In the early 19th century, disgusted by the waste of the natural environment and the dehumanization brought on by the Industrial Revolution, the literary and artistic communities of Europe were turning toward Romanticism. Opposing the limitations placed on the individual in much religious thinking and blurring the divine and human demarcation, the Romantics saw a natural world that was beautiful in and of itself that benefited little from so-called progress. And just as progress and industrialization came from Europe to America, so did Romanticism where it found a natural environment that suited the word beautiful. In building the young nation, most Americans had little use for the literary conventions of the Romantics, but their thought did lead to a Romanticism on steroids called Transcendentalism.
Though born in the thought of Immanuel Kant, Transcendentalism found a fertile ground in America, where it riled against the cold intellectualism of Unitarianism and the manifest destiny of Calvinism. More importantly it found a landscape that befitted its emphasis on the goodness of creation.
As DH Lawrence found fertile ground in the libertine attitude that surrounds human embrace, American naturalist John Muir found a liberty to be had in the embrace of nature. Raised on the cold austerity of Restorationist Christianity, Muir revolted against the aloof God of his upbringing to see the Creator as nearly inseparable from His creation. And just as Lawrence was credited with saying, “the soul needs beauty more than bread,” Muir said “no synonym for God is more perfect than Beauty.” He came to acknowledge this beauty in “the carving the glaciers gave the mountains, the gathering of stars, the movement of water.” No place could this be more evident than in the rugged and lovely lands of the new world, which inspired Muir and led Lawrence to a joy he found absent in Europe save for the emerging “wandern kultur” which was born from the great pilgrimages and then took on a life of its own. (Though this post supposes uniqueness to American spirituality informed by its landscape, it is wrong to think of Europe as absent from this. The fact remains that Europe had fewer places free from settlement that could inspire one with the presence of nature, the possible exception being the southern forests of Germany and alpine regions of Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.)
America was ripe with beauty and its landscape inspired many, not the least of which were Emerson and Thoreau, to see the divine in ways that were absent in the thoughts of those who saw God as being “wholly other,” so prevalent to the Protestantism on the European continent where Romanticism was born and from where America was receiving its immigrants. In Europe many Romantics, preferring to see God, the creation, and humanity working in tandem converted to Catholicism preferring its emphasis on human participation in divine action to the concept of total depravity that argued humans did nothing to merit God’s goodness. In America where rugged individualism prevailed, it would lead to seeing God free of the rigid definitions of magisterial Protestantism without any particular love for Catholicism. It can be argued, this is the start of a creation spirituality which influenced North America more than any other part of the world.
The names became myriad. Henry David Thoreau wrote On Walden Pond to extol the beauty of nature, Albert Bierstadt painted the mountains of Colorado and California that drove a fascination for the beauty of the American west, and John Muir agitated for a democratic understanding of the land that would give us the national parks. Without the restraints of churches and monarchies, Americans were left to their liberty to give new definition to religion and governance. For some this led to a manifest destiny; for others an understanding of the individual’s relation with the divine that eventually became spirituality without religion.
With this liberty came the desire to wander. Every new settlement in the East brought regulation and orderly society….no longer a king or state church to answer to, but governance nonetheless. And with every new settlement in the East came the push West. The English colonists who settled New England and had been distrustful of nature spoke of “a shining city on a hill,” one that would tower above nature and base instinct. By the time settlement reached the Midwest it was the “city in a garden” that held sway and for many who pushed the boundaries of the frontier beyond the Mississippi it was only the garden itself.
Rivers, mountains, and Native peoples became no barrier to American wanderlust and the settlement that followed. Though they had little use for the intellectualism of an emerging natural theology and would certainly not agree with preserving every square inch of nature, frontier people developed their own mythologies of the beauty of the unspoiled land and with it an independence that had little use for church or state. Tex and Kitty had more in common with David Henry Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen than we might imagine even if the later did damn the republicanism on which America was built. (To be fair this distaste for democracy had much more to do with France.) This American push into the unknown also brought with it a different kind of traveler and personality that was more pilgrim than explorer.
When Europe set out to colonize and to later conquer the Himalayas and the poles, the story was about men who worked for the glory of the state and left their wives and children safely in urban Europe. The American settler was different. He did not leave with the blessings of the church or the edict of a king. His ally was his helpmate. The good he worked for was a better life for his children. He had to engage the geography and its people (for better or worse) in ways the European did not. This simultaneously noble and sad story is nearly the whole of the American experience and with it would come mythologies that need to be both embraced and corrected.
Note: Painting by Albert Bierstadt