- Historic Sites
The Search For A Usable Past
A distinguished historian describes how America, suddenly thrust into nationhood without a history of its own, set out to create one. And what a splendid achievement it was!
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
Not all of these artists of the early West re-created the past for their own generation. Miller, for example, was not really known in his own day, nor was Stanley. Far more important in the creation of the popular image of America were two artist-ornithologists, Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, who captured for all time the flora and fauna of America in its pastoral age. Wilson’s ninevolume American Ornithology was perhaps the most ambitious work of science in the early republic. Soon came Audubon’s Birds of America , less scientific than Wilson’s Ornithology but more splendid, “the most magnificent monument” said Cuvier, “which art has ever raised to ornithology.” And Audubon, of course, contributed more: his own extraordinary life and legend.
The sumptuous paintings of Wilson and Audubon reached the public only gradually, and in cheap reproductions. More effective was the impact of the almost forgotten school of panoramists. The hapless John Vanderlyn, who had dared display his nude Ariadne to an outraged public, introduced the panorama, in a specially built rotunda in New York’s City Hall Park. But it was Versailles and Athens and Mexico which he chose to display; perhaps that is why he failed. His successors preferred to reveal America, and particularly the Father of Waters, which had the advantage of being almost the only object of nature longer than their paintings. One John Rowson Smith did a panorama of the Mississippi as early as 1844; when he displayed it at Saratoga Springs, New York, he took in twenty thousand dollars in six weeks. Soon there were a dozen rivals in the field: John Banvard, for example, who claimed that his Mississippi panorama was three miles long (actually it was only a quarter of a mile—a bad calculation, that). Poor John Stanley, who had so little luck with his Indian paintings, scored a tremendous success with a panorama of the Western Wilds , forty-two episodes, no less, requiring a minimum of two hours to view! Greatest of all the panoramists was Henry Lewis, who managed to cover almost three-quarters of a mile of canvas with his paintings; his earnings from his great panorama enabled him to settle in Düsseldorf and learn to paint. Whatever their artistic merits, or demerits, the panoramas helped give a whole generation of Americans some feeling for the spaciousness and the beauty of the early West.
Writing in 1841, Emerson had lamented that “banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi. … Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boasts and our repudiations … the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination.” Poets and artists had responded, but none had quite encompassed American nature. Even Whitman and Winslow Homer could not quite do that. For nature played a special role in American history and in the process of creating a sense of history and a national consciousness. Since the seventeenth century, Europeans have not had to concern themselves energetically with the conquest of nature, for nature, like history, was given. For Americans, on the other hand, the relationship to nature was more personal, and more complex. They had an empty continent to settle and successive frontiers to conquer, and for them nature had always played a twofold role: her ruggedness was a challenge, and her richness a manifestation of divine favor. How suggestive it is that for over two hundred years Europeans could not make up their minds whether the New World was Paradise or an accursed place, whether its natives were Noble Savages or degenerate men without souls. But however nature was to be interpreted—and by the nineteenth century the paradisiacal interpretation had triumphed—it was, in a peculiar way, the great common denominator and the great common experience. Virginians, Pilgrims, and Quakers alike could rejoice in the abundance of nature, and generations of pioneers, even those who were not Mayflower descendants or FFVs, could cherish the common memory of hardship endured and overcome.
Because they had conquered nature, Americans came in time to think that they had created it and to display toward it a proprietary interest. The stupendous flow of Niagara, the luxuriance of the Bluegrass, the power and majesty of the Father of Waters, the limitless expanse of prairie and plain, the glory of the Rockies—all of these came to be regarded as national attributes, and failure to appreciate them, like failure to appreciate political attributes, an affront. How interesting that from “Swanee River” to “OV Man River” songs celebrating nature have usurped the place of formal patriotic music—“Dixie,” for example, or “My Old Kentucky Home,” or “On the Banks of the Wabash,” or “Home on the Range,” or best of all, “America, the Beautiful.”