Landscape in America 1850-1890: Dreaming of Paradise

By Elizabeth Bryant


In the decades following the Civil War, the lingering dream of the West was tainted by the recognition that the West was vanishing. The faith in Manifest Destiny remained, but not with the same pre-war righteousness. There was increasing anxiety over immigration. Foreigners, first welcomed as cheap labor on the railroads and in the burgeoning factories, now seemed to overwhelm the cities. There was a sense that the dream of America was threatened. Newcomers were scapegoated. Somehow it was their fault that the dream had gone wrong. The corruption of the Old World had wormed its way into paradise.

By the turn of the century, the country embraced modernism, seeking to express in art an American version of the future, of the new sense of space and time of a brave new world. Utopia was a world of the future, not the past; of technology, not nature. Later historians found it difficult to value these pictures, which lagged so far behind the European advances into impressionism, and beyond. If art history was the story of a single aesthetic evolution, American landscape painting was an embarrassment, an atavistic limb on the genealogical tree, decorative but leading nowhere. It is only in the last thirty years that these paintings have regained their market value and art historical status.

Conditions in later nineteenth-century America share similarities with those of the present. There are social and economic parallels in the beginning of the industrial age in the United States and the end of it now; in the revolution in communication and transportation then (with the completion of the transatlantic telegraph and the transcontinental railroad) and the revolution in communication technology now. There is our common scapegoating of the immigrant: our fear of losing a shared national heritage to people who are not like us, who threaten to take for nothing what we have struggled so hard to achieve. There are other parallels in what we stand to lose: the wilderness, the buffalo, the cowboy, and the Indian then; the salmon, eagle, and timber and fishing industries now. These are more than items on a conservation list -- these are symbols of national and regional identity, memories of our past and dreams of our future. They form our sense of ourselves: our image of who we are and where we live: our image of home.

The word "nostalgia" consists of roots meaning pain and home: the pain for the loss of home, for the security of the past. The phenomenon of nostalgia, we are told, occurs in times of transition, whether in an individual's life cycle, or in a society. Nostalgia is a kind of safety net, a protective mechanism that allows us to select from the past those positive images which may allow for a sense of continuity of self in the present. These images are icons of hope, as the early examples of landscape as Eden were images of hope for a national future drawn from memories of an invented past. Memory is, after all, selected and constructed. It is a tool we use to fill our needs, to piece together who we are and who we want to be.

The human organism is geared for stasis. Our nervous systems respond to stress and change chemically, altering our internal systems for short-term adaptation. When the stress is too great, or when it continues for too long, the body loses its ability to adapt. Physical and emotional problems -- especially depression -- can occur. The depressive is one whose neurological shock system has been blown, and one of the hallmarks of melancholic depression, as Freud noted, is persistent nostalgia. The melancholic cannot mourn and let go. He is stuck in grief, unable to use what was saved from the past to build on in the future. His nostalgia has lost its transformative function.



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