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1 AcademicandPopularGeography Global Connections, Environmentalist Style In 1920, shortly after its transformation into one of the most influential modernist “little magazines” of literature and culture, the Dial published an essay, “Poetry—Our First National Art,” trumpeting the national value of American poetry. James Oppenheim, a political radical, antiwar pacifist, poet, playwright , and editor of another little magazine, the Seven Arts, declared that fiction is a lost cause because it does not convey the “essential character” of “our typical American” (Kingham 399; Oppenheim 238). This is because the writer of fiction has to “gather his expression round a typic character,” but the poet can “vaguely allow that mystic depth which is common to all men.” However problematic these distinctions may be, Oppenheim claims special status for the poet who, unlike the fiction writer, allows this “mystic depth” to be strained “through the sieve of the American environment, the American ideals, manners , scenery, and chaos,” generating a product that possesses “what might be called the American flavour” (240). For “it is not by saying, ‘Go to, I will be American,’ but by allowing the direct impact of environment and the direct response, that [writers] will produce a truer and more American art” (242). Oppenheim assumes that, because American culture does not possess its own long-standing, heritable literary tradition, operations of environment play a particularly powerful role in shaping American language, culture, and art: “We have no folk, no soil song or literature: we have only our American speech, 22 | TheGeopoeticsofModernism the resultant of new environment, mixture of races and new experience. This American speech is decidedly different in flavor and construction from English speech. It is not Colonial, but native, that is environmental” (240). Such comments would have resonated with audiences who by 1920 had encountered similar assertions in a range of academic and popular sources, thus allowing Oppenheim to authorize his claim about poetry’s importance for American literature and culture.1 For Oppenheim and his readers, “environment ” meant the same kind of natural, physical environment that is the concern of early twentieth-century geographers but could easily stretch to include social factors that imprint upon individual writers as well. In advancing poetry’s unique importance for American literature and culture, Oppenheim broadens the terms of environmental determinism while adhering to its fundamental assumptions: that environmental pressure is a causal agent and human adaptation is its result, and that human exposure to a particular kind of environment produces similar predictable and repeatable social effects. It is fitting that environmental determinism, a theory about adaptation and conditioning , was itself adaptive and migratory in the early twentieth century as a discursive and naturalizing construct about issues of authorship, cultural identity, and community, participating in ever-broadening cultural conversations about national identity and belonging, human social expression and innovation , and human-environmental relations. “Poetry—Our First National Art,” in short, suggests the uses to which geographic discourses in general and environmental determinist ideas in particular were put by the culture at large, by literary critics, and by poets in particular. This chapter provides a genealogy of the emergence, diffusion, circulation, and aestheticization of key ideas in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century geography with which Oppenheim and the twentieth-century American modernist poets I consider here engaged. I begin by examining the end of Enlightenment geography, specifically as demonstrated in the cosmological geography of Alexander von Humboldt and Mary Somerville, in terms of its impact on American ideas about global unity and global connectedness. These concepts were important to Walt Whitman’s later poetry, as I discuss in chapter 2, as well as to the global sensibilities of American modernism that followed in his wake. I then turn to the rise of environmental determinism in academic geography, which reached its apex in America in the 1910s but lingered in more popular forms of geographic writing well into the 1930s, sometimes in altered shape. While these two phases of geographic knowledge—cosmological and environmentalist—differed in their approach to the relationship between the Academic and Popular Geography | 23 physical earth and human society, they provided Americans with forms for conceiving of global linkages and comparisons that moved above (or below in the soil, as the case may be) the nation-state as an organizational category. The interconnected world of cosmological geography projected an idea of harmoniousness that overrode individual regional and national identities. In early twentieth-century geography, environmental determinism made available to American writers ways to imagine geographical homologies and forms of geographical transitivity...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813055145
Related ISBN
9780813060514
MARC Record
OCLC
900158401
Pages
208
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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