English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment One-- The Natural World

Henry David Thoreau

The thematic focus of the literature assigned first two assignments of this course is the natural world.

This first assignment asks you to read works by five important nineteenth century writers: Philip Freneau, William Cullen Bryant, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Although Emerson and Thoreau are the only two of these authors usually identified as transcendentalists, in these works each author explores the spiritual and revelatory possibilities of man's interaction with the natural world.

Philip Freneau, known as the "Poet of the American Revolution," promoted the cause of the American Revolution and democracy in pamphlets and newspapers, but his poetry often expressed the pantheistic idea that God and the natural universe are the same. Along with William Cullen Bryant, Freneau's presentation of "natural religion" serves as a background for the major transcendentlaists – Emerson and Thoreau.

Philip Freneau

William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl" (1821), predates, and to some extent foreshadows, the work of Emerson and Thoreau. In this poem, Bryant sees an indication of divine guidance in the mysterious migratory patterns of the waterfowl. In "The Prairies" Bryant describes the American West as morally inspirational, an Eden "boundless and beautiful,/ And fresh as the young eart,ere man had sinned.

Emerson's "Nature" (1836) is the most important expression of the transcendentalist idea that the natural world can teach man to appreciate his union with creation. Emerson expresses this connection between individuals and all existence as "Universal Being" and suggests that humans share in the divinity of all existence: "I am part or particle of God."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walt Whitman (1854)

Whitman's poems describe the transforming power of a direct experience of nature. In "A Noiseless Patient Spider" he sees in nature a reflection of his own spiritual yearnings. In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" he extols the virtues of "mystical" direct physical experience of nature. The picture to the left shows Whitman in 1854 at the age of 35. The following year, Emerson read Whitman's Leaves of Grass and wrote the young, unknown author a letter in which he praised Whitman's "free and brave thought" and predicted that the book marked "the beginning of a great career,"

Thoreau's Walden is one of the most famous American books. In Chapter 2 "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," Thoreau displays his anti-materialism and individualism as well as his belief that technology (represented by the railroad) is dehumanizing. In the "Conclusion," Chapter 18, Thoreau urges us to simplify our lives and assures us that when we are awake to the world we will see that "There is more day to dawn," that the world and our lives can be richer and more meaningful than we have imagined.

Sylvia in Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron" has to choose between her attraction to a handsome young ornithologist and her spiritual connection with the free natural beauty represented by the white heron he is hunting. Sylvia's conflict is climaxed by her dramatic climb to a tree perch from which she sees the white heron and the sea. The young ornithologist in the story is reminiscent of John James Audubon (1785-1851), whose 435 life-size drawings in Birds of America were a scientific sensation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Terry Heller of Coe College maintains a Sarah Orne Jewett site.


Sarah Orne Jewett

Joseph Church provides a effective, brief summation of a widely accepted reading of "White Heron":

"Sylvia represents an innocent, aspiring girl, newly awakened to sexuality, who finds herself greatly attracted to a charming but finally dangerous young man, that this scientist-hunter typifies man's egotism and arrogance with respect to nature and women in nineteenth-century America, and that the heron embodies an eminent expression of nature, of a world apart from man's dominion and worthy of the girl's devotion."

"From this perspective, then, Sylvia's ominous relation to the hunter allegorizes the predicament of young women in Jewett's culture. Girls desire a transcenedent life, but growing up in a patrilineal culture, they find themselves contrained to seek ascendency in what often prove destructive alliances with men."

"Romantic Flight in Jewett's 'White Heron.'" Studies in American Fiction v. 30 no. 1 (Spring 2002) pp. 21-44.

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updated: June 5, 2018