Issues of Geographical Determinism in American Literature
In 1823, James Fenimore Cooper published the first of a series of novels that would later become known as the Leatherstocking Tales. This first work, The Pioneers, describes life in a settlement on Lake Otsego in New York, focusing on both the conflicts within the community itself, and also the relationship between members of this civilized community and outsiders. These outsiders naturally include Native American characters, most notably John Mohegan, a wise elderly Native American who has accepted at least some aspects of the Christian faith. A story of pioneer settlement, if it is to remain true to the reality of the problems faced by the pioneers, cannot of course, fail to include clashes between the white settlers and the Native Americans. However, it is not these cross-cultural battles that take pride of place in Coopers analysis; instead, the focus is on the differences between the civilized white settlers of the community, and the natural codes and values of the white hunter and frontiersman, Natty Bumppo.
Bumppo is perhaps one of the first truly American characters to appear in American literature. Much has been written about the influence of Washington Irvines Rip Van Winkle as the first evidence of the emergence of a really American literature, however, Coopers novels, all of which focus on issues concerning American settlement and expansion, cannot be ignored in an analysis of the American character. The Pioneers is an analysis of how this new kind of character, the American frontiersman, would interact with white civilized society. As the plot develops and Bumppo is eventually forced to spend a short time in jail, Cooper is able to focus on the particular characteristics of the frontiersman that prevent him from assimilating into civilized society.
Although American writers both before and after Cooper analyzed the question with a much more direct approach, Coopers novels are actually an intrusion into the analysis and argument concerning the effects of the geography and environment of the American continent on the characters of its new inhabitants. Natty Bumppos moral and ethical values are shown to be a consequence of the many years that he has spent living in the wilderness of the frontier, an experience unknown to the community of new settlers. Cooper portrays Bumppo as a character that has adapted or been forced to adapt to new surroundings, the consequence of which is his inability or lack of desire to live together with the new settlers in the community. The impact of these new surroundings on the development of the character of the American people is in fact, a subject which has been analyzed by some of the most important writers of the past three centuries.
The Existence of Geographical Determinism in American Literature
Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar
soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from
the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of
religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.
Any analysis of the factors that determine the character of a whole nations people will undoubtedly need to rely on generalizations, some of which will of course be questionable. The theory of geographical or environmental determinism, with its emphasis on the role of the landscape and environment of a country as a central factor in the development of character, inescapably falls into this dangerous area of over-generalization. Is it really possible to determine what exactly the characteristics of a nations population are? Isnt the formation of character such a complex issue that any attempt to explain the causes of such an issue will remain incomplete? Just how American is such a theory anyway?
Despite naturally lending itself to claims of nationalism, the theory itself, giving increased importance to the role of the land, seems to oppose early American beliefs concerning the development of man. Puritanism, viewing the world and the people in it as the realization of Gods will, would more likely point to divine intervention when discussing the development of character. On the other hand, their belief in the perfectibility of mankind also prevents eighteenth century enlightenment thinkers from placing too much emphasis on external factors. Claims regarding the individuality and freedom of the American population would also naturally oppose any defense of determinism as a character-building theory.
However, despite the seemingly un-American nature of geographical determinism as a theory, a substantial number of great American writers have indeed addressed the subject. The two leading proponents of the theory are unquestionably J. Hector St. John de Crevecouer and Frederick Jackson Turner, however, many other writers, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper and Alexis de Tocqueville, have also expressed a belief in the importance of the geography of the new world.
Crevecouer, writing in the second half of the eighteenth century, attempted to analyze the development of this new man; the American. Having traveled widely, both in Europe and the New World, Crevecouer devoted a substantial section of his major work, Letters from an American Farmer, to analyzing the impact of the new territory on character development. By comparing men to plants and vegetation, Crevecouer emphasized the importance of the soil/land in allowing men to grow and develop. Furthermore, Crevecouer portrays the new American man in a very positive light, claiming that,
Everything has tended to regenerate them..here they are become men: in Europe
They were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mold and refreshing
Showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war; but now
By the power of transplantation, like all other plants, they have taken root and
Whereas Crevecouer is a firm supporter of the theory of determinism with respect to the white settlers, Thomas Jefferson, known for his vision of America as a nation of yeoman farmers, chose to focus instead on the character of the Native Americans. In his collection of essays entitled Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson entered the discussion of geographical determinism.
