Environmental Philosophy

The Roots of Preservation in America: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School

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Mount Lafayette, White Mountains, New Hampshire. 1870 Oil painting by Thomas Hill, Hudson River School

Lead Author: Max Oelschlaeger

Most obviously, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Hudson River School helped shape an emerging national identity for America in the nineteenth century. Viewed collectively, their work articulated America’s “coming of age,” a nation in the process of discovering itself as distinct from Europe. The writings of Emerson and Thoreau with the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School offered nuanced interpretations of the unique relations of the American people to the land. Clearly Emerson and the Hudson River painters believed that Nature gave proof of God’s Providence for the new nation—a theme readily understood, given the religious history of the colonists.

What is less obvious is the living legacy of the Hudson River School, Emerson, and Thoreau. The American preservation movement has no equal in any nation, and much of contemporary environmentalism originates in these sources. The initial catalyst for the creation of America’s unparalleled system of national parks lies in their collective work. The representative paintings of the Hudson River School (c. 1820 through 1880) established the present sense of canonical landscapes. Ralph Waldo Emerson, born shortly after the American Revolution (1803), is the first genuinely American philosopher and was instrumental in encouraging the national quest for identity. His writings are the most representative expression of the ideas that moved the Hudson River painters. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) remains America’s most original nature philosopher. Their work continues to influence, even determine, contemporary sensibilities.

Hudson River School

While named for its geographical location, the Hudson River School in the USA comprised members who also painted scenes from the American West, South America, Mexico, and Mediterranean countries in a similar, romantic style. Prior to these painters, landscapes by American artists received virtually no attention (with perhaps the exception of Washington Allston).

The school’s founders lived along the Hudson River, although most were not natives. The Hudson River Valley was originally settled (c. 1600) by Dutch immigrants, especially near the Catskill Mountains (a dramatic escarpment rising nearly 3000 feet from the valley floor). Dutch landscape painting is an obvious historical forerunner of the Hudson River School, founded by Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) along with Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902). While these are perhaps the most acclaimed members, the school includes many other notable artists, such as Thomas Doughty (1793–1856), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), and Thomas Moran (1837–1926).

Durand and other members of the school began as engravers. Durand was also a portraiturist, painting such notables as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. His best-known painting, Kindred Spirits, symbolizes the Hudson River School. It implies the impact of the sublime beauty of the landscape on it subjects, with a sweeping panorama of the Hudson River Valley, wonderfully detailed, yet romantically inspired. The figures in the painting are close friends, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant. Bryant, a poet and politician,who believed that “the wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God.” (Interestingly, Bryant persuaded Cole to move to the Hudson Valley from New York City.)

Virtually all members of the Hudson River School understood the sublime as a manifestation of the power of God. Durand wrote many letters exploring the concept of the sublime, especially the sense of insignificance of humankind in relation to the awesome infinity and power of nature. Nature, it is fair to say, was at least a manifestation of God’s existential presence (panentheism), if not God (pantheism).

Thomas Cole’s paintings also reflect these sensibilities. The titanic awe of God became an esthetic, a sensibility suffusing his paintings of rivers and valleys, forests and mountains. The timeless flux of nature, its cycles and seasons, became measures of the evanescence of human creations, and the fallibility of overestimating mere appearances. His magnificent paintings documenting “the course of empire” are the ultimate expression of this sensibility.

The Hudson River School had a strong influence on what was in the mid- to late-nineteenth century a nascent preservationist movement. Thomas Moran was active in the national parks movement, and his painting essential to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Historians note that Yellowstone was as much a result of aesthetic impulses as scientific and political arguments. Cole was a conservation advocate, often speaking in public to specific issues and causes. Albert Bierstadt explored the pre-settlement West, and painted Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as well as Yosemite.

