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  • The Pastoral Influence on American Children's Literature
  • David L. Russell (bio)

Along the country roads alasBut waggoners few are seen,The world is topsy turvy turnedAnd all things go by steam,And all the past is passed awayLike to a moving dream,

(qtd. in Clayre 89)

So sang an anonymous ballad writer, lamenting the effects of industrialization on the American landscape in 1835. There was nothing new in this, of course. The common lot of humanity has always harbored an innate distrust of progress, as well as a nostalgic longing for an imagined idyllic world of the past. The literary expression of these common fears and longings is realized in the pastoral form, characterized by a search for simplicity and flight from complexity. The search typically takes us to a place (some version of mythical Arcadia) where we may leave behind the fervid trials of the civilized world (Marinelli 11). Theocritus is credited with inventing the pastoral form, although it is difficult to believe that he was the first to view city life as a degraded form of existence. The Elizabethans, even more than the ancients, were enamored of the pastoral as a literary device. Despite its rather ephemeral outward appearance, the pastoral, as Hallett Smith points out, "involved a set of values, and [had as its natural bend] a serious criticism of life" (64). But with the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral escape seemed more than a dream or a literary artifice.

In fact, from the outset of European exploration and settlement in the New World, the American continent provided the pastoral with renewed possibilities. Leo Marx illustrates the fascination with those possibilities as they were expressed by writers including Shakespeare's use of American pastoral in The Tempest. Marx notes that for the Europeans, [End Page 121] America represented the chance for a new beginning: "In its simplest, archetypal form, the myth [of a new beginning] affirms that Europeans experience a regeneration in the New World. They become new, better, happier men—they are reborn" (228). For the Europeans, it was the American landscape that became "the symbolic repository of value of all kinds—economic, political, aesthetic, religious . . ." (228). There were those who actually believed that the pastoral life was attainable, but with significant differences: gone are the serene shepherds and the themes of love, which were exchanged for the rusticity of the farmer and the restorative quality of the rural landscape. Emerson echoed the pastoral hope when he wrote that

The land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false and fantastic in our culture. The continent we inhabit is to be physic and food for our mind, as well as our body. The land, with its tranquilizing, sanative influences, is to repair the errors of a scholastic and traditional education, and brings us into just relations with men and things.

(qtd. in Marx 237)

However, the "sanative" landscape most frequently sought—in both American life and literature—is not the wild frontier untainted by civilization's advances but, in Marx's words, is "a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size" (141). Marx, continuing, explains that although it

probably shows a farmhouse or neat white village, the scene is usually dominated by natural objects: in the foreground a pasture, a twisting brook with cattle grazing nearby, then a clump of elms on a rise in the middle distance and beyond that, way off on the western horizon, a line of dark hills. This is the countryside of the old Republic, a chaste, uncomplicated land of rural virtue.


This describes what Marx calls the "middle landscape," the American version of the pastoral ideal where labors are made pleasant by the measure of independence offered by the wide-open spaces of the vast American continent. Instead of idle, frolicking shepherds and shepherdesses, we have the American farmer, a diligent and earnest worker whose virtuous character is derived form his steady labor. It appears to have been Crevecoeur who first identified this middle landscape. He saw the process of westward expansion as resulting in three societal divisions: in the East, growing cities with increasing wealth and social...


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