John Smith’s and Cotton Mather’s Descriptions of American Wilderness

In Chapter 1 of American Curiosity, Susan Scott Parrish writes that in the 16th and 17th centuries “the English began to mythologize the plantation of ‘vegetable gold’ as the more virtuous form of colonization once they realized that eastern North America lodged little of those precious minerals that had enriched the Spanish in Peru and Mexico” (31). Parrish also discusses colonial writers’ tendency to show provide a “portrait of painless ‘increase,’ never-withering greenness, and aboriginal peacefulness” as a way to attract new settlers to America and counteract “negative reports of starvation, disease, hurricanes, intemperate weather, and Indian massacres” (33). Although not specifically mentioned by Parrish, John Smith’s A Description of New England is an example of writing about nature that fits with the promotional tradition in the colonial period.

Smith conceives of American nature, particularly the sea and its abundance of fish, as an economic resource that surpasses gold and silver mines:

And never could the Spaniard with all his Mynes of golde and Silver, pay his debts, his friends, and army, halfe so truly, as the Hollanders still have done by this contemptible trade of fish. [….] But this is their Myne; and the Sea the source of those silvered streames of all their vertue; which hath made them now the very miracle of industrie, the pattern of perfection for these affaires: and the benefit of fishing is that Primum mobile that turnes all their Spheres to this height of plenty, strength, honour and admiration. (172)

Along with his emphasis on the great bounty of the sea, Smith also repeatedly evokes the idea of America as teeming with life, both plant and animal, that is perfectly suited to human needs and economic endeavors. The overabundance of life can be both a source of monetary wealth as well as a chance for a kind of rebirth through the pleasure of cultivating the land:

What pleasure can be more, then (being tired with any occasion a-shore) in planting Vines, Fruits, or Hearbs, in contriving their owne Grounds, to the pleasure of their owne mindes, their Fields, Gardens, Orchards, Buildings, Ships, and other works, etc. to recreate themselves before their owne doores, in their owne boates upon the Sea, where man woman and childe, with a small hooke and line, by angling, may take diverse sorts of excellent fish, at their pleasures? (176)

In contrast to Smith’s optimistic and promotional tone towards American nature, Cotton Mather, in Magnalia Christi Americana, adopts a more skeptical and bleak attitude about how America’s first settlers experienced the natural world. Juxtaposing these two writers shows how characterizations of American nature can shift so dramatically in just 86 years. For example his description of the early settlers’ reliance on the sea for food provides a bleak contrast to Smith’s effusive praise of the sea’s resources:

for when they were left all together without one morsel of bread for many months, one after another, still the good Providence of God relieved them, and supplied them, and this for the most part out of the sea. In this low condition of affairs, there was no little exercise for the prudence and patience of the governor, who cheerfully bore his part in all (636)

For Mather, the necessity of living off of the sea represents a “low condition” in which humans are brought perilously close to a savage, or animalistic, state. Mather’s writing here insists on the necessity of humans being separated from the natural world, avoiding the “temptations of that American wilderness” (636), instead of delighting in “ranging dayly those unknown parts” of wilderness (176). From Smith to Mather, American nature shifts form a source of adventure and economic profit to a place of temptation and savagery. This shift reveals an underlying change in the amount of agency and authority each writer invests in the natural world. For Smith, nature was simply an ever increasing and self-replenishing resource waiting to be used by humans, a conception of nature that does not allow for much agency. In contrast, Mather’s concern about the temptations of American wilderness suggests that nature is imbued with a certain amount of power to affect and alter human bodies (a point that Parrish takes up extensively).

Another significant difference between Smith’s and Mather’s descriptions of American wilderness is Mather’s preoccupation with language over the natural world. In discussing Mather’s Curiosa Americana, Parrish describes Mather’s “greater orientation toward language’s immaterial capacities for play rather than toward the material intricacy of nature’s workings,” arguing that Mather placed more authority with “the ancient Word, whether scholarly or biblical” than in the natural world (121). This primary concern for the Word over the world can be seen in the Magnalia Christi Americana. When describing the hardship of pilgrims, Mather’s first concern is that of language: “For them to leave their native soil, their lands and their friends, and go into a strange place, where they must hear foreign language, and live meanly and hardly, and in other employments than that of husbandry” (634). For Mather, the idea of being subject to foreign languages takes precedence over the reality of a life of hard labor. American wilderness posed a threat not just to English bodies, but to the English language as well.

