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  • Scholarship as Activism
  • Michelle Burnham (bio)
The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters annette kolodny Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975 200 pp.

In the late 1980s, I quit a perfectly decent job at the publishing house of Little, Brown & Co. to ride my bicycle across the country. When I returned to Boston at the end of that summer, I found a part-time job proofreading financial reports and decided to spend my extra time taking a literature course. One of the few institutions where I could register (and pay) for a single course as a nonmatriculated student was the University of Massachusetts−Boston. That's how I ended up in the late Taylor Stoehr's masters-level course in nineteenth-century American literature, that's how I ended up reading Annette Kolodny's Lay of the Land, and that's how, a year later, I ended up entering a PhD program as a student of early American literature.

I should perhaps clarify that Taylor Stoehr did not assign Kolodny's book in his course. What he did assign were readings from a carefully curated packet of colonial and antebellum primary sources that supplemented our weekly readings in well-known nineteenth-century American literary classics. It was in this packet that I first read Thomas Morton, Anne Hutchinson, and Bronson Alcott, where I first learned about Hannah Dustan, mesmerism, and Fruitlands. Growing slowly convinced that my former American literature teachers had been hiding all of the really good stuff, I went to libraries and bookstores to learn more. For a person whose mornings were spent proofreading stock market reports, spending the afternoons in the Boston Public Library doing literary historical research felt like inhaling helium—and the scholarship of Annette Kolodny delivered one of my earliest doses. Her books carried me into the field of early American studies. [End Page 883]

The invitation to discuss Kolodny's first book now (thirty years after I first read it) has therefore become an unexpected opportunity to reflect on what it meant to me then, while also (over forty years after its initial publication) retroactively recognizing its effect on the fields of American studies and early American literature. The Lay of the Land is a study of American pastoral as fantasy, as a literary mode that, while celebrating the transformative beauty and fertility of the natural landscape, actually conceals a long history of environmental violence (as well as guilt about that violence) that runs through American literature and culture, from the earliest European arrival until today. The Lay of the Land made clear that this violence has always been gendered.

When The Lay of the Land first appeared, pastoral was not only fairly well-trodden terrain in American literary studies but may well have been the central figure around which American literary studies was formulated—and through which it was communicated to a wider public. Any evaluation of her book needs to take into consideration just how profoundly and irrevocably she changed this conversation. Pioneering books in American cultural studies—including Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land (1950), R. W. B. Lewis's American Adam (1955), Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness (1956), and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964)—had made representations of and engagement with the landscape central to understanding the American past and present, but in ways that celebrated the emergence of a fundamentally masculinist American identity. Richard Slotkin's Regeneration through Violence (1973), published two years before The Lay of the Land, had effectively foregrounded the aggressive violence within early American writing, but without the attention to gender so critical to Kolodny's argument, which diagnosed a destructive anti-environmentalism within the gendered language of American pastoral.

Looked at retrospectively and in this context, The Lay of the Land appears to me now to have provided a kind of intellectual bridge out of the masculinist myth-and-symbol school of American studies that preceded it and into the feminist literary recovery projects that followed it—including Kolodny's own The Land before Her. Although both volumes are works of committed ecofeminist criticism, The Lay of...


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