The Hudson River School contributed to more than an emerging national identity and the “Parks Movement.” Some hold that through the “Knights of the Brush,” Americans generally, but teachers and students more specifically, can rediscover a moral topography of value. Others believe that the twentieth century, for all its achievements, represents a decline rather than triumph of the American estate. Materialism rules, with corporations more powerful than government, and affluent individuals glorified merely for their wealth. While vast acreages have been protected in national parks, forests, monuments, and designated wilderness areas (more than 100 million acres alone), the natural world is more and more an anthropogenic biosphere, increasingly at risk. Cole’s “course of empire” series readily lends itself to such interpretation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803–1882) work expresses the theological and philosophical heart of the Hudson River School. Some read Emerson’s texts as a bridge between the Calvinism of the eighteenth century and modern religious views of nature. This reading holds if nature is fallen, if a ruined earth is God’s punishment for original sin. Yet earlier religious views of nature, even among those who defended the doctrine of original sin, such as Jonathan Edward in his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World, are consistent with Emerson. Nature for Edwards was a symbol of the divine. Thus the New England wilderness, alive with animals to hunt, trees to fell for timber, and wild lands to clear for pastures and fields, assured the colonists of their special relation with God.

Emerson, consistent with his Unitarian origins, believed that God is one and all, the totality. Similar in many ways to the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), “Nature” is thus a dimension of the totality, one accessible to immediate experience as well as later reflection. Reflection finds in the sublimity of Nature confirmation of the awesome presence of God. Nature (1836) is Emerson’s most original work and the fullest expression of his ideas of Transcendentalism.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) is a seminal contributor to American environmental thought. Arguably, Emerson is a cultural critic extolling the values of the intellectual life, and Thoreau is a nature philosopher exalting the value of wild nature (see especially Thoreau’s essay “Walking”). Thoreau inspired not only such nineteenth-century luminaries as Frederick Law Olmstead and John Muir, but also many twentieth-century figures, including Aldo Leopold and Joseph Wood Krutch. He is widely credited as an originarl thinker in the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. Here, too, his affect on environmentalism is evident, since nonviolent civil disobedience has been the guiding credo for environmental protest.

Thoreau, as with the Hudson River School, invites us to find a sense of meaning, of direction and purpose in life through immediate contact with the living creatures, the vicissitudes of the seasons, and the varied textures of the earth. Although  "Walking" is conventionally interpreted as a Transcendentalist work, God plays a less significant role in Thoreau’s writing of nature than in Emerson’s or in the art of the Hudson River School. He places more emphasis on the importance of lived experience, rather than transcendence, as contact with nature leads to sympathy with intelligence lying outside the bounds of positive science, traditional philosophy, or conventional religiosity.

While Emerson’s writing is intellectually detailed, Thoreau’s thick description directs the reader’s attention to the book of nature, the particulars and patterns of existence obscured by the curtain of culture. He advises us to walk in the wild on a daily basis, for immediate experience reminds the walker that neither the scientist nor the philosopher, neither the merchant nor the minister, has a privileged claim on truth. For Thoreau, too often, so-called knowledge is “positive ignorance,” that is, shibboleth and dogma masquerading as eternal verity. Lived experience enables the walker to engage culture critically rather than succumb to conventional wisdom. The often quoted Thoreauvian aphorism, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” is not so much a preservationist credo, although it is often interpreted as such, as the heart of an evolutionary philosophy of nature and culture. 

Further Reading

  • Emerson, Ralph W. 1909. Nature. Duffield & Company. Digitized Version
  • Nash, Roderick. 1986, Third edition. Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press. {C}ISBN 0300029101
  • Oelschlaeger, Max. 1993.The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. Yale University Press. {C}ISBN 0300053703
  • O'Toole, Judith H. 2005. Different Views in Hudson River School Painting. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231138202
  • Thoreau, Henry D. 1854. Walden: Life in the Woods. Ticknor & Fields. Ebook
  • West, Cornell. 1989. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism  University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299119645
  • Westling, Louise H. 1998. The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820320803

EDITOR'S NOTE: This entry was originally published as "The Roots of Preservation: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School," in the series "Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History," developed by the National Humanities Center and TeacherServe. Citations should be based on the original essay.

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Citation

(2012). The Roots of Preservation in America: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbef0b7896bb431f69c09d

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