Susan Scott Parrish – American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World

American Curiosity is an excellent and fascinating book that brings together an impressive amount of primary texts that speak to how people experienced and represented nature in early America. Parrish argues against the traditional assumption that the English “[created] modernity singlehandedly, whether in epic triumph or brutal domination” (23). Instead, she argues that “various peoples, issuing from around the Atlantic world, made facts about America in vexed chains of communication” (23). Or, as she puts it more succinctly in the conclusion: “Natural history in colonial America was a polycentric and internally riven empirical enterprise, rather than merely an imperial imposition of an abstract system” (315). While it is difficult to pare down my discussion of this book, as I found it so fascinating, so curious, I will try to focus on only a few particularly strong aspects of her book.

In terms of the book’s formal structure and organization, I appreciated how the early chapters set up a foundation of terms and concepts that recurred in all subsequent chapters, and ensured that the book felt like a cohesive whole despite its wide variety of texts. For example, in the introduction, Parrish makes the claim that, “in North America before 1800, almost all questions of culture circulated through nature” (20). She cites Crevecoeur’s “men are like plants” observation from Letters from an American Farmer as one of the more salient examples of the way this circulation occurs, but this claim runs throughout the book. It works to destabilize the nature-culture binary by suggesting that they are not diametrically opposed concepts but mutually constitutive.

Another recurring concept in the book that I found especially convincing was humoral theory or, as Parrish terms it, environmental humoralism. I hadn’t realized how common it was for colonists to be preoccupied with how the environment “had the power to alter and constitute” their bodies and minds.

Nature was thus not only understood as a potential stock of resources or a plot of property or as the new location of an old drama between God and humanity; it was also breathed in, drunk, eaten, absorbed under the skin, and incorporated into one’s faculties. (78)

I think this helps to explain part of what I thought was missing in Finseth’s argument. Parrish makes the case that early Americans were very much concerned with how the physical environment acted or impinged on their minds and bodies, and nature was not merely an inert backdrop. Furthermore, this underlying belief in humoral theory adds additional contextualization for previous readings this semester. Besides Crevecoeur (who Parrish discusses multiple times), Cotton Mather’s argument in “The Negro Christianized” about skin color and Allen’s and Jones’s description of bleeding patients as a way of treating yellow fever have can be understood through humoral theory. I also saw connections between humoral theory as Parrish discusses it and the current focus on trans-corporeality and concerns about toxins and chemicals entering the body.

I was also intrigued by Parrish’s emphasis of the material quality of natural history, and how letters and specimens functioned as the medium through which natural history was conducted and the way in which people presented themselves and gained identity and authority. Discourses of natural history were highly mediated by physical objects. As Parrish explains, “Because most colonial naturalists lived at a distance from each other and certainly from their English correspondents (whom they often never met), the letter and the shipped specimen more than the face-to-face encounter characterized the mediums of transatlantic natural history” (107). And while women, Native Americans, and Africans all had a certain amount of authority and agency, but it had to be filtered through specimens, letters, and people.

From plant to animal to Indian to white creole to the Royal Society, this piece of knowledge traveled, growing increasingly less secret, less liminal, less embodied, less experiential, and more authoritative as it went, yet paradoxically its authority was also tied to its utterly embedded “natural” source. (257)

Parrish’s analysis of how direct experience of nature went through several levels of mediation is interesting not only in terms of natural history texts, but the way correspondence networks created highly mediated systems of knowledge.

The last part of American Curiosity I want to touch on is the conclusion. By arguing that writers of the American Renaissance “failed to see the dynamic cultures of colonial nature appreciation and representation that preceded and, in many ways, anticipated them” (311), Parrish shows how natural history in the colonial period is a crucial precursor to 19th century American literature. This connection is made even stronger when Parrish talks specifically about the Cetology chapter of Moby-Dick and how, “much like British Americans naturalists since the late seventeenth century, Ishmael was working within local, experientially derived, and multiracial epistemologies” (313). In connecting her argument to what many critics consider to be one of the greatest American novels, Parrish points to the larger relevance and importance of her argument, and how literary scholars can situate her argument within literary history.