Let us therefore try our question (the impact of the environment on character) on
more general ground. Let us take our portions of the earth, Europe and America
for instance, sufficiently extensive to give cause to general causes; let us consider
the circumstances peculiar to each, and observe their effect on animal nature.
Jeffersons analysis, probably based on limited contact with Native Americans, fails to give the reader a satisfactory understanding of the character of these people. Furthermore, white settlers in the colonies are entirely absent from his discussion. However, by addressing the question quoted above, it is at least clear that Jefferson was aware that human/animal nature is formed to some extent by the surroundings.
Williams Carlos Williams, in his extended discussion of American history, In The American Grain, gives numerous examples concerning the difficulties faced by the pioneers due to the unconquerable nature of the American terrain. The analysis focuses mainly on Spanish and European explorers, however, Williams also portrays Edgar Allen Poe as perhaps the first truly American writer. Poe, according to Williams, was the first to realize that the hard, sardonic, truculent mass of the New World, hot, angry was, in fact, not a thing to paint over, to smear, to destroy for it would not be destroyed, it was too powerful Poes involvement in this discussion remains indirect, but once again, it seems evident that Poe, like Cooper, was aware of the importance of the terrain itself of the American continent.
Crevecouer and Jeffersons comments are obviously open to criticism of over-generalization. Attempting to describe the characteristics of an entire population is undoubtedly a huge task with limited possibilities of success. Contrary to this enormous undertaking, perhaps the greatest proponent of geographical determinism in American literature, Frederick Jackson Turner, selected to focus on only a small section of the American population; the frontiersman. Turner placed great emphasis on the role of the American frontiersman in America, claiming that, The forest clearings have been the seed plots of the American character.
According to Turner, living on the frontier, surrounded by wilderness, the American settler was forced to adapt to a more primitive lifestyle. These frontiersman suffered physical hardships and difficulties while remaining remote from education and the comforts of town and community life. In fact, it is the wilderness that plays the main role in de-civilizing and Americanizing the American settler.
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries,
tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts
him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him
in the hunting shirt and the moccasin..Before long he has gone to planting
Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the
scalp in orthodox Indian fashion.
Turners analysis of the frontiersman goes on to explain the existence of the democratic spirit, the tendency towards individualism and the absence of sectionalism in the American character, always with reference to the impact of the wilderness and the American frontier.
Despite focusing on only a small section of the American population, Turner attempts to analyze the impact of the frontier and the wilderness on all of the American settlers. Turners central argument is that the geographical situation of the American continent, particularly the continuous expansion of the western frontier, allowed a distinct American character to develop. As R. Douglas Francis has observed, The frontier was, however, for Turner much more than a physical place. It was a process by which Europeans were transformed into Americans..The frontier created a new person an American different in appearance and in outlook and attitude. By expanding the frontier, and consequently the distance between the American people and Europe, links with their European heritage, manners and customs were gradually severed, and the word American came into use as a meaningful character adjective.
The analysis of the impact of geography on the American character has therefore taken several different forms in American literature. Direct defenses of the theory of geographical determinism can be observed in the works of Crevecouer and Turner, whereas in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, frontiersmen are placed in the society of European settlers and the differences in character are revealed through conflict. The opening pages of Coopers Last of the Mohicans, explaining that, It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet. , introduce a further aspect of the relationship between the territory and the settlers which can also be seen in the early narratives of John Smith and William Bradford; the difficulty in settling and living on the land itself. Narratives such as these however, do not give the reader any indication of character development as a consequence of the difficulties faced.
Closely connected to the theory of geographical determinism is the idea of the Spirit of Place. Once again focusing on the geography of a place, defenders of the idea of the Spirit of Place emphasize the fact that certain geographical locations produce a certain spirit amongst the people of the area. D.H Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature defends the idea, pointing out that, Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. This claim of course, is impossible to either prove or disprove, however, the possibility of such a spirits existence is interesting in itself. Unfortunately, such theories also lend themselves to misuse by nationalists and xenophobes.
Geography of course, cannot feasibly be accepted as the only determinate factor in the creation of a national character. Crevecouer himself, in his defense of the importance of the environment, also mentions the impact of the kind of government created in a state, the type of religion followed, and the nature of the work undertaken by members of the community in the formation of character. Benjamin Franklin, often considered as the archetypal American, emphasized the importance of personal morality and individual inner-strength in the determination of character. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his highly detailed analysis of Democracy in America also played down the importance of geography in the development of the democratic, individual American.
