in the frontier-dwellers or hunters who wish to live far away from their neighbors, for example) (58).

J. Hector St. John de Crevecour.

Singing her Past and Singing her Praises: The Nineteenth Century: Emigration continued the story, with the "American literary imagination forced to choose between a landscape that at once promised total gratifications in return for passive and even filial responses and yet, also, apparently tempted, even invited, the more active responses of impregnation, alteration, and possession" (71).

"The Country as it Oughtta Be": John James Audubon: In this chapter, K. first analyzes Audubon's Delineations of American Scenery and Character, a book of sketches (literary, not artistic!) which was finally published posthumously in 1926. Audubon's conflicted thoughts about the "opening" of America, combined with the destruction he himself perpetrated in order to complete his work (shooting birds, etc), make him a good example for Kolodny's explication of how these competing needs and desires were reconciled. In Audubon's case, K. writes, his response was to try to "stop time altogether, and preserve the static continuity of a soaring bird and a landscape 'before population had greatly advanced'" (88).

J. James Audubon in his later years.

Natty Bumppo as the American Dream: The Leatherstocking Novels of J. Fenimore Cooper: K. then moves on to look at J. Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, and particularly at the character of Natty Bumppo. Bumppo, Kolodny argues, represents the ultimate expression of the pastoral ideal: he is able to move in the life-giving wilderness with perfect happiness. But in order to do this, he must not only reject constant human society, but also stay pre-sexual by never marrying, and by remaining itinerant and non-agricultural, rather than forcing fruit from the earth. "Bumppo...was the first character in American fiction to at least promise entry without violation," K writes (104). Thus, his continuing popularity.

Every Mother's Son: The Revolutionary War Romances of William Gilmore Simms: The Southern writer Simms enjoyed "immense success in his day" (which is to say, the antebellum era), a success K. attributes to "nineteenth century America's fascination with its history and national identity" (115). Simms wrote both school histories and novels, and was crucial to the formation of Confederate identity. As for his relevance to this thesis, Kolodny uses Simms as an example of how the pastoral ideal shaped the South: "behind all the random historical data [growth of industry in the North, for example] the response to a landscape whose maternal embrace, once fixed and stylized on the plantations, was so all-enclosing, and apparently all-sufficing, that it defeated any possibility of progress or alteration, aesthetic or cultural" (132). This almost makes it seem like K. is blaming the pastoral ideal for the slave system, which I'm not sure she isn't.

A transitional section between the nineteenth and twentieth century chapters sets up the closing of the frontier as "the ultimate frustration," one which would be "finally expressed through anger", or the "singleminded destruction and pollution of the continent" (137).

Making it with Paradise: The Twentieth Century: This final section, which incorporates short analyses of Faulkner's "The Bear" (1942), the 1930 Southern Agrarian anthology I'll Take My Stand, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), and Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (1959), describes American literary imagination's continuing fascination with "the lone male in the wilderness," with a new strain of despair about the destruction that has been wreaked on the land.

Kolodny then moves into an extended theoretical meditation about the meaning of the metaphor, and the practical implications of analyzing language used to describe the non-human world. Here is where she gets prescriptive, calling for a new set of metaphors which might help us shape a less destructive attitude toward the earth.

Reviews: In American Literature, Russel Nye praised Lay for its provocative speculations, adding "One need not claim too much for her thesis, as she applies it to familiar materials, to discover new, unexpected, interesting insights." However, in the Geographical Review, David Lowenthal called her thesis "audacious but simplistic," described her interpretation of sexual metaphors as "literal and ahistorical," and then, to ice the cake, cited a sentence of hers in full, asking "Can anyone truly concerned about the importance of words write like that?" He then did an about-face to label the book "exciting and important" and to call for further study along these lines (using the writing of women - a project that Kolodny herself was to complete). In Signs, Nina Baym voiced the qualms that I also felt, which are the fundamental problems plaguing Virgin Land and Machine in the Garden as well: what is the relationship between these literary texts and "real life"? How did the people who actually performed the work feel about what they were doing? Baym also asked whether there were/are other controlling/dominant metaphors of the land (which Kolodny acknowledged there to be), and posits that one of these might be "the American continent as young male" (see: buffalo, Paul Bunyan, etc).

Other questions I have: how have the environmental ideas of more recent immigrants to the United States (aka, immigrants arriving after 1630!) changed this mix; how have ideas of the city/urban ecology influenced the metaphor; where do the economic imperatives of survival and questions of economic class fit into the question (surely, those who exploited the land for great amounts of money, such as the Hearsts or Vanderbilts, had a different attitude toward it than those who scratched out a living on the prairie...); how is this attitude "specifically American"?

New words:
objective correlative ("the physical equivalent or manifestation of an immaterial thing or abstract idea; spec. (and usually, following T. S. Eliot) the technique in art of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of symbols, which become associated with and indicative of that emotion"); transpersonal ("that transcends the personal, transindividual; spec. designating a form of psychology or psychotherapy which seeks to combine elements from many esoteric and religious traditions with modern ideas and techniques"); puer aeternus (Latin for "eternal boy" - Jungian concept); ergative ("a term used of a grammatical case marking the subject of a transitive verb in languages such as Eskimo, Basque, and some others" - come on, Kolodny); suzerainty ("supremacy").

Leads to follow up on: The Hakluyt collection!

Books to follow up on: Primary: Audubon, Delineations of American Scenery and Character (published 1926!); Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King (1959) (takes place in Africa); Mailer, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); Robert Penn Warren poem: "Audubon: A Vision" (1969); collective, I'll Take My Stand (1930).

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