Diseased Bodies and Sentimental Wounds: Richard Allen’s & Absalom Jones’s A Narrative of the Yellow Fever

Philip Gould, in his article “Race, Commerce, and the Literature of the Yellow Fever in Early National Philadelphia,” analyzes the intertwining of sentiment and the capitalist market in texts about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic. He argues that Allen and Jones utilize the power of sympathy to claim their status as American citizens and meet “the challenge to established hierarchy through an African-American appropriation of the power of sympathy. […] The Narrative fulfills this argument by offering dual litanies of white selfishness and black benevolence, a structural design that enhances the claims for African-American citizenship” (175). Gould focuses on how Allen’s and Jones’s presentation of sentimental selflessness is predicated on economic self-interest, arguing that “the sentimental claim to citizenship (through selfless labor) is paradoxically premised on the self-interest premising economic debt. Indeed, debt produces such a claim” (176). In addition to this claim that debt produces a claim to citizenship, Allen’s and Jones’s Narrative also employs sentimentality (particularly the concept of sentimental wounding) as a way to claim citizenship. Allen and Jones utilize the horror of the diseased body and the pain of familial separation to generate sympathy from readers and reinforce African Americans inclusion as citizens in American society.

Throughout a Narrative, Allen and Jones emphasize the horrific effects the yellow fever has on the human body. The sick are so “loathsome” that even “nature shuddered at the thoughts of the infection” (8). Moreover, people’s indifference to diseased bodies is as, if not more, repulsive then the sick people themselves. In one passage reporting the conditions at a hospital, Allen and Jones remark: “The dying and the dead were indiscriminately mingled together. The ordure and other evacuations of the sick, were allowed to remain in the most offensive state imaginable. Not the smallest appearance of order or regularity existed. It was in fact a great human slaughter house, where numerous victims were immolated at the altar of intemperance” (9). Scenes like this provide a field for Allen and Jones to exhibit their sympathy for this outrageous treatment.

It also allows them to attest to the ability of other African Americans to feel a sense of horror and sympathy for the diseased body. When discussing the hardships the nurses had to bear when taking care of sick patients, they explain that “the patient raging and frightful to behold; it has frequently required two persons, to hold them from running away, others have made attempts to jump out of a window, in many chambers they were nailed down, and the door was kept locked, to prevent them from running away, or breaking their necks, others lay vomiting blood, and screaming enough to chill them with horror” (14). In this passage and several others in the Narrative, Allen and Jones demonstrate that they, as well as other African Americans, feel the horrors of the illness the same as their readers, and are apparently more feeling than many of the white individuals they write about.

Along with holding up the diseased body as a site of mutual horror, Allen and Jones also utilize the pain of familial separation as a source of sympathy that reinforces their status as feeling members of the American republic. In her book The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature, Marianne Noble argues:

In sentimentalism, readers ‘enter, as it were, into another person,’ not simply by imaginatively observing others’ suffering, in particular the painful interpersonal separations that to some degree or other are part of their own past experiences. Sentimentalism does not simply idealize the compassionate observation of another; it offers an intuitive and visceral understanding of the other’s fear and anguish. (65)

We do not just imagine or experience another person’s pain; such identification triggers our memories of our own past experiences, which allows for an embodied, “gut-reaction” understanding of another’s suffering. According to Noble, “sentimentality exploits the pain of that ontological wound; ironically, allusions to loss in this genre function as a unifying mechanism” (66). In the Narrative, this unifying mechanism validates the character and experiences of African American citizens. Scenes of mother and child separation, which exist as the predominant wound in sentimental literature, provide Allen and Jones with what they refer to as “several affecting instances” (18). They describe entering house and finding dead parents and “none but little innocent babes to be seen, whose ignorance led them to think their parent was asleep; on account of their situation, and their little prattle, we have been so wounded and our feelings so hurt, that we almost concluded to withdraw from our undertaking, but seeing others so backward, we still went on” (18). This first scene is then repeated twice more as they note “the distress of the child was so great, that it almost overcame us,” and “their cries and the innocent confusion of the little ones, seemed almost too much to bear” (18). Allen and Jones figure their emotional response to these orphaned children as a wound that threatens to overwhelm them. In fact, this wound seems of even greater concern than the threat that the fever will overwhelm and infect their bodies.

