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Historically Speaking · May/June 2004 The Seasoning of American Culture Michael Kämmen More than twenty years ago I began noticing that virtually every art museum Iwandered through had on displayatleastone suite offour seasons paintings , sculptures, orserigraphsinsome formor other, traditional or modern. After a while I began poking around in the writings ofnaturalists , poets, essayists, andothers,rangingfrom Henry David Thoreau to Hal Borland, and found the motifpervasive there as well. So I began to wonder whether anything had ever been written aboutthe motif(or genre, ifitturned outto be one) from the perspective ofculturalhistory, and with particular attention to what happened when this intriguing topicgottransmittedfromthe Old World to the New, where seasonal changes are somewhat different and also vary greatly from one region to another. Inevitably so: the land is large. I found almostnothing in modern scholarship , despite the full flowering ofenvironmental history in recentyears, though while my own project was recently in production Adam Sweeting, who teachesAmerican Studies atBoston University, published averyfine first book, Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History ofIndian Summer(UniversityPress of NewEngland, 2003). Itprovides richmaterial on seasonality in New England. The subject lends itselfwonderfully, ofcourse, to a strong scenic emphasis, which made it particularly appealing because the visual aspect of the "new cultural history" has seemed especially attractive to me for at least a decade now. This inquiry also turned out to be fun because of a putative friendship but feisty rivalrybetween the two preeminentAmerican naturalists at the turn of the century: John Burroughs of upstate New York and John Muir of northern California, sometimes known as John O'Birds and John O'Mountains . The latter was a devout Scots Calvinist, the former an agnostic advocate ofthe Gospel of Nature. Muir became a noted conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. Burroughs talked the talk but remained rather indifferent, for example, to the fate of the Hetch-HetchyValleyinYosemite earlyin the 20th century. ("I think a lake there would be an added beauty," he wrote to a friend. "Ifthe women and children of San Francisco need anywhere else in the world, even when they had never been beyond the borders of the continental United States. Seasonal beauty became an important feature and bulwarkof American exceptionalism, from Thoreau to thatwaterlet them have it___ Who goes to James Russell Lowell to Robert Frost and H.H. but an adventurous touristnow & then. Annie Dillard. A parallel pattern appeared Grand sceneryis going to waste in the Sier- among the artists, ranging from landscape ras—let'sutilize some ofit.")The contrasting painting to the decorative arts and architecture . Americans took natural symbols and nationalized them. As for the growing appeal of the motif, it became clear that large numbers ofAmericanswho loudly affirmed Progress nonetheless yearned for a sense of connectednesswith a "simple life" that they envisioned and romanticized in "days ofyore." Hence the huge popular appeal of four seasons prints byCurrierand Ives (1850s to 1890s) and the wellloved seasonal calendars produced by Norman Rockwell (1948-1964). I also found that Americans were increasingly inclined to use the four seasons as a metaphor for the human life cycle. Doing so did not begin here, ofcourse. It had been a common trope, for example, in Dutch and Flemish art during the 17th century. In the U.S., however, it became common currency: manifest as "high culture" in the poetry of Wallace Stevens and the art ofJasperJohns, in middlebrow culture by way of the books and essays ofJoseph Wood Krutch, and in mass culture through Rockwell's calendars and in popular fiction. Spring stood for childhood and innocence, summer for early adulthood and courtship, autumn for middle age and the responsibilities ofmaturity, and winter for the waning years, more relaxed yet pensive. Changes in how Americans lived made them more reflective about the seasons oftheirvery lives. Writers ranging from Erik Erikson to Gail Sheehyand Daniel Levinson intensified that sensibility in serious social science and its popularized spin-offs. Anticipating the year 2000 as a momentous event, the Disney Company commissioned Michael Tòrke to compose a millen- . . . artists and writers came to believe . . . that the seasons and seasonal change were more beautifulanddramatic in North America than anywhere else personalities of these two dominant nature writers captured...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 8-9
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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