THE AMERICAN POET Robert Frost once proclaimed, "The land was ours before we were the land's." Frost believed that a long passage of time had been required before Americans learned how to live with their own landscape. They had to unlearn an older notion of nature as a "howling wilderness" and replace it with a more romanticized vision of the landscape as a realm of innocence and renewal. In the process, they came to identify themselves with the very nature they were hard at work conquering.
Most Americans were busy settling nature in the nineteenth century, too busy in fact to look up from their work of extending the nation from "sea to shining sea." When they did look up, they found themselves surrounded by a chorus of voices exhorting them to labor less and to seek meaning in the landscape instead. Writers like Emerson and Thoreau called upon mid-nineteenth-century audiences to treat nature as a treasure. The seemingly untouched quality of the nation's wildernesses distinguished the United States from Europe. The landscape came increasingly to embody what Americans most valued in themselves: an "unstoried" past, an ''Adamic" freedom, an openness to the future, a fresh lease on life. In time, Americans came to think of themselves as "nature's nation." And yet one of the paradoxes of American history, as painters like Thomas Cole noted, lay in the unresolved tension between the subduing of the wilderness and the honoring of it. That tension is still alive with us today, in the competing voices of environmentalists and advocates of development.
Nature was understood in many ways during the antebellum period: as a preindustrial realm separated from the stresses of modern life; as a quasi-religious space filled with spiritual promise; and as an untapped resource ripe for commercial development. Nineteenth-century Americans sought natural forms in all aspects of their experience: in their art, their urban spaces, their mechanical designs, and their architecture. They extolled the landscape for what they too often did not find in their daily lives: a realm that transcended social divisions. Landscape appreciation began as an elite social pleasure. Its popularity expanded as rural cemeteries, urban parks, and tourist itineraries all began to emphasize the restorative powers of nature. In the two decades prior to the Civil War, the landscape was seen increasingly in national terms. A landscape painting, for example, was valued less for the view it offered than for the way it embodied commonly held values. Nature was understood to be larger than the economic, racial, or sectional differences that threatened the United States in the years before the Civil War. In this way, landscape helped unite an increasingly divided nation by providing it with an image-or at least a dream-of shared values.
At the same time that nature engaged people's attention, a new vernacular form, the photograph, changed the way individuals saw and remembered each other. Introduced in 1839, photography was quickly taken up by middle-class families as an inexpensive way to create "keepsakes." At mid-century photography provided a startling revelation when viewers witnessed for the first time images of dead soldiers strewn across the battlefields of the Civil War. That glimpse into the horrors of war altered the ways Americans perceived events around them, and marked an end to the world we term "antebellum America."
Thumbnail: MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE. Thunderstorm Over Narragansett Bay (detail), 1868. Oil on canvas, 32⅛ x 54¾ in (8r.5 x 39 cm). Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.