Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 94-117
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Picturesque Travel, Sexual Politics, and Working-Class Representation in "A Night Under Ground" and "Life in the Iron-Mills"
On December 19, 1860, the Atlantic Monthly arrived in Rebecca Harding Davis's hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia, including among its offerings a story entitled "A Night Under Ground," an erotically charged picturesque travel narrative detailing one woman's liberating descent into the Cornish copper-mines of Michigan. "A Night Under Ground," like most picturesque narratives routinely offered to readers in magazines like Harper's, the Atlantic, and Putnam's Monthly, only nominally concerns itself with working-class miners, instead using a site of working-class labor to provide a remarkable fantasy of escape for middle-class readers. Soon after the publication of "A Night Under Ground," Davis sent her own story of the Cornish industrial working class to the Atlantic Monthly. Though "A Night Under Ground" and "Life in the Iron-Mills" share many strikingly similar elements—both narratives portray five members of the upper-class traveling to an industrial site for business and amusement, both narratives have these travelers encounter and become briefly fascinated with one separate and unique working-class Cornish man, both narratives begin by employing elaborate metaphors of rivers as slaves, and both conclude with striking images of the dawn—the narratives could not be further apart as investigations of working-class sites and subjectivities. While "A Night Under Ground" embodies the subjective and ahistorical concerns of the mid-nineteenth-century picturesque, Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" represents one of the first American critiques of the picturesque, arguing against the romanticization—and increasing eroticization—of the poor in picturesque narratives, contrasting upper-class tourists' mobility with the immobility of the working-class poor, and finally offering a new picturesque aesthetic that envisions a world in which the poor, rather than the rich, get to experience the newly moral edification of picturesque travel.
The picturesque, a loosely defined genre that first emerged in eighteenth-century landscape painting and was quickly popularized by hordes of middle-class tourists, has exerted a continuous influence upon literature, tourism, public parks and social reform policies since its birth in the desultory writings of landscape aesthetes [End Page 94] in eighteenth-century England. That tourists still dutifully seek out ruined castles and collapsing barns, still delight in snapping photographs of quaintly decayed older urban vistas, and still continue to seek refuge from over-developed urban areas by traveling to seemingly wild open parks like Atlanta's Piedmont Park or New York's Central Park is a testament to the largely invisible influence of the picturesque. In the more than two hundred years since its birth, definitions of the picturesque have been as polymorphous as its influence. First embraced by a variety of landscape aesthetes and tourists in eighteenth-century England, the picturesque aesthetic arose in opposition to the uniform compositional elements that contribute to the aesthetic pleasures of the Burkean "sublime." Picturesque theorists argued that aesthetes and tourists should seek out aesthetic irregularity or ruggedness, refusing overarching displays of unified compositional authority, and allowing the spectator's eye instead to revel in the ironically playful associations of unlike and often fragmented elements. Rather than touring the continent in search of expansive, awe-inspiring vistas supplied by mountains, oceans, or meticulously ordered palatial gardens, the picturesque tourist turned to England's ruined abbeys, hill-top huts, and unenclosed parks for aesthetic inspiration. 1
Produced by the leisured middle and upper classes in an increasingly industrialized Europe, the eighteenth-century picturesque studiously avoids squalid scenes of urban poverty and newly enclosed agrarian country-sides, returning its audiences to the pleasurable wild vistas and romanticized poverty of an earlier feudal era unmarked by modernization. The picturesque's geographic displacement finds its human correlative in the displacement of often impoverished rural figures, transformed by the highly metaphoric imagination of the picturesque traveler into mythic figures of an idealized...