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  • The "Vulgar Thread of the Canvas":Revolution and the Picturesque in Ann Eliza Bleecker, Crèvecoeur, and Charles Brockden Brown
  • Larry Kutchen (bio)

I may be wrong, but, Tityrus, to meThe times seem revolutionary bad.

—Robert Frost, "Build Soil, A Political Pastoral"

This essay's central aim is to locate the origin of an American picturesque landscape and to begin to trace its evolution. In the work of such scholars as Blake Nevius, Beth L. Lueck, and (most important) Dennis Berthold, the American picturesque is defined, essentially, as an aesthetic mediation of wilderness. Focusing on Cooper as an innovator, Nevius argues that through the picturesque the novelist created "a new convention through which his countrymen could view their primitive landscape" (111). Berthold, locating the origins of American adaptations of this eighteenth-century English and European aesthetic in Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799), asserts that the American picturesque mediates between "nature and the ego, the 'eye' of vision and the 'I' of selfhood, and so helped balance the conflicting claims of wildness and disorder, on the one hand, with those of civilization and order on the other" (63). And Lueck, building upon Berthold's work and focusing on nineteenth-century authors, observes that the picturesque helped writers make "the nation's unique landscapes and geography" an "integral part" of "national identity" (194). Yet, because of their anachronistic perspective, these critics' account of the picturesque's origins in North America (and thus of key aspects of its later adaptations) is misleading: relying on romanticist notions of nature and a Turnerian definition of national development—the dialectic between self and wilderness—they devote too little attention to the picturesque's imperialist founding and dimensions. The task of this essay is to demonstrate the imperialist extension of the picturesque into eighteenth-century [End Page 395] North America, and thereby to suggest its functions as an English Atlantic aesthetic.

From an eighteenth-century perspective, we might say that these critics do not look at the picturesque somuch as through its lenses: they take insufficient account of the extent to which "wilderness" in the picturesque was not an object of aesthetic mediation but was, rather, intrinsic to that mediation. As it rose to prominence in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century, "wildness," and such other related qualities as "rudeness," "roughness," and "dissolution," became the picturesque's definitive, generic features; they were developed in landscape gardening, literature, painting, and the framing of travelers' views of the countryside.1 The picturesque's basic conventions were derived from seventeenth-century French, Italian, and Dutch landscape paintings, particularly those by Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, and Jacob van Ruisdael, and developed in the pastoral and topographical poetry of Pope, Thomson (the "Claude of poets"), Goldsmith, and Cowper, and in the rural landscape paintings of Thomas Gainsborough and Richard Wilson. Among the gentry, "the developing taste" for the picturesque extended from the descriptions imaged in poetry and the perspectives from on their walls to the prospects framed by their windows and experienced from the privileged points of view enjoyed by landowners who walked their grounds as beholders"(Marshall 705). As Ann Bermingham observes, the picturesque "linked art and nature with special closeness." Through it, the English countryside was both aestheticized and transformed into the embodiment of nature itself: "[T]he highest praise for nature was to say that it looked like a painting, [and] the highest praise for a painting was to say that it resembled a painterly nature" (57).

But in aestheticizing untamed nature—privileging images of organic freedom, of natural growth and decay—the picturesque sought to at once naturalize and assert control over rapidly accelerating social change and its potential for creating disorientation, conflict, and violence. The picturesque imaged an expansive liberty in England; but it also enabled, through the refuge of aesthetic distance and the absorption of the social into the natural, an elision of social exploitation and a containment of radical energies. My basic contention in this essay is that the picturesque emerges in British America not as a mediation of the reality of wilderness, but rather of the real and present danger of revolution.2 In a selection of texts...


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pp. 395-425
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