Furthermore, this threat is something that readers can feel and respond to as well; it facilitates a sense of community and connectedness in the face of these tragic scenes of mother-child separation as a result of the epidemic. More importantly, it places African Americans within the bounds of this sympathetic community, not outside of it (which was what was partly implied in Carey’s writings to which Allen and Jones were responding). Such a framing of the emotional and sympathetic actions of African Americans forms an implicit argument against slavery, which becomes explicit in the addendums included at the end of the Narrative. It is interesting to see how the rhetoric and tropes of sentimental literature, which would become so prominent in nineteenth-century anti-slavery texts, are put to such effective use in Allen’s and Jones’s Narrative, and filtered through the experience of diseased bodies.

Intertwining of Nature and Culture in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson writes in Query VI:

The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians therefore call them the white man’s fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlements of the whites. (79)

This knowledge of how bees and white settlers are linked necessarily changes how we read James’s love of bees in Letters from an American Farmer. Crevecoeur (writing as James) talks at length about his fascination with bees. His fondness for and identification with the bees demonstrates one way in which the American agrarian ideal rests on a perceived harmony between humans (read white Europeans) and the nonhuman world. James and his bees, however, also signify an invasive colonial presence that disrupts the existing ecosystem and its native inhabitants (both human and non human). The bees become harbingers of change, both ecological and social. They attest to the reality that it is impossible to entirely separate humans from nonhuman nature, and this inseparability can prove both advantageous and detrimental. Similarly, Jefferson’s Notes presents us with a several examples of how natural and cultural forces intersect and work in tandem to shape his idea of American identity. Two of these most salient examples are Jefferson’s discussions of animals in Query VI and African slaves in Query XIV.

Jefferson’s discussion of animals in Query VI is fascinating because he takes a seemingly trivial argument about which continent has bigger animals and invests it with national importance by attaching it to an assertion of national identity and progress. Early in this discussion, Jefferson, when wrestling with the distinctions between elephants and mammoths, argues that there exist innate and immutable differences between species:

When the Creator has therefore separated their nature as far as the extent of the scale of animal life allowed to this planet would permit, it seems perverse to declare it the same, from a partial resemblance of their tusks and bones. But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings. (47)

While he is speaking directly about mammoths and elephants, the logic here will be used again in Query XIV to support his argument about the fundamental differences between races. For twenty-first century readers, there is a clear and obvious difference between arguing about differences in species and differences in race. Jefferson, however, does not seem to readily distinguish between the two categories. In fact, he repeatedly refers to different animals species as animal races throughout Query VI.

Jefferson positions his concern with proving the size of America’s animals in response to European natural historians accusations of America as a land that causes degeneration. Instead of concluding his argument with nonhuman animals, he shifts his focus to arguing against the belief that America was a site of cultural or social degeneration. In Jefferson’s mind, the cultural productions of a society are the result of natural or biological faculties that exist in people. Articulating a stadial theory of human progress, he argues that America has not had the same amount of time as European countries to produce works of genius:

we might shew that America, though but a child of yesterday, has already given hopeful proofs of genius, as well of the nobler kinds, which arouse the best feelings of man, which call him into action, which substantiate his freedom, and conduct him to happiness, as of the subordinate, which serve to amuse him only. (70)

Despite this optimistic belief in human progress, Jefferson’s Notes displays a more problematic attitude regarding race. This attitude comes to the fore in Query XIV. In this section, he discusses racial difference in much the same manner as he does species difference:

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scar-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us, (145)

This confusion of species and race becomes more pronounced a few pages later, when Jefferson argues that blacks are inferior to whites:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. (151)

Jefferson evokes the rhetoric of natural history to support his belief in the fundamental and naturalized incompatibility of different human races. At the same time that he reinforces this innate difference, he decries it as “unfortunate” and something that he wishes he could change. But this is immediately followed by the intimation that, if the races were allowed to mix, it would be undignified and unbeautiful.

