"Passions for Nature turns the conventional wisdom about nature in mid-nineteenth-century America on its head. Rochelle Johnson argues persuasively that most of the era's nature writing and art says more about culture than it does about nature, and her call for us to attend more closely to nature's materiality comes at a crucial time. A bracing and original contribution to environmental studies."
—Daniel J. Philippon, author of Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement
Nineteenth-century Americans celebrated nature through many artistic forms, including natural-history writing, landscape painting, landscape design theory, and transcendental philosophy. Although we tend to associate these movements with the nation’s dawning environmental consciousness, Passions for Nature demonstrates that they instead alienated Americans from the physical environment even as they seemed to draw people to it. Rather than see these expressions of passion for nature as initiating environmental awareness, this study reveals how they contributed to a culture that remains startlingly ignorant of the details of the material world. Using as a touchstone the writings of nineteenth-century philanthropist Susan Fenimore Cooper (the daughter of famed author James Fenimore Cooper), Passions for Nature reveals that while a generalized passion for nature was intense and widespread in her era, cultural attention to the "real" physical world was quite limited. Popular artistic forms represented the natural world through specific metaphors for the American experience, cultivating a national tradition of valuing nature in terms of humanity.
Johnson crosses disciplinary boundaries to demonstrate that anthropocentric understandings of the natural world result not only from the growing gulf between science and imagination that C. P. Snow located in the early twentieth century but also--and surprisingly--from cultural productions traditionally viewed as positive engagements with the environment. By uncovering the roots of a cultural alienation from nature, Passions for Nature explains how the United States came to be a nation that simultaneously reveres the natural world and yet remains dangerously distant from it.
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