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The Historians and the Edenic Myth: A Critique THOMAS A. KRUEGER* I Since its birth in the late 1940's, the American Studies movement has firmly established itself as an interdisciplinary academic enterprise and its scholarly adherents have written books and articles on a wide range of important subjects. Spread over departments of history, English, sociology, philosophy, anthropology,. and the fine arts, it boasts of a number of journals in the United States and in several foreign countries. Its annual monographic output covers everything from philosophy to the nation's commonplace artifacts. Few if any aspects of American cultural life have escaped its notice: national character, folklore, dreams, aspirations, literature, music, and ideas - all have been described, categorized ,.and analyzed. 1 Some of the most interesting work to come out of American Studies has been that of the historians of the Edenic Myth; the authors who have written about '°'Virgin Land,." the O American Adam," and the" Arcadian" and II Agrarian" myths have produced a substantial corpus of challenging scholarship. 2 Fashioning their methods of analysis after the myth and symbol analyses of modern literary critics, 3 they have depicted a characteristic cluster of uniquely American myths. For them, the Edenic Myth in one variant or another has formed the archetypal American cultural pattern; the faith in America as a New World Garden has been a complex symbol by which Americans have interpreted their experience and according to which they have sought to order their lives.4 For these students of American culture, the central question is not "What then is this new man, the American," but rather "How has this man., the American, viewed himself." Their composite answer has been that the American version of the Edenic Myth originated in the cultural and political traditions of Western Civilization; antecedents can be found *The author wishes to thank the University of Illinois for a sabbatical leave of absence in the fall of 1970 enabling him to research and write this essay; he is also grateful to the Research Board of the University of Illinois Graduate College for generous collateral support. THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. IV, NO, 1, SPRING 1973 in the Bible, in the pastoral tradition of Western literature, and in the Gnostic perfectionism which has punctuated the history of Europe since the late Middle Ages. Just when the myth took root in North America is unclear. Evidence of its presence among the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony has been found. 5 Later in the century, John Lockeproclaimed: "in the beginning, all the world was America .... " His philosophical kinsmen in the New World may have taken the formulation literally. In the 18th century writers viewed the American Indian as a noble savage, an aboriginal Adam, an innocent flower in the New World Garden. It seems plausible that as the conflict between red men and white men worsened, the image of nature's nobleman was transferred from the Indian to the pioneers at civilization's cutting edge on the frontier. 6 The achievement of national independence may have fostered the conviction that Americans now had the freedom they needed to fulfill man's ancient paradisical longings. Whatever the case, by the early 19th century a great many Americans had come to believe in the Edenic Myth. Here in the Garden of the West, they thought, God had granted to man a second chance to establish himself in paradise; here in a land of abundant resources, man could realize his aspirations for peace, plenty, and harmony. Removed from the Old World of traditions and institutions, men could shed the burdens of civilization and reorder their lives in accord with the standards of American nature; in the New World, European man became nature's nobleman, the American Adam. Freed from society, the American Adam lived without the guilt and responsibilities accompanying life in settled communities. Freed from tradition, he was the eternal innocent, bereft of the knowledge of good and evil, unaware of his kinship with the rest of mankind. Freed from history, he lived beyond time in eternal perfection, unaware of the complexity, the tragedy, and the irony of common human experience. Thus totally autonomous, the American Adam...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 3-18
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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