Whereas, in Query VI, Jefferson gives social and political significance to observations of animals and the natural world, in Query XIV, he uses nature to support his socially constructed beliefs about race. These two examples demonstrate how the categories of natural and cultural were intertwined, co-constitutive forces in constructions of early American identity.


[Page numbers taken from the Penguin Classics Edition of Jefferson’s Notes.]

Divisions of Space and Nature in A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black

In this post, I want to focus on the spatial divisions and depictions of borders between civilization and wilderness in John Marrant’s Narrative, and how it speaks to ideas about religion and race. Marrant’s narrative reveals an underlying preoccupation with spatial divisions; he separates the world into distinct areas: his home and other European American settlements, cultivated lands, woods, wilderness or “desart,” and Indian nations.

Each of these areas are further divided and segmented, beginning with Marrant’s description of a fence “about half a mile from our house, which divided the inhabited and cultivated parts of the country from the wilderness” (932). This literal fence separating wilderness and cultivated country stands as the primary marker, not only between white civilization and cultivated lands and wilderness and Native American civilizations, but also between religious persecution and religious freedom. The land just opposite of the fence, referred to as “the woods” serves as a sanctuary where Christianity can be freely practiced, first for Marrant himself (932), and later for slaves who were “obliged to meet at midnight in different corners of the woods that were about the plantation” to read the Bible (939).

The land beyond the fence is further divided: the religious sanctuary of “the woods,”  followed by a kind of borderlands/wilderness (Marrant at one point refers to it as a “desart”), and, beyond that, Native American nations. The borderland area that lies between “the woods” and Native American settlements can be distinguished from the other areas both as the place where Marrant struggles to survive off of the land and as home to threatening or monstrous animals. Animals only take on the role of monstrous beasts in this area of land. Both on his venture out into the wilderness and upon his return, Marrant is surrounded by wolves and must climb a tree for safety (932, 936). When he meets the Indian hunter the “dreadful animals” with “shining eyes and tremendous roar” are no longer a danger to him. This suggests that the crossing is dangerous; that there is something fundamentally incompatible between humans and the wilderness.

Beyond the wilderness/borderlands is the series of Native American settlements, which, as Marrant explains in the Preface, he “prefers the habitations of brutal residence to the less hospitable dwellings of enmity to God and godliness” (929). Throughout his narrative, Marrant moves progressively farther west, away from European settlements. “I began now to feel an inclination growing upon me to go farther on, but none to return home” (936). The series of movements to different Native American tribes takes him first sixty miles, then fifty-five miles, then eighty miles away from the Cherokee nation (936). As he is returning home, Marrant again measures the distance in increments: sixty miles, one-hundred miles, seventy miles, one-hundred-twelve miles. These spatial movements through nature and his tracking of them also mark Marrant’s spiritual journey; his spiritual journey is literalized in the land he traverses. This marking of the distance from each Native American tribe seems reminiscent of the way Mary Rowlandson structures her narrative as a series of removes. It seems that both narratives (Rowlandson’s and Marrant’s) invest physical distances across nature with a certain degree of importance.

Sagacity in Humans and Animals: Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer

Venerate the Plough

When reading Crecevcoeur’s Letters this week, I was drawn to Crevecoeur’s use of the word sagacity at multiple points in the text. I liked the sound and look of the word, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what it meant. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and found that it has a few meanings that would’ve been in use at the time Crevecoeur was writing:

“Acuteness of mental discernment; aptitude for investigation or discovery; keenness and soundness of judgement in the estimation of persons and conditions, and in the adaptation of means to ends; penetration, shrewdness”

“Of animals: Exceptional intelligence; skill in the adaptation of means to ends”

It was interesting to me that there was a separate definition of sagacity reserved for animals, despite the fact that both definitions seem to communicate the same ideas. In Letters, Crevecoeur uses sagacity to describe the faculties of both animals and humans. This flexibility or fluidity reinforces Crevecoeur’s understanding of the natural world and how humans and nonhuman animals fit within it. It also underscores the tension that runs throughout Letters, a tension between subjectivity and objectivity, between seeing the earth and nonhuman animals as objects to be dominated and allowing them to have their own subjectivity.

