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Posts Tagged ‘William Bartram’

Bartram’s Travels and the Erotica of Nature

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Southern History, The South, Writing on May 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at the Literary Table in 2010.

I’ll limit my discussion of Bartram’s cognitive originality to some finer points made by Michael Gaudio, whose article, “Swallowing the Evidence,” is a mostly on-the-mark interrogation of Bartram’s persistent use of metaphor.

Gaudio writes that Bartram’s Travels, with its imagery of swallowing, mouths, and voids, calls into question Enlightenment aesthetics while signaling glaring absences in the putatively public sphere. Although Gaudio argues convincingly that Bartram’s imagery signifies an “Enlightenment view of the cosmos in which the natural and the social operate according to the same rational principles,” he privileges a political over an erotic reading, thereby reducing the text to a series of subversive patterns of visual perception. In fact, Bartram’s text is less about movement politics than it is about scientific or social politics.

Travels describes a journey lasting from 1773 to 1777, arguably the most intense moment in American political history, yet Bartram makes no mention of the Revolution, the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, or any other political signifier. As the war between Britain and America raged, Bartram rummaged through woods recording data and collecting specimens. He might have been interested in undermining Enlightenment ideals, as Gaudio suggests, but he probably was not keen on likening sink holes to doubts about the democratic project. A better reading would treat Bartram’s concave, hollow, and gaping imagery as vaginal and his nature aesthetics as sexual. Such a reading not only sheds light on Bartram’s aesthetic facility but also gives rise to a better reading of Bartram’s politics as understood through depictions of Natives, black men, or property-owning colonials. Gaudio is right to argue that, for Bartram, “the work of the naturalist is the recording of not only the visibility of nature’s surfaces but also the struggle that leads to that visibility,” but he is wrong to ignore the language of penetration and other pseudo-sexual insinuations. Attending to this sexual language might have allowed Gaudio to enlist Bartram in the “anti-Enlightenment” project in other, more interesting ways—for instance, by contrasting Bartram’s observations of Indian tribes with the unwarranted assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers who dismissed Natives as mere barbarians or worse.

Gaudio submits that because Bartram’s aim was to “exhibit the self-evidence of nature” and to “set the full presence of its surfaces before the viewer,” Bartram’s appeals were necessarily visual. That much, I think, we can grant. But Gaudio goes too far when he contrasts Bartram with Bacon by claiming that the latter employed “rhetoric of penetration” to peer beneath nature’s surfaces whereas Bartram looked precisely to nature’s surfaces because he preferred architectural forms to dissected taxonomies. Gaudio suggests, in other words, that Bartram seeks out rational forms, which share a visual logic, to show nature’s uniform and universal manifestations. Nevertheless, Bartram’s rhetoric (like Bacon’s) is rich in references to penetration. Gaudio’s formative analogy therefore does not stand up to close examination.

“Having some repairs to make in the tackle of my vessel, I paid my first attention to them,” Bartram says of a particularly cheerful morning, adding, “my curiosity prompted me to penetrate the grove and view the illuminated plains.” Similarly, Bartram speaks of “penetrating the groves,” “penetrating the Canes,” “penetrating the forests,” penetrating the “first line” of alligators, “penetrating a thick grove of oaks,” and penetrating “the projecting promontories.” All of this penetration flies in the face of Gaudio’s argument that Bartram’s “voids” signal the limits of Enlightenment thought. Rather than avoiding vocabulary of penetration, Bartram embraces it. Bartram may be interested in surfaces, but he is also interested in—one might say seduced by—what lies beneath. He even employs sexual innuendo and other erotic lexica to portray what lies beneath.

The sexual language in Travels serves to eroticize nature, which seduces with its enchanting if virginal charms. In a brilliant essay, Thomas Hallock speaks of botanic men (including William Bartram’s father, John) who turned “genteel ladies into fascinated subjects.” For these men, plants “served as a shorthand for intimate relationships that were transacted across vast space.” According to this logic, it follows that any “individual who interacts with the natural world takes on an ‘ecopersona,’ an identity or costume of manners that locates consumption of the natural within a given cultural code.” By ignoring the eros pouring forth from Bartram’s nature writings, Gaudio overlooks a very telling association between Native women, whom Bartram eroticizes, and nature, itself a sensual “organism.” More to the point, he misses Bartram’s odd constructions of eco-personae for Native women. Indeed, Bartram forges an association between nature and Native women in his “sylvan scene of primitive innocence,” which was “enchanting” and “perhaps too enticing for hearty young men long to continue idle spectators.”

In what Bartram calls a “joyous scene of action,” nature (read: passion) prevails over reason and European men are drawn helplessly—as if by Sirens—to the Native “nymphs” guarded by “vigilant” and “envious” matrons. The Native women are sensual and seductive because they seem in tune with Nature and the “Elysian fields.” In light of this analogy, Bartram speaks of Natives as “amorous topers,” “amorous and bacchanalian” dancers, amorous singers, and amorous and intriguing wives, just as he speaks of the “sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters” in their “varied wanton amorous chaces,” or of the “soothing love lays of the amorous cuckoo.” That is to say, Bartram effectively ties Native women to the carnal cravings of animal lust. For this reason, the desire to penetrate takes on a much stronger meaning than the one Gaudio describes vis-à-vis Bacon—it becomes not just about examinations of exterior surfaces but about the physical need and urge to thrust right through surfaces.

