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  • Poetic Travelers:Figuring the Wild in Parkman, Fuller, and Kirkland
  • Ken Egan Jr. (bio)

Francis Parkman, Margaret Fuller, and Caroline Kirkland brought far more than supplies and servants when they journeyed west—they came freighted with poetic lines. Nineteenth-century travel narratives incorporate an impressive amount of poetry. This surprising textual feature grants us a unique opportunity to consider the ideological and ecological implications of poetry for nineteenth-century US citizens. We discover that the lyric poem often served as a boundary condition of citizenship, the very testing ground for the self 's relationship to polity and place. The poem created its own frontier condition, a liminal space between the reader's known world and the natural world of the North American landmass. The reader traversed that space, entering a virtual reality that could affirm or subvert assumptions about the "American" self and its relationship with the physical world. The poem could test the imperial self 's claims for dominion over the wild.

Figuring the Wild

But how can poems stage an interaction with the wild? As ecocriticism has compulsively worried, what is the relationship between text and world, word and natural artifact? Do we get at the real thing, the natural phenomenon, or are we forever confined by language? Following Dana Phillips's neopragmatic lead, we can navigate past this impasse by asserting that the text generates an instrumental representation of the world that instigates response, debate, and sometimes revision. Put differently, poems often represent habitual or consensual images of the wild, figures that can mobilize multiple, often conflicting responses. We might imagine, then, that the scene of reading a nature poem involves three overlapping ecologies or lifeworlds: the writer's, the reader's, and the text's. How did these ecologies reinforce, resist, or simply ignore each other? How did a particular reader "uptake" a figural rendering of the wild? This analysis does not dismiss or diminish the consequences of reading for wild nature. The reader's responses will determine future beliefs, future actions. But it does accept as axiomatic the figural quality of nature, its "fashioning" in [End Page 49-] poetry of the nineteenth century (or our own time). Readers might enter this space of mediation—this poetic frontier—to determine their ethical commitments to nature.

What was at stake in these reading practices? The antebellum citizen inhabited an anxious, unstable cultural identity that was undergoing challenge and revision. The nation and its citizens seemed to dwell in permanent liminality: "As important a component of the mid-nineteenth-century anxiety about national form as slavery … was a less tangible set of concerns about boundaries, boundlessness, and the incorporation of space not yet mapped according to Euro-American conventions or organized according to Euro-American principles of order" (Baker 4). The lyric poem provided an occasion to encounter that anxiety, that role and ontological confusion. By traversing the poem—by entering into the frontier of reading—the citizen could potentially confront and resolve these doubts.

During the nineteenth century, the lyric poem provided an especially powerful instance of staging such an encounter, since the reader could memorize the text so that it became a portable virtual reality device. We know from contemporary testimony that memorization was a far more common practice than it is today (Zboray and Zboray 39–41). Nineteenth-century citizens carried Bible tracts, songs, oratory, and poetry in their heads. They could inhabit a text at any place or time of their choosing. In this way, the lyric poem provided the very vocabulary, the very language of the self: "The tension … between poetry as an acculturating force and poetry as the key to self-knowledge or self-invention … was not so much resolved as negotiated by readers as they both performed and internalized verses" (Sorby xv).

As US readers entered the space of testing their claims about and for nature, they did so within the horizon of ideological possibilities reproduced by the culture (Sorby xvii). The reader was acculturated into conventional, normalized ways of conceptualizing and responding to the wild, and these normalized assumptions defined the limit, or boundary, that would be tested by the reader's experience of the poem. To invoke an illuminating...


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