As the narrator of Crevecoeur’s Letters, James speaks of the natural world in terms of possession, ownership, and the need for cultivation by human hands. In Letter II, James ponders, “What should we American farmers be without the distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our best drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged spot. No wonder we should thus cherish this possession” (54). This passage also attests, however, to Crevecoeur’s belief in a physical and spiritual interconnection between humans and nonhuman world (plants, animals, and the earth itself) that allows for subjectivity for both humans and animals.

This is where I differ from Ian Finseth’s reading of Crevecoeur. Finesth argues that James’s scientific mindset about the natural world “reinforces a double objectification of the natural world, positioning nature as the object of detached analysis and as fodder for cultural commentary” (85-86). But is James really conducting a “detached analysis”? And is nature really “fodder” for cultural commentary? I also question Finseth’s choice of the word fodder, which implies that the original essence or character of nature is, at best, transformed and, at worst, lost when consumed or digested by cultural commentary. Instead, I would argue that, by making comparisons between nature and humans, James stresses the common kinship and connectedness between humans and nonhuman animals.

One of the first moments where a sense of connectedness and concern for nonhuman animals occurs is when James reflects on the rather mundane reality of eating eggs:

I never see an egg brought on my table but I feel penetrated with the wonderful change it would have undergone but for my gluttony; it might have been a gentle, useful hen leading her chicken with a care and vigilance which speaks shame to many women. A cock perhaps, arrayed with the most majestic plumes, tender to its mate, bold, courageous, endowed with an astonishing instinct, with thoughts, with memory, and every distinguishing characteristic of the reason of man. […] the sagacity of those animals which have long been the tenants of my farm astonish me; some of them seem to surpass even men in memory and sagacity. (55)

Going beyond the mere realization that his subsistence is dependent upon the deaths of animals, James imagines the lives these animals might have had. In doing so, he attributes to animals a level of consciousness and intelligence that mirrors that of humans. The image of nature is not fodder for cultural commentary. The subjectivity of the animal “tenants” impinges on and shapes James’s imagination and perception of Nature. Even the use of the word “tenants” suggests that James considers the animals as more than mere property or objects to be analyzed.

James’s observations, while scientific, aren’t as detached as Finseth claims. When relating his fascination with bees, James explains how after killing a crow (he’s careful to point out that he resisted killing the crows until they became an unavoidable nuisance) he rescues the bees he has eaten:

I killed him and immediately opened his craw, from which I took 171 bees; I laid them all on a blanket in the sun, and to my great surprise, 54 returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive, where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape as I believe had never happened before to American bees! (56)

James’s careful extraction and counting of the bees has the appearance of scientific inquiry. His motivation to undertake this inquiry, however, stems from his attachment to the bees (he says in the previous paragraph that the bees are a particular favorite of his). When the 54 bees are revived, the sense of surprise and joy James feels attests to his fondness for the animals on his farm.

The concluding scene in Letter X featuring the fight between two snakes bears mentioning here as well. James’s intense study of animals fighting brings to my mind the ant war Thoreau describes in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter of Walden. Finseth also draws a parallel between Letters and Thoreau’s Walden (although he doesn’t draw a comparison between Crevecoeur’s snake battle and Thoreau’s ant war). Finseth argues that “Walden actually serves as a revealing touchstone, for Thoreau more clearly, consistently, and self-consciously articulates an ethic of reciprocity whereby he recognizes what we might call the subjectivity of nature, that is, the idea that nature has its own integrity of meaning that transcends human definition or interpretation” (84). Finseth further distinguishes Walden and Letters by pointing out that James’s “sense of ethics involves his obligations to his fellow human beings rather than a reciprocal obligation to nature” (84). As spot-on as Finseth is with most of his analysis of Crevecoeur, I have to disagree with him here. James actually does display a “reciprocal obligation to nature,” that is at least equal, if not greater, than Thoreau’s in Walden.

