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  • Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition by Aaron Sachs
  • Paul B. Thompson
Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition By Aaron Sachs (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2013) 484 pp. $35.00

Sachs offers an intellectual history of environmental thought in America since 1800 that highlights underappreciated themes and figures. The [End Page 270] well-known writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold receive little attention, whereas little-noticed environmental themes in the works of William Cullen Bryant, Margaret Fuller, H. W. S. Cleveland, Henry George, and Hamlin Garland are explored in depth. Sachs emphasizes the theme of “repose”—a conception of nature imbued with a profound sense of mortality, difficulty, and loss. From this launching point, nineteenth-century nature writing and landscapes highlighted notions of remembrance, reconciliation, and healing. The book opens with a study of cemeteries, especially Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., which Sachs sees as formative for a trend that was both pervasive and characteristic of its time.

Sachs presents his counter-history of repose less as a revision than as a complement to the more widely known themes of wilderness and empire building. He presents repose as an idea that is largely lost to contemporary consciousness. The epigraph to Arcadian America’s epilogue, by Walter Benjamin, sounds the theme: “In the course of modern time dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living…. Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is a natural history to which his stories refer back” (347).

The centerpiece in Sachs’ story is a long chapter entitled “Stumps,” which refers on the surface to the denuded New England landscapes of the cutover and to the emaciated bodies of Civil War amputees but, more profoundly, to the embittered spirit of postwar Americans. Sachs explores this theme through a sensitive analysis of postwar landscape painting and an insightful reading of Walt Whitman’s transition from the poet of “the body electric” to the shattered author of “Specimen Days,” which appeared in the volume Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia, 1882). Any serious scholar of nineteenth-century American ideas will want to consider how Sachs has reconfigured and repositioned key elements in America’s narrative.

Sachs includes numerous autobiographical passages, some of which seem pointless and trivial (such as his distaste for zucchini) and some of which are more meaningful. For example, his lengthy discussions of personal encounters with mortality through the death of friends and family members bring a story that would otherwise end around World War I into the twenty-first century. His personal reflections not only allow him to serve as a test case for Benjamin’s observation; they also introduce discussions of such contemporary poets and authors as Donald Hall and Deborah Tall. More broadly, Sachs’ highly experimental passages about family gatherings or about taking his children to visit the cemeteries that he was researching are meant to represent a new direction in narrative history. Most poignantly, Sachs recounts the frustration that his ailing father (Murray Sachs, Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University) endured when academic reviewers were unwilling to take his experimental narrative of the Dreyfus affair seriously. [End Page 271]

Though Sachs’ shows great daring in his variegated approach, the results are not always successful. The book is substantially longer than it might have been without the personal element; its subtlety and complexity do not completely mitigate its sense of self-indulgence. Nonetheless, whatever readers’ reactions to Sachs’ insertion of the first-person voice might be, the book certainly has considerable merit.

Paul B. Thompson
Michigan State University


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pp. 270-272
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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