Thursday, December 17, 2009

10 Works - List 2 - American Greats on the American Great Outdoors

A couple weeks ago I decided to periodically post lists of works of literature that could comprise the syllabus for a college literature course. It's fun and I'd really dig it if folks shared some works with me in the comments section. My first list was American Nature Writing before 1900. If you didn't read that list, check it out too.

List 2 - American Greats on the American Great Outdoors 

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson - Nature - 1835 - Emerson looms large in the New England Renaissance. He was a Unitarian minister and his combination of naturalism and spiritualism later came to be known as Transcendentalism. We may have lost some of Emerson's starry-eyed (and transparent eyeballed) idealism, but he set the tone for the nature writing that followed him. I can't read John Muir and not think about Emerson.

 2. Henry David Thoreau - Walden: of Life in the Woods - 1854  -  Emerson lent the land to Thoreau, so he gets some credit here too. I was initially disappointed when I learned how close Thoreau was to civilization. While living near Walden Pond, he'd sometimes take the short walk to downtown Concord, Massachusetts to visit his mother. I've re-read Walden several times now and I realize that it's not how far you live from people, but how close you live to nature.

3. Mark TwainLife on the Mississippi - It's not enough to say that Mark Twain loved the Mississippi River. The river appears throughout his works. I even consider it a character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When Twain became famous and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, he designed the office in his house to resemble the bridge of a steamboat.

4. Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass - Leaves of Grass explores America in the space between nature and civilization. For example:

I WILL take an egg out of the robin’s nest in the orchard,
I will take a branch of gooseberries from the old bush in the garden, and go and preach to the world;
You shall see I will not meet a single heretic or scorner,
You shall see how I stump clergymen, and confound them,
You shall see me showing a scarlet tomato, and a white pebble from the beach.

5. John Muir - Studies in the Sierra - John Muir was Scottish, but did more for American conservation that anyone before the Roosevelts. In fact, when Theodore Roosevelt visited northern California, he requested to go camping with John Muir. He and Muir snuck away from the presidential entourage and spent a night around a campfire.

6. Jack London - The Call of the Wild - For some reason middle school teachers like to torture their students with this book; it's not for sensitive animal lovers. Though a dog is the protagonist, we're left to question if, like Buck, we could revert to something more primitive. I think we'd like to think so.

7. Ernest Hemingway - In Our Time - Includes Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, including "Big Two-Hearted River."

8. William Faulkner - Go Down, Moses - A collection of semi-interrelated short stories including "The Bear" and "Delta Autumn." Isaac McCaslin is Faulkner's Nick Adams.

9. John Steinbeck - Travels with Charlie - When Steinbeck was older and living in New York, he read a review that said he was out of touch with America. Dismayed, he built a camper out of his pickup, packed up his standard poodle, Charlie, and headed out on the road. It's a great road trip memoir.

10. Tim O'Brien - Northern Lights - One of O'Brien's earlier works, it's the story of two brothers on a snowshoe trip in Minnesota. There are some very Nick Adams-like themes going on.


Katie said...

Giants in the Earth- Ole Rolvaag

Rolvaag was Norwegian but immigrated to the US in 1896 when he was 20 years old. Spent the rest of his life writing and teaching in Minnesota- so technically don't know if he fits your list but I'd argue for him =)

The book is about Norwegian immigrants trying to survive on the prairie, but is very "American" in theme. Great book and has a lot of potential for undergrads.

I like this game.

Eric said...

I like this game too. Muir wasn't technically American, either; Rolvaag's story looks similar to Muir's, who was Scottish. However, where do we draw the line between American/immigrant? You could make the case that there isn't a single real American on my list...

Katie said...

my unofficial definition (for purposes like this list) would be someone who spent the majority of their lifetime here and self identified as an American to some degree. That's why Rolvaag's book is a good add because (spoiler alert) the wife in the story clings to her "Old World" traditions while her husband assimilates very quickly. This does not end well. But it gives undergrads a good solid footing for comparison and the Norwegian mythology lends to some bad ass descriptions of the prairies.

Katie said...

I also think because this list is "the Great Outdoors" as opposed to "Nature," there needs to be more books on urban environments. I'll try to think of some.

what about Into the Wild? I've never read it but seems like it would fit.

Eric said...

I haven't read Into the Wild either. I want to. I guess I was looking at the Great Outdoors in the sort of idiomatic sense that implies the interaction between people and nature, not nature in the ecological sense exactly. I don't even think you need to limit the scope of defining Americans to people who spend the majority of their lives here; I posted about the Japanese painter, Chiura Obata, a little while back, who held strong ties to his Japanese culture, yet his most memorable work was of the Sierra Nevada. I think the subject is more important than the creator in some sense and if the creator brings a culture to bear on the American natural environment, that's outstanding. I'm going to read Rolvaag for sure.

Katie said...

we are huge dorks.

Katie said...

I meant majority as in spending a significant amount of time in the US. I think there's a different between being an American author and being a foreigner writing about an American experience. I'm sure a couple people could be argued into either of these categories, but for the most part I think a line can be drawn, even though both are equally telling about American culture in their own way. Maybe we can agree to disagree here. Doesn't matter, we are still huge dorks. =)

Katie said...

sorry I keep posting but this is way more exciting than grading. I realized what I posted might be taken the wrong way (and perhaps we are actually in agreement). I didn't mean to sound like there aren't hybrid identities (like Japanese-American) I was just referring to those under the larger "American" umbrella. So an example of what I'm trying to say is, there's a difference between someone who identifies as a Japanese-American vs. someone who visits America and writes about nature. Not saying that's your guy (because I haven't heard of him before), just trying to provide some clarity to what I was saying earlier.

What's the next list?

Eric said...

I see what you mean, and we are certainly dorks. It's like the difference between Crèvecœur and Lafayette - both French, both writing about American, but Crèvecœur lived here for an extended period and wrote as a resident and Lafayette observed as an outsider. Mark Twain's outsider opinions of Europe and the Middle East were certainly interesting...

I'm not sure what the next list will be. Maybe American nature writing after 1900. I've been waiting to go back to MA and get my Loren Eiseley book with great woodcuts before I do that one. Any suggestions? Why don't you come up with something Western and I'll post your list.