- The Landscapes of Susan Howe's "Thorow"
Trust the place to form the voice," writes Susan Howe, suggesting that the voice of the poet is linked intrinsically to the location from which that voice emerges (Birth-Mark 156). In her poem "Thorow," which is "about" Lake George, New York, Howe constructs both a place and a voice that are contested, conflicted, and multiple. The poem explicitly references—and reworks—the landscapes of Thoreau, and more importantly, I argue, of James Fenimore Cooper. The title, "Thorow," refers not only to Henry David Thoreau but also to the historical search for a "thorow," or through, navigable passageway in the Northeast. Thus the title signals the poem's engagement with the history of exploration, and ensuing colonialism and national expansion, as well as its engagement with literary history. Howe's references to Cooper, previously overlooked in discussions of this poem, provide a framework for connecting these two divergent meanings of the title. 1 The setting for Cooper's novel [End Page 236] The Last of the Mohicans is Lake George, and a massacre there at Fort William Henry in 1757 drives much of the plot of the novel, just as it figures as a prominent event in Howe's poem; noteworthy locations from The Pioneers also find their echoes in "Thorow." Through its intertextual references, the poem indicates the extent to which landscapes are shaped by the stories that are told about them.
Place must be understood as a specific landscape and as a social construction with specific historical and ideological ramifications. 2 My reading of "Thorow" accounts for the poem's engagement with place as both materiality and metaphor by examining the overlap between the fictional or metaphoric and the real. Howe plays with this overlap, excavating literature and literary history in the same way that she critiques history. She uses literary references to Thoreau and Cooper to show how these works inform her own experience and representation of Lake George and the New England landscape more generally, as well as to assess an American literary tradition of pastoral or nature writing that simplifies or empties out place and erases conflict and cultural difference.
The genre of the pastoral constructs the natural (rural or wilderness) world as an idyllic setting for a way of life that is itself an escape from a more complicated, civilized domain. Leo Marx defines it as "the yearning for a simpler, more harmonious way of life, an existence 'closer to nature,'" and adds, "That such desires are not peculiar to Americans goes without saying; but our experience as a nation unquestionably has invested them with peculiar intensity" (6). The pastoral tradition in America is particularly notable in the nineteenth century, when increasing industrialization and diminishing available or wild lands gave rise to a nostalgia for an earlier way of life. The pastoral as a genre tends to be ahistorical, looking back to a supposedly uncomplicated rural past that is cast as origin or Eden. Due to the equation of land with nation, the [End Page 237] pastoral is also associated with the national project of expansion, justified by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the erasure of conflicts with Native Americans. 3 Concomitant efforts to ground national ideology in the land itself as a means for establishing belonging (both in terms of property and as a sense of belonging to the land) are also reflected in the pastoral. According to Thomas Hallock, who examines the roots of this American form of the pastoral in the late eighteenth century, "Eventually, an identification with native habitats and people (in an unfortunate equation) would lay the groundwork for a national pastoral; elegies for things disappeared would provide authors with a medium that was flexible enough to establish a republican citizenry as indigenous to the continent" (7). These "elegies for things disappeared" are examples of what Renato Rosaldo terms "imperialist nostalgia":
[P]eople mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed. Imperialist nostalgia thus revolves around a paradox: a person kills somebody and then mourns his or her victim. In a more attenuated form, someone deliberately alters a form of life and then regrets the things...