According to de Tocqueville, despite the same geographical conditions existing in South America, similar characters and institutions have failed to materialize in those countries. Therefore physical causes do not influence the destiny of nations as much as is supposed. Instead, whereas Europeans exaggerate the influence of geography on the lasting powers of democratic institutions , much more influential factors creating democracy and equality in America are the laws and morals of the people.
The debate over the validity of geographical determinism in American literature is therefore varied, and generalized, as indeed it must be. Whereas Crevecouer chose to focus on the agrarian farmer, Turner and Cooper attempted to analyze the frontiersman and Jefferson paid most attention to the Native American. While Turner and Cooper focused on the wild, lawless Indian-like individual, Crevecouer analyzed the religious tolerance of Americans and de-Tocqueville emphasized the democratic beliefs of the American people. The problem is of course a consequence of the near impossibility of defining the typical character and personality of the American people.
Attempts to Define the American Character
The validity of any attempt to define a particular national character is always dubious due to the subjective nature of the exercise and the inherent prejudices of the writer. Stereotyping can hardly be classed as a thorough scientific exercise, and can unfortunately result in racism, xenophobia and oppression. In the eyes of white racists, colored people, whether they are African, Chinese or Arab, all resemble each other and therefore all behave alike. The African-American therefore becomes a drug-pushing criminal, and the Arab becomes an Islamic fundamentalist, intent on destroying the United States. Stereotyping is a controlled exercise by those in power, most likely with the intention of inciting nationalist and patriotic feeling.
Attempts to define the character of the American people encounters a further problem, that being the diversity of the population. Is it really possible for a national character to exist in a nation that prides itself on the diversity of its population? Once again, the debate is evident in the works of Crevecouer and Turner. In contrast to Crevecouers attempts to celebrate the differences between residents of different areas of the continent, Turner tries to reveal characteristics shared by Americans throughout the nation.
Crevecouer however, also enters the world of generalizations and attempts to precisely define what an American actually is. In the third letter of Letters from an American Farmer, Crevecouer claims that,
He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and
Manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the
New government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American
By being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater..The Americans
Were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the
Finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter
Become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American
Ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein he or his
Forefathers were born.
The American is therefore, a new man, capable of regenerating himself and taking on board new ideas and opinions. This new man, as a consequence of the benefits he has gained from the new world, will become patriotic and throw off the burden of the old world.
Crevecouers American is indeed an admirable character, however, emphasizing the diversity of the American people, Crevecouer also points out that not all inhabitants of the continent can fall into this category. The kind of character excluded from Crevecouers idyllic portrait is Turners frontiersman. In Crevecouers opinion, There men appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them, and when they are not able, they subsist on grain. Opinions like this of course, have no scientific basis, and as Crevecouer admits, all the proof I can adduce is that I have seen it
As a consequence of the subjective nature of such claims, it comes as no surprise to find an almost opposite view of the frontiersman in other works, particularly those of Cooper and Turner. Physically speaking, Coopers description of Natty Bumppo in The Pioneers gives us a seemingly objective portrait of the American frontiersman.
He was tall, and so meager as to make him seem above even the six feet that he actually stood in his stockings. On his head, which was thinly covered with lank, sandy hair, he wore a cap made of fox-skinHis face was skinny, and thin almost to emaciation; but yet it bore no signs of disease; - on the contrary, it had every indication of the most robust and enduring health. The cold and the exposure had, together, given it a color of uniform red; his grey eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy browshis scraggy neck was bare, and burnt to the same tint with his face
Cooper, combining negative descriptions such as emaciation with positive counterparts like robust and enduring health, seemingly gives us a well-rounded physical description of the hunter. However, it is not he physical aspects of the frontiersman that interest us here, but the character and personal attributes of such men.
In this respect, Turners analysis, despite its over-positive nature, is more useful. Indeed, the following description could in fact be applied to Coopers hunter, whose character is revealed during the novel.
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.
The phrase, traits called out elsewhere, implies that Turner was under the impression that the characteristics of the frontiersman could be found throughout American society; a bold claim to say the least. Turners highly positive description of the American shouldnt of course be accepted without bearing in mind the writers obvious American nationalism.
Character generalizations are always dangerous areas to enter in any field of study, however, without the existence of such generalizations, it is doubtless whether many of these fields of study would ever have gained any importance. Fields of study like history, sociology, psychology and biology rely on the existence of similarities between people, and would be worthless is such similarities didnt exist.
