A Writer’s America

From the New England of Robert Frost to the California coast of Robinson Jeffers, from Thomas Jefferson’s eighteenth century Virginia to Robert Lowell’s twentieth century Boston, the land has deeply influenced American literature. In a roughly chronological survey, Kazin explores the ways in which the country’s major writers have responded to their surroundings.

He points out that for Jefferson, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, and their Romantic successors, America was Edenic. When Henry David Thoreau declared that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” he was expressing a view common to Crevecoeur’s LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER as well as THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. In writing about his native Concord, Thoreau again typifies the American writer as he draws inspiration from what William Faulkner described as “my own little postage stamp of native soil.”

With the closing of the frontier and the coming of the urban revolution, the vision of America as Eden ceased to be tenable, but the city proved as powerful as the countryside in evoking a literary response. Hart Crane’s celebration of Brooklyn Bridge, Saul Bellow’s novels about Chicago, and Joan Didion’s portrait of Hollywood in PLAY IT AS IT LAYS reveal that the American scene still pervades writers’ imaginations.

Although Kazin rarely refers to the 102 illustrations that embellish his book, they constitute a text of their own, demonstrating that artists as well as authors responded to their environment. The reader can trace the implied connections between art and literature: to Edward Hicks as to his Transcendentalist contemporaries, America represented THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM; Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck record the Dust Bowl in their respective media.

In his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James listed all the disadvantages the would-be writer faced in the United States. Kazin shows that the country nevertheless has an asset that outweighs them all--the land itself.