While Thoreau anthropomorphizes the ants and draws overt parallels between the battling ants and humans, James’s description of the snake battle refrains from such sentimentality. Thoreau concludes his retelling of the ant battle by relating, “I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door” (188-89). In contrast, James’s concluding remarks about the snakes appears disconnected: “The victor no sooner perceived its enemy incapable of farther resistance than, abandoning it to the current, it returned on shore and disappeared” (186). While this at first might seem to confirm Finseth’s assertion that James engages in detached analysis of nature, this scene also shows how James allows nonhuman nature to have an agency and subjectivity of its own, rather than imposing human subjectivities on the snakes by anthropomorphizing them.

Constructing Knowledge from Religion, Science, and Sensory Experience: Cotton Mather, Jupiter Hammon, and Phillis Wheatley

In this post I want to look at how all three of these writers create competing and complementary epistemologies based around sensory experiences, religious belief, and scientific knowledge, considering the varying ways each writer integrated the natural world into their understandings of Christianity and their beliefs on race and slavery. In discussing these ideas, I will draw on my reading from last week, Ian Finseth’s Shades of Green.

Cotton Mather

Mather’s argument in “The Negro Christianized” concerning why slave owners should Christianize their slaves fits with the environmentalist explanations of racial difference that reinforced notions of racial inferiority and superiority (See Finseth 38-39). Although Mather takes pains to repeatedly stress that black slaves are human (“Yea, if thou dost grant, That God hath made of one Blood, all Nations of men, he is thy Brother too”), he couples this with describing slaves as “the most Bruitish Creatures” that are less evolved than, and therefore inferior to, white Europeans (who Mather points out are descended from their own barbarous ancestors). Mather’s argument about how the English are descended from the “Barbarous” Britons suggests that he believed at least to some extent in the idea that the human species had the potential to progress or evolve forward. Mather also uses an environmental explanation to account for variations in skin color of humans:

The biggest part of Mankind, perhaps, are Copper-Coloured; a sort of Tawnies. And our English that inhabit some Climates, do seem growing apace to be not much unlike unto them. As if, because a people, from the long force of the African Sun & Soil upon them, (improved perhaps, to further Degrees by maternal imaginations, and other accidents,) are come at length to have the small Fibres and Veins, and the Blood in them, a little more Interspersed thro their Skin than other People, this must render them less valuable to Heaven then the rest of Mankind? Away with such trifles. (643)

Taken together, these two ideas in Mather’s essay could be viewed as an early precursor (or at least bears an interesting resemblance) to Emerson’s “providential biology” or “anthropocentric developmentalism” (See Finseth p. 196). Mather certainly isn’t going so far as to advocate the same ideas as Emerson, which included “first, that collective human ascent would involve the mingling and eventual unification of racial ‘stock,’ and secondly, that racial union superseded national union as a means of realizing humanity’s full potential” (Finseth 189). Nonetheless Mather’s essay contains interesting glimpses at suggestions of racial fluidity, even while simultaneously upholding and advocating a paternalistic view of slavery.

Jupiter Hammon

Within Hammon’s prose and poetry, the recurring references to the sky and to different kinds of sight or vision illuminates how Hammon’s epistemology combined religious teachings and beliefs with sensory experiences of the natural world. Throughout his work Hammon makes numerous references to the sky. It appears that  this preoccupation might have originated from Psalm 103:11 (“For as the heavens is high above the earth, so great is his mercy towards them that fear him”), which Hammon quotes in “A Winter Piece” when giving evidence to prove “a principle of fear and love to God,” a principle that runs throughout Hammon’s work. Reference to the sky can be found in the following instances:

  • “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly”

“The bounteous mercies of the Lord, / are hid beyond the sky”

  • “A Poem for Children with Thoughts on Death”

“Their souls shall leap beyond the skies, / And live among the just”

“The Blessed Jesus rends the sky, / and makes his power known”

