The Garden Of Eden And The Deacon’s Meadow

PrintPrintEmailEmailMrs. Stowe published this delicious piece of cultural history in 1869, purporting to describe a New England of about 1790; actually, she was pushing back into an Eighteenth-Century setting everything she remembered (and she remembered everything) about the world of her childhood, in Litchfield, Connecticut, around 1820. In New England, but also in every intensely Protestant community within the United States—which is to say, as of that date, virtually all American communities—there were innumerable Pollys. Mary Ann Willson was one, but they did not all have to be females or servants, as both Edward Hicks and Erastus Salisbury Field here make evident to us. They could all be as circumstantial about the Garden of Eden or the pit into which Joseph was thrust as about Deacon Badger’s meadow—probably more circumstantial. Field’s painting of the Garden was hardly a work of the creative imagination: thousands of his contemporaries could recognize it as readily as we do a photograph of the Eiffel Tower.

The remarkable aspect about this sort of painting, and of such daily conversation as we find reliably recorded, is that the Biblical vision out of which these particular examples come was so predominantly, almost exclusively, confined to the Old Testament. There are hundreds of Edens, Josephs, Elijahs for every rare Crucifixion or still more rare re-creation of the Manger, while Madonnas are, of course, nonexistent. Scenes and themes from Hebrew history are so pervasive in the literature—from Captain Ahab down to Mrs. Lydia Sigourney’s Aaron on Mount Hor—that one can only stand today in speechless amazement at what a large intimacy with the Old Testament writers could assume as a matter of course among their readers:

But then, as Moses raised

The mystic breastplate, and that dying eye

Caught the last radiance of those precious stones,

By whose oracular and fearful light

Jehovah had so oft his will reveal’d

Unto the chosen tribes, whom Aaron loved,

In all their wanderings—but whose promised land

He might not look upon—he sadly laid

His head upon the mountain’s turfy breast,

And with one prayer, half wrapp’d in stifled groans,

Gave up the ghost.

One might well suppose that Lydia Sigourney also had been there personally! Her myriad admirers had no difficulty accepting on her say-so the botanical fact that Mount Hor was “turfy.”

The Old Testament is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air the people breathed. But as soon as you pause to ask the reason for this preoccupation with the Old Testament by a people intensely concerned about securing for themselves the salvation promised in the New, you find yourself in the realm of those intangibles which are the warp and woof of history, upon which politics and even economics are comparatively surface embellishments. But the deeper irony of the situation is the fact that in these very decades which produced in folk art and in popular literature the greatest efflorescence of the Hebraic imagination, Protestant piety was turning steadily away from the Old Testament toward an ecstatic rediscovery of the New. Such poems as Mrs. Sigourney’s or such panels as Mary Ann Willson’s Prodigal Son are not harbingers of the Nineteenth Century: they are the last lingering rays from a sun that set with the Eighteenth Century. If these creations are to be properly characterized, they should be called not “primitives” but the end products of a sophisticated culture that was receding before the onslaught of a new primitivism, that of the camp meeting.