This Corner in the Wild: Planting Houses and Building Landscapes in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
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CitationGrunes, Marissa. 2019. This Corner in the Wild: Planting Houses and Building Landscapes in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractArchitecture often disappears into the background of literary texts, flattened into setting; yet attention to architectural imagery reveals how fundamentally it shapes literary expression. Architecture tends to generate binary oppositions: inside and outside, culture and nature, self and not-self. This Corner in the Wild asks how this tendency makes architecture a potent source of metaphor, particularly for exploring human embeddedness in the natural environment.
Architectural imagery plays an unexpectedly essential role in nineteenth-century American “green” thought. In envisioning a lifestyle of intimate dependency on and stewardship of the environment, writers of the American Northeast draw on the porous architectural forms encouraged by the aesthetic movement of the picturesque, which blurs the boundary between domesticated and wild space. Porous architecture allows the outside world to mingle with the interior, reminding humans of their vulnerability to ecological forces. As a movement devoted to harmonizing natural and cultural influences, the picturesque offered a cultural vehicle by which forms of environmental consciousness were aestheticized and given widespread appeal.
James Fenimore Cooper granted cultural significance to rudimentary, porous architecture through his picturesque presentation of Natty Bumppo’s log cabin in The Pioneers. Cooper also describes the natural landscape in architectural terms, a form of metaphor that Henry David Thoreau uses—and inverts—to remind readers of the primacy of the natural world and question the dominance of human society. Emily Dickinson too envisions the natural world in architectural terms as a dwelling place and a house of worship; she extends the cognitive power such imagery by using architectural metaphor to test the boundaries between the interior and exterior of the mind, the self and others, the here and the hereafter. Finally, Robert Frost unites the environmental and psychological concerns of these earlier writers. His poetry, crowded with the ruined houses and opened cellar holes of earlier agricultural communities, imagines a renewal of sustainable living that brings human and nonhuman life into close, even symbiotic relation.
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