Analyzing the American character relies on such generalizations, and despite the subjective nature and diversity of the sources, various characteristics are still visible in a significant number of works. The individualism of the yeoman farmer and the frontiersman is fundamental to the works of writers ranging from Emerson and Thoreau to Benjamin Franklin. Furthermore, connected to individualism are two conflicting consequences of an individualistic society, democracy and the refusal to accept authority, both of which figure constantly in American literature up to and including the present day post-modernist works. To what extent these particular characteristics were geographically determined is of course, a different, more complicated question.
Geographical Determinism at work in American Literature
The theory of determinism suggests that certain geographical features of any particular location will naturally produce certain characteristics in the people of the area. Therefore generalizations such as the nomadic nature of tribes living in the open deserts and the aggressively competitive nature of big-city dwellers can be explained as a consequence of the surroundings in which the people find themselves. An analysis of the geographical conditions of the American continent would be a monstrous undertaking, however, it may be useful to focus on a small number of undeniable features of the area. Geographical factors which writers have pointed to as being influential in the determination of the American character include the sheer size of the continent, the availability of land, the ever expanding frontier and the high productive quality of the land.
The Size of the Continent
From the European perspective in particular, the American continent comes across as an enormous land mass. Journeys from east to west will generally stretch to approximately 3000 kilometers passing through three time zones. Furthermore, the distance from Miami in the South to Boston in the North is not a great deal shorter. Until the development of the railroads during the nineteenth century, a national infrastructure was virtually non-existent. Consequently, despite the propensity of Americans to travel widely, contact between residents of different states remained minimal.
As a result of this minimal contact, provincialism blossomed, with people not only associating themselves with the new nation, but also with their own particular states. As Crevecouer notes,
Exclusive of those general characteristics, each province has its own, founded on the government, climate, mode of husbandry, customs, and peculiarity of circumstances. Europeansbecome, in the course of a few generations, not only Americans in general, but either Pennsylvanians, Virginians, or provincials under some other name.
Therefore, according to Crevecouer, it is the sheer size of the land that leads to the development of such a diversity of character among the American people.
The fact that the land produced diverse cultures could be seen as a catalyst for future social tensions among people with different life-styles. However both Crevecouer and Turner were optimistic on this issue. Crevecouer strongly believed that the geographical separation of the American people, while producing a diversity of character, would eventually lead to a synthesis. In terms of religion, if settlers are geographically separated, their zeal will cool for want of fuel, and will be extinguished in a little time. Then the Americans become as to religion what they are as to country, allied to all.
The optimism of Crevecouer was matched by Turner in his nationalistic assumption that the size of the continent would lead to a peaceful co-existence among the many different settlers in America. Turner claimed that the middle-region of the United States, serving as a connecting passage between the eastern seaboard and the western frontier, would decrease sectionalism. Referring to these central states as the typically American region, Turner suggested that, Even the New Englander, who was shut out from the frontier by the middle region, tarrying in New York or Pennsylvania on his westward march, lost the acuteness of his sectionalism on the way. The size of the landmass therefore, was going to have an extremely positive effect on the population of the United States, creating a religiously tolerant, non-sectionalist society.
The Availability of Land
One obvious consequence of the enormous size of the American continent was the availability of land to the settlers. Although speculators would buy up the cheap land during the nineteenth century in order to sell for huge profits, during the settlement period and the expansion of the frontier, land was available to all at exceedingly cheap rates. The availability of such productive land was of course, a huge incentive and pulling-factor for European immigrants. Failing to see the future problems caused by such mass immigration, in 1784 Benjamin Franklin pointed out that, Strangers are welcome, because there is room enough for them all, and therefore the old inhabitants are not jealous of them. Unfortunately, the absence of jealousy towards new comers would not be a permanent characteristic of the American people.
Alexis de Tocqueville took a different approach to the question, yet agreed with Franklin about the positive effects on character of the availability of land. De Tocqueville, focusing on the democratic nature of the American population, saw in the western states the opportunity to create real democracy due to the absence of aristocratic landowners. As the inhabitants have arrived only yesterday in the places where they dwell, the population escapes the influence not only of great names and great wealth but also of the natural aristocracy of education and probity. Once again, the historical nature of this truth is self-evident to all those with an understanding of the social structure of twentieth century America.
Turner also saw the availability of cheap land as a positive factor in the development of the American character. Pointing to the transforming influences of free land, Turner observed that, a new environment is suddenly entered, freedom of opportunity is opened, the cake of custom is broken, and new activities, new lines of growth, new institutions and new ideals, are brought into existence. The availability of land therefore, according to analysts, led to the development of a tolerant, democratic, inventive, inspirational American population.
