In the vein of environmental histories reliant on literary criticism and artistic interpretation, Mark Luccarelli’s latest offering highlights the relationship between nature and fabricated environments from the colonial period through the Civil War. A senior lecturer of American civilization at the University of Oslo, he “approaches environmental literature and art in a broad geographical and political context” to trace the roots of what he terms “global environmentalism” and the elastic use of “green” in current discourse (p. 218). Akin to Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism (Duke, 1991), which mined twentieth-century art, literature, music, and film to pinpoint larger cultural watersheds, Luccarelli attempts similar analyses by examining five key places or regions. The result is a provocative yet highly challenging book demonstrating how Americans (emigrant and native born) imagined their relationships with nature as their cities matured. Following a brief but convoluted introduction, Luccarelli examines Philadelphia from its 1682 chartering and the creation of its rectilinear grid through the American Revolution and the rise of the market economy after 1800. What began as William Penn’s experiment to blunt conflagrations and disease emerged as the clearest example (and first American attempt) to improve urban planning and foster civic culture. During the 1700s, European artists were drawn to Philadelphia’s industries, mercantile energy, and what Luccarelli terms its “lived landscape” (p. 49). No one captured the latter in greater detail than William Birch, whose twenty-eight prints of various Philadelphia scenes comprise what the author terms “the first detailed representation of a city in American art” (p. 37). Surprisingly, Luccarelli omits German émigré John Lewis Krimmel, whose canvases of Philadelphia street life stood as the first genre paintings of urban America. With the national capital moving to Washington, D.C., Luccarelli identifies an aesthetic turn from the commercial city to the “monumental city” (p. 57). Pierre L’Enfant, selected to design the new capital, found Philadelphia’s symmetry lacking dramatic vistas of his native Paris. While L’Enfant did not abandon symmetry, he forsook commerce for governmental architecture, or what the author labels a turn “from lifeworld to polis” (p. 60). As a contrast to commerce and monumentality, Luccarelli probes the Hudson River Valley, the “great generator of landscape painting” (p. 81). Through analyses of William Guy Wall’s drawings and George Caitlin’s illustrations, he identifies the landscape turn, or “pastoral retreat” evident in their scenes of the Erie Canal, the West Point campus, and Buffalo’s shipping industry as outgrowths of the Hudson’s proximity to New York. As in Thomas Cole’s “Arcadia” from The Course of Empire, Luccarelli argues that the arrival of industry into Hudson River Valley inspired artists to strike a balance between a romanticized nature and early industrialization. With the advent of railroads and further commodification of forests and waterways, Luccarelli considers the “transcendental turn” to lamentations about nature’s disappearance. Citing Thoreau’s The Maine Woods essays, whose earlier Walden chided the noise of locomotives, he notes the author straddled feelings of excitement and dread when touring Maine’s backcountry. Thoreau’s engagement in “pure nature” with its “primitive swamps prevailing” led him to judge wildness an integral part of the American experience, an ethos later sanctified by John Muir (p. 174). Luccarelli’s final (and most ambitious) chapter examines New York City’s rise to the nation’s peerless commercial center following completion of the Erie Canal. With the city’s population expanding threefold by 1850, New York emerged as “the city of the people” (p. 178). Evidenced by Olmsted’s park designs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as Paul Strand’s Wall Street and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Luccarelli creates an exciting tension between a burgeoning metropolis and how its citizens related to the built environment. Despite its synthetic qualities, exceptional use of illustrations, fine points of analysis, and erudite commentary, the book suffers from egregious editing mistakes, wandering trains of thought, and scattered chronologies. Luccarelli’s conclusion, which purports to summarize each chapter, only serves to further confuse the reader. With these strengths and weaknesses in mind, this book would inspire lively debates in graduate seminars in environmental history, art history, or related disciplines. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society 2018. This work is written by a US Government employee and is in the public domain in the US This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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