The land on and adjacent to a particular river “appears naturally fertile,” Bartram declares, “notwithstanding its arenaceous surface.” Surfaces can be deceiving, so Bartram digs deeper, so to speak, and identifies their sexual and reproductive possibilities. Similarly, he likens “many acres of surface” to a “delusive green wavy plain of the Nymphae Nelumbo,” a plant that represents sexual purity or virginity. In these and other instances, Bartram renders nature as a playground of erotic spaces for male pleasure. Simply put, Bartram’s nature is fertile and stimulates sexual arousal.

If, for Bartram, Native women were in harmony with nature and so were fertile and seductive—if they were hypersexualized—then Gaudio could have done far more with the vaginal motifs in Travels. Like countless others, he could have called into question the tropes, male gazing, and sexual power plays at work in the book and thereby achieved a “political” reading actually supported by the text. Gaudio is at his best when bringing to light metaphors that would seem easy to overlook, but his analysis fails for disregarding the obvious sexual and vaginal connotations evoked by these metaphors. At worst, his analysis fails for pivoting on a major assumption—that Bartram limited his analysis to surfaces and exteriors without regard to “the insides.” If anything, Bartram seems even more interested in “the insides” given his sexual renderings of a nature that invites penetration and carnal exploration.

See the following articles for more reading:

Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder: Westview, 1999.

Fischer, Kirsten. “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Fleming, E. McClung. “The American Image as Indian Princess.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 2 (1965: 65-81).

Gaudio, Michael. “Swallowing the Evidence: William Bartram and the Limits of Enlightenment.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 36, No. 1 (2001: 1-17).

Hallock, Thomas. “Male Pleasure and the Genders of Eighteenth-Century Botanic Exchange: A Garden Tour.” The William and Mary Quarterly 62.4 (2005): 32 pars. 13 Oct. 2009 .

The Travels of William Bartram. Ed. Mark Van Doren. New York: Dover Publications, 1928.

Schoelwer, Susan Prendergast. “The Absent Other,” in Discovered Lands, Inventing Pasts. Yale University Press, 1992.

American Literary History and Pragmatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Walt Whitman, Writing on August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

American literary history, even before C.S. Peirce named “pragmatism” as a philosophy, validates much of what pragmatism has to offer.  Joan Richardson speaks of “frontier instances” whereby certain writers become aesthetic outposts from which we can trace continuities of thought and artistic representation.  She treats literature as a life form that must adapt to its environment; similarly, Richard Poirier looks to a tradition of linguistic skepticism in American literature to show the role that artistic influence and troping have had on American culture.  Long before Richardson and Poirier, George Santayana exercised his own literary flair in his celebratory, summative essays about American culture and experience.  If American literary history can undergo operations of tracing and mapping, it might be because—as Richardson, Poirier, and Santayana have suggested—the unfolding and development of an American literary canon have been processes of evolution.  Literary texts and movements have shown a tendency toward growth that is responsive to the natural and changing circumstances of the time.

Richardson begins A Natural History of Pragmatism with 17th century Puritan ministers and then quickly moves to Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is representative of the Calvinist notion of limited disclosure, the idea, in other words, that God reveals his divinity to us through the shapes, forms, and outlines he provides to us in the phenomenal world.  From this idea (and others like it) began the uniquely American insistence on the value of nature and the physical universe to thought and the spiritual or psychological realm.  As Americans sought to make themselves culturally and intellectually independent from Europe, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they used the New World landscapes and vastly unexplored (by Europeans at least) terrains as objects of their fascination and as sources of inspiration.  Even figures like Jefferson insisted upon the scientific study of the natural world in order to authorize theories about law and politics, which he wished to distinguish from European ways.  Jefferson, like William Bartram, another naturalist, lionized Natives as being more in tune with nature and hence more “lawful” in the sense that their communal governments were in keeping with the laws of nature.  However problematic we may consider these romanticized depictions today, we should at least say of them that they inspired further attention to sustained observation of nature as a critical component of what was intended to be a new way of thinking divorced from the Old World of Europe.

Santayana says that when orthodoxy recedes, speculation flourishes, and accordingly it is no surprise that as Puritanism solidified into an orthodoxy of the kind against which it once defined itself, there was a resistance among artists and writers and thinkers.  Emerson, for one, adapted the thinking of the Calvinists while maintaining their commitment to the natural world as a means for realizing higher truths.  Instead of God revealing himself to man through the forms of the natural world, God, according to Emerson, was realized within the person with a poetical sense, who was inspired by the natural world to discover the divinity within himself.  To become one and to see all—that is, to become a “transparent eyeball”—was something of a religious experience for Emerson.  Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

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