Many early American writers had a preoccupation with the natural world. Choose two texts and compare and contrast the ways in which the natural world influenced these writings and how the portrayal of the natural world reflects the authors’ broader purpose in the construction of their texts.

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Two texts by early American writers that reveal differing kinds of preoccupation with the natural world are “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Emerson’s essay is consistent with his Transcendentalist philosophy, which emphasizes individual engagement with the natural world as a spiritual path. For Cooper, nature represents America as the domain of Indigenous people and their displacement by Euro-American colonists.

In “Nature,” Emerson conveys that the natural world has a purifying power which benefits humans. He notes that communion with nature is a primary means of restoring people’s faith in divine creative powers. Especially in the woods, he feels hopeful and protected, and that there is nothing “which Nature cannot repair.” A person will feel at one with the universe, rather than dwell on their own ego: “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” This sensation is fundamental to the transcendentalist emphasis on immediate, direct perception.

Cooper’s attitude toward nature is largely nostalgic, as he displays a profound ambivalence about the encroachment of Western “civilization” across North America. This nostalgia is conveyed by his emphasis on Indigenous characters as supposedly near extinction—the “last” in their lines, as the title implies. The purity of nature is a noble but ultimately futile bulwark against the polluting, corrupting influence of colonial expansion and warring European powers, which are spatially represented by forts and towns. At the same time, however, he shows nature as a refuge for a few like-minded Euro-Americans, the scouts and trappers who instinctively learn the ways of the wilderness and often forge harmonious relationships with Indigenous peoples.

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