There is a lot we can learn about others in the how they treat, and view, nature. Often we are quick to make judgments upon people who abuse animals, and of course there is feigned-respect for indigenous peoples and their actual reverence toward nature. But how are we to judge fictional characters? Are we to critique the author, or the creation? Or is there a cultural driving force propelling the narrative that we should place under the microscope of scrutiny? If even possible to do so, these are not simple questions to answer. However, by performing close readings of the texts, we may get a closer idea of what that particular zeitgeist behind the book is. A good example of this is to juxtapose the two divergent portrayals of nature found in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In comparing and contrasting the depictions of nature in each one of these texts, it is easier to get a closer approximation to the overall zeitgeist of the times, and to see how each of these texts reflects the current cultural norm.
In attacking the concept of the Idea of Nature in two great American texts such as these we must closely look at the time in which they were originally published. Cooper first published The Pioneers in 1823, the United States of America was barely 50 years old, and much of the country had yet to be explored. We get a clear picture of how early, Anglo-Saxon Americans dealt with the apparent bounty and wildness of nature throughout much of Cooper’s work. Being episodic in content, The Pioneers, as a text, easily helps us pick out examples of the idea of this vastness of the continent’s bounty. One particular scene that goes to highlight such thinking is the pigeon hunt. We are treated to a frenetic episode where almost all the town has turned out to shoot large flocks of the birds without regard for the need of conservation, as we would see today. The narrator is quick to point out that “None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion, as to cover the very ground with the fluttering victims” (246). The only character to raise a concern for such a practice is Nathaniel Bumppo, who is quickly rebuked by others from the town. If we were to solely look at this particular episode, it would be easy to argue that in this time, Nature was a force, not to be worked in harmony with, but one against which to rage and conquer.
There is another scene in The Pioneers where Cooper presents the idea that Nature is made to be conquered. In chapter XIX, there is an exchange between Louisa and Elizabeth, well-sheltered within Judge Temple’s mansion. Being concerned that the howling they hear is not the wind, Louisa exclaims that the sounds are those of wolves, driven from the mountains. Elizabeth, confident in her station as Judge Temple’s daughter, and in her position in the natural hierarchy as a human, makes the claim that “The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests. How rapidly is civilization treading on the footsteps of nature” (212). It does not take a close reading of the text to correlate this sentiment with a common belief that Man was put on Earth to act as overlord to the rest of nature, a concept common in the dogma of most Christian teachings.
Yet, we see, however, that Nature is not one to be so easily tamed and conquered. In Chapter XXVIII, while walking through the woods, against Judge Temple’s warning, Elizabeth and Louisa are beset by a panther. Elizabeth, trusting her protection to her domesticated mastiff, Brave, is almost over-run by the big cat, until the intervention of Natty Bumppo. Later in the novel, Bumppo challenges Judge Temple, asking if the laws of man stopped the panther from nearly taking Elizabeth. Here, Cooper is illustrating that, regardless of where we might think humans fit in regard to the food chain, our assumptions, and our laws passed through our assumptions are moot.
So where does the zeitgeist of the time fit in with Cooper’s The Pioneers? In this infancy of the country, it would be safe to argue that rapid expansion at any cost was not only the cultural norm, but viewed as the right of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. The 1820s and 1830s in the United States saw the spread of urban centers, and burgeoning towns, along with the expansion, and reappropriation of land belonging to indigenous peoples, and the coinciding genocide of those native tribes. We could argue that readers of Cooper wouldn’t have been outraged by the waste of the game, during the pigeon shoot, nor would they have read the panther incident as anything other than another reason to, as Elizabeth states in the novel “[tread] on the footsteps of nature.” It would take another forty years before a shift in this zeitgeist was to occur.
By the end of the American Civil War, in 1865, the United States had seen approximately 600,000 men killed, and countless resources and cities destroyed. Crippled financially and spiritually, the American people were ready for a change. Nineteen years later, Mark Twain first published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While Nature was still a force used to confront, challenge, and often hinder Huck and Jim, it could be argued that Twain used the first eight paragraphs of Chapter XIX to show how the natural world is a thing of beauty, one to be worked with, instead of fought against.
Chapter XIX of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been said to contain some of the most lyrical descriptions of Nature in all of American Literature? Why? What purpose does such a description serve? Twain, ever the satirist, could have been making a commentary on the objects we find most appealing yet are the worst for us, in terms of our health and well-being. However, upon closer reading of the text, we can find that there is a meaning behind Twain’s descriptions, one of healing and tranquility.
Always the wordsmith, in the first few paragraphs of Chapter XIX, Twain opts for using words that lull the reader. “A kind of dull line,” “then a pale place,” “then the river softened up,” all of these descriptions are meant to elongate the reading, there are no sharp consonants, such as k or ch (114). Even the fact that Twain uses the phrase “softened up” to describe the river is a strategic choice to grant ease and comfort. This particular section highlights the sweet moments hidden among life’s hardships. Huck and Jim, in these quiet times, are allowed a bit of respite from the danger and the hardship they face moving down the river, although not always in the most ideal of conditions.
Another way Twain offers up Nature in a way of healing and tranquility is in language that offers up, almost Eden-like pictures of Huck and Jim’s travels down the river. Twain’s use of descriptions such as “so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and flowers” to depict the breeze, and when Huck tells us that “everything [smiles] in the sun, with the song birds just a-going at it” readers who are familiar with the Judeo-Christian concept of the Garden of Eden could easily draw the parallels, even more so when Huck states that “we was always naked – day or night – as long as the mosquitos would let us” (114). It is no coincidence, either, that Twain opted to use a first-person narrator in Huck. Twain deftly executes the employment of the first-person narrator to reach a broader audience with his message of hope and healing. We as readers are more apt to empathize and agree with a narrator that is subjective and can share our empathies, rather than a cold, emotionless, omniscient third-person narrator dictating the actions to us.
So we are still left with the question of “why?” when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why is Twain so concerned that we see the soft moments in day to day life? Why does Twain care if we relate to Huck? The argument is there that Twain wanted to extend healing, peace, and hope to Americans struggling with Reconstruction. The argument is also there that Twain was ever the business man, and knew exactly what it would take to sell books.
Where would our zeitgeist lie? Are we like Twain, searching for the moments of peace and unity with Nature? Or do we come down on Cooper’s side of the fence, where Nature is ours to do with as we please? Much like the whole of American Literature, we can argue that our zeitgeist lies somewhere in the grey area. American consumers seem to be rapacious, with the insatiable desire for better, faster, flashier. However, many American consumers are concerned with the resources that cannot be renewed, finding more efficient ways to conserve, and hopefully save Nature for the generations yet to come. In 50 years, we’ll merely have to look at the texts produced during this time, to truly see where the zeitgeist lay.