The Specific Consequences of the Frontier
No analysis of geographical determinism in America would be complete without a glance at the impact of the frontier on the American character, particularly with reference to Turners work. Cowboys and Indians films, stories of pioneers and legends of the Wild West have played a major role in the development of the image of America, and therefore, the importance of the frontier in American history in undeniable.
Turner saw the frontier as a cause of several characteristics of not only frontiersmen, but of all Americans. The frontier was to be a nationalizing force, bringing all Americans together and creating a non-European identity. As Francis argues, Turners frontier thesis was of immediate popularity because it both shaped and reflected the American consciousness of the time. Turner put into words what so many Americans, particularly those of the American West, were feeling and thinking about their country. To what extent the frontier affected the whole nation is of course, debatable. However, there do seem to exist traditional character traits of the American people that can be directly linked to the frontier.
Most importantly in Turners opinion, the frontier is productive of individualism , and therefore creates the kind of lone cowboy image of films, while also hinting at connections to the individual nature of Jeffersons yeoman farmer. Furthermore, as a consequence of this individuality, Turners frontiersman/American, rebelled against external controls and laws, became anti-social and rejected societal norms, and instead lived by his own moral standards and physical strength. Thus he had a strong faith in democratic government. The connection between individuality and democracy is not entirely clear in Turners thesis and he was indeed, aware of the inherent conflict between democracy and anti-social behavior. However, despite these drawbacks, Turners frontiersman, a product of the frontier itself, is still a highly admirable character.
The Quality of Land
One final aspect of the geography of America that can be seen as a determiner of the American character is the quality of the land available. Once again, two voices, Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Franklin, address the subject from different perspectives and therefore reach different conclusions. Notably however, once again, the conclusions are positive and pro-American.
De Tocquevilles whole study of America is an analysis of democracy in the New World. The availability of free land for the poor and enslaved naturally led to a more democratic society due to the absence of aristocratic landholders. De Tocqueville however, takes the issue further in his analysis of the quality of the land, focusing on the difficulty of producing crops as a cause of democracy.
It was obvious that to clear this untamed land nothing but the constant and committed labor of the landlord himself would serve. The ground, once cleared, was by no means fertile enough to make both a landlord and a tenant rich. So the land was naturally broken up into little lots which the owner himself cultivated.
Whereas Crevecouer emphasizes the difficulty in cultivating the land, Franklin, in his permanently optimistic prose, points to the consequences of the ease in which farmers can succeed in America. According to Franklin, due to the quality of the air, climate and provisions, by the certainty of subsistence in cultivating the earth, the increase of inhabitants by natural generation is very rapid in America Synthesizing the two opinions therefore, despite the disagreement over the productivity of the land, the American population was going to increase rapidly, while retaining and even developing the democratic nature of the people.
The extent of the role played by geography in the development of the American character is a question that will never receive a final answer. As different sciences and different political movements gain prominence, opinions concerning the character of the American population, and the development of this character will alter. Furthermore, actually pinning down the features of this American character is problematic in itself.
The vast majority of great writers who have touched on this subject have analyzed the role of geography and the environment in a very positive light. However, despite the positive nature of their works, writers such as Turner were also aware of the conflicting consequences of such geographical features as the frontier. The frontier produced both individualism and a sense of democracy in the American people, however, as Turner accepts, They learned that between the ideal of individualism, unrestrained by society, and the ideal of democracy, was an innate conflict; that their very ambitions and forcefulness had endangered their democracy. In sharp contrast to his over optimistic call for a national character, the awareness of this conflict between individualism and democracy remains one of Turners most accurate observations. Indeed, the conflict can be observed most clearly in Coopers frontiersman, Natty Bumppo. Bumppos clash with society is, after all, a consequence of his ardent belief in individualism.
It seems appropriate, however, to end with the words of the most serious proponent of geographical determinism, J. Hector St. John de Crevecouer. Crevecouer saw in the American continent, an opportunity for people to develop themselves, economically, morally and spiritually. Indeed, the very geography of the continent was to be the basis of what later became known as the American Dream; generalized, scientifically dubious, yet always optimistic.
Welcome to my shores, distressed European; bless the hour in which thou did see my verdant fields, my fair navigable rivers, and my green mountains! if thou wilt work, I have bread for thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober, and industrious, I have greater rewards to confer on thee ease and independence.