Alternative Spaces, Shifting Landscapes: Perception, Orientation and Literary Form in Nineteenth-Century America
During a period preoccupied with the nationalization, the mapping and the settlement of an identifiably “American” space, we’ll be exploring, on the one hand, how sense of space in the nineteenth-century U.S. is conceived through the lens of maps and paintings, aesthetic conventions and discourses, fraught with latent ideological implications. Pastoralism, the picturesque, and a jingoistic version of the sublime, along with a cartography deeply rooted in capitalistic economics and imperial politics, and a tendency to view the wilderness through the lens of culturally endorsed schemata all contribute to the nationalization of the American continent and a would-be normalization of sense of space in the era of Manifest Destiny. But even as sense of space is heavily mediated through such organizing lenses, a counter-sensitivity develops to the way what W.J.T. Mitchell terms the apparent “givenness of sight and site” ultimately remains in the play of culturally mediated truth, falling between, for example, Western cartographical and aesthetic conventions and alternative possibilities of landscape which writers like Thoreau and Fuller grow sensitive to in studying native tribal languages and myths. At bottom, the most fundamental object-forms (such as a tree) prove surprisingly fluid and in the play of shifting associations and perspectives. The ostensibly literal is latently interpretative. The idea of a frontier separating known from unfamiliar, unknown space is reconceived as ubiquitous and diffusive; one can cross such a frontier into strange, unfamiliar spacevirtually anywhere. Indeed, as writers such as Poe, Melville, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman reveal, passage into an unfamiliar here and now, where governing epistemic paradigms break down, can occur within the precincts of bureaucratic urban offices or even in the confines of the bourgeois home setting.
In what will remain primarily a literary course supplemented by readings in spatial and epistemological theory and a review of nineteenth-century visual culture, our focus will be on how sense of space becomes an unsettled question rather than a site of visual and interpretative settlement that caters to ideological closure and a nationalism based upon a totalized sense of space. Primary readings in such authors as Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Melville and Chief Seattle (the putative author of a “Speech” actually encompassing colliding viewpoints and voices); secondary readings will include W.J. T. Mitchell on imperial landscape, Angela Miller on nineteenth-century American painting, and chapters from my own book on “landscape and ideology”; extra-literary cultural materials will include maps, paintings, and lithography.