“Then shall you hear the trumpet sound, / and rend the native sky, / Those bodies starting from the ground, / In the twinkling of an eye”

  • “A Dialogue Entitled The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant”

“My Servant, Heaven is high above, / Yea, higher than the sky”

By emphasizing the physical and spatial dimensions of the sky (the sky can have things hidden behind and above it, the sky can be rent or torn), Hammon depicts the sky as a physical manifestation between humans and heaven that can easily be observed and contemplated, as opposed to a more abstract, metaphysical conception of heaven. A related comparison could be made with Hammon’s use of images of shores and seas throughout his work, which are given religious meaning and significance, but also represent the very real physical world in which Hammon lived (Hammon lived most of his life on Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, NY, in homes right next to the shore of Lloyd Harbor and extending out to the Long Island Sound). This integration of the natural and supernatural reveals how the natural world helped to vivify the theological underpinnings of Hammon’s writings.

Similarly, Hammon presents two competing ideas of sight or vision: one based on direct, sensory experience and the other on “seeing” through the precepts of the Bible. In “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York,” when imploring his readers not to trifle with God and the existence of Heaven and Hell, Hammon warns “It would make you shudder, if you hear others do it, if you believe them as much as you believe any thing you see with your bodily eyes” (860). He repeats the phrase “bodily eyes” in the next paragraph: “If you could see [the Devil] with your bodily eyes, would you like to make an agreement with him to serve him, and do as he bid you?” (860). Attaching the word “bodily” to eyes implies that Hammon deliberately wished to draw a distinction between earthly, physical sight and spiritual belief.

The “bodily eyes” contrasts to a different type of seeing that Hammon refers to in “A Dialogue Entitled The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant.” In a stanza spoken by the master, Hammon writes: “This is the work of God’s own hand, / We see by precepts given; / To relieve distress and the land, / Must be the pow’r of heav’n.” Here, sight is built off of the precepts of religious teachings and belief. Privileging seeing “by precepts given” lends support to Hammon’s belief in Providence and his argument that slaves should obey their masters and trust that God “in his own time and way” will make them free. Although Hammon clearly favors religious faith over sensory experiences, his reliance on metaphors that evoke the senses as a way of demonstrating religious belief inadvertently reaffirms sensory experience as central to the way he constructed knowledge.

Phillis Wheatley

Ian Finseth argues that imagination, in Wheatley’s “On Imagination,” “enacts a phenomenological emancipation that transforms the visible quotidian world […] by recreating the everyday world as a pastoral landscape […] to which the speaker envisions her escape” (69). Along with evoking the pastoral, Finseth writes, imagination “underlies the speaker’s cognitive relationship to nature: her intellectual ability to transcend the immediate material world and attain a superior vantage point from which to contemplate its secrets” (70). Finseth’s analysis of Wheatley’s poetry focuses primarily on one poem “On Imagination,” but his analysis proves insightful when applied to two of Wheatley’s other poems not mentioned in Shades of Green: “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England” and “Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” These poems combine Wheatley’s use of the pastoral with scientific and religious thought.

In Thoughts on the Works of Providence,” Wheatley blends this kind of scientific knowledge with a pastoral ideal of nature that “appears harmonious, fair, and good,” in which plants and flowers are “As clear as in the nobler frame of man, / All lovely copies of the Maker’s plan.” In addition to her engagement with pastoral imagery in this poem, Wheatley’s display of scientific knowledge, including astronomy and pathology, testifies to Wheatley’s human subjectivity by demonstrating “a capacity to master nature cognitively while responding to it aesthetically” (Finseth 70). In “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Wheatley blends scientific study (“mark the systems of revolving worlds”) with religious imagery (“ye sons of science ye receive / The blissful news by messengers from heav’n, / How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows”). The second stanza of “Thoughts on the Works of Providence” combines science and religion: “Ador’d for ever be the God unseen, / Which round the sun revolves this vast machine, Though to his eye its mass a point appears: Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres.” In these two poems, Wheatley isn’t so much transcending the “immediate material world,” as Finseth argues. Rather, she embraces the material world and scientific study as a way of unlocking the world’s secrets, which she figures in religious language.