David Rains Wallace (review date 23 October 1988)

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SOURCE: "All We Surveyed," in New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1998, Section 7, p. 9.

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[Wallace is an American critic and author of Life in the Balance, a companion volume to the PBS Audubon television specials of the same name. In the following review, he offers a largely favorable assessment of A Writer's America.]

At a lime when nature writing is undergoing a certain vogue, largely in the form of anthologies published by small presses, it is instructive to have a book on American landscape and literature from a major literary critic and mainstream publisher. [In A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature] Alfred Kazin reminds us that nature is not only the subject of a genre but a fundamental concern of the American classics, from Poe and Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway. He enhances his argument, and the book's attractiveness, with a lively selection of art and photographs.

In America, Western civilization encountered a natural world that seemed unmarked by agriculture, religion, industry or other attributes of human culture. (For various reasons, the fact that the native peoples possessed all these attributes proved easy to ignore.) As Mr. Kazin observes, the existence of such a world and the potential for its profitable exploitation caused an exhilaration and at the same time an uneasiness and guilt. Both the exhilaration and the guilt have persisted through centuries of European colonization until the present. Mr. Kazin is wonderfully evocative in describing the wilderness dawn of the American literary imagination: William Bartram's discovery of a "vocabulary of delight" among the Florida savannas; Thoreau's "totally singular way" of looking at Walden Pond; Mark Twain's invention of a style as "spontaneous and unpredictable" as the Mississippi of his frontier river pilot days. His exposition of the post-Civil War period of exploitation and urbanization seems thinner and a little harried, as though he has trouble keeping up with the nation's runaway growth (as well he might).

One gets a strong sense of the astonishing speed with which the United States transformed itself from Thomas Jefferson's ideal of "Nature's Nation" into "one vast technological hookup." As writers such as Henry James observed, it was a transformation that destroyed many natural amenities without replacing them with artificial ones. Yet Mr. Kazin invokes Walt Whitman to end on a note of hope in the American rediscovery of "man's happiness with Nature, in the real details of his minute involvement with Nature."

Mr. Kazin may be overoptimistic in this hope. He surely exaggerates when he writes, "The wilderness societies are so numerous and active that they have taken to buying up vast tracts of land in order to keep them unsullied." Only a few private conservation organizations can afford to buy land, and such purchases are minuscule in proportion to the millions of acres "developed" every year. Still, A Writer's America contributes significantly to the literature of conservation by showing that America destroys its culture as it destroys its landscape.

Hennig Cohen (review date December 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1990, pp. 442-43.

[In the following excerpt, Cohen provides a laudatory review of A Writer's America.]

[In A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature ] Kazin's landscape of nature is panoramic, embracing seascape and cityscape. His time span is roughly from the Revolution to the present, and a walker in the city, he has a special interest in the power that cities exert on the land. From the westward prospect of Jefferson's Monticello, the "little mountain," Kazin's vista reaches across the continent, encompassing regional distinction and local colouration as it extends towards the...

(The entire section contains 31340 words.)

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