The willful wild : nature and survival in early nineteenth-century American literature.


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From its first European colonists to the present day, the American wilderness has fascinated, terrified, and challenged its residents. The struggle to survive on this unforgiving landscape has become the topic of many stories, including four texts from the earliest decades of the United States. Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, and Black Hawk’s Autobiography all imagine survival stories within which protagonists must strive against a willful, agentic wilderness. Within these stories, the natural world gains an agency that is largely hidden or ignored by other genres of nineteenth-century fiction. The immediacy of non-human threats to the protagonists forces reader and author alike to confront the independent will not only of wild animals but also of the trees, rocks, and rivers covering the surface of the “New World.” How these non-human objects possess a “will” has been cause of much debate, but recent observations by new materialist and ecocritical theorists offer helpful lenses through which to understand rivers that “sing,” fire that “speaks,” and branches that “trap,” all in pursuit of their own agendas. This dissertation reads these four texts through this new materialist lens to explore how Brown, Cooper, Sedgwick, and Black Hawk carve a middle way between the two dominant understandings of the American wilderness. They avoid both the dominating attitudes that led to environmental degradation as well as the romantic notions that elided the grisly and brutal aspects of the natural world. In so doing, they offer a compelling vision for why our wild spaces are worth conserving. The natural world is neither meant to be subjugated nor idealized. It can act to help or to harm, and those who come face-to-face with this reality, whether in fiction or otherwise, have the opportunity to see the American wilderness in this truest light.