The Fall into Eden

If landscape has molded the American imagination, it is equally true that American artists have interpreted and molded the language, giving a definition of and a way of seeing the objective natural landscape. In The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California, David Wyatt explores what is for him the particular characteristic of the California landscape: its resemblance to the Garden of Eden and its inevitable disfigurement and destruction, resulting from and imaging the Fall of Man. Defining literature broadly to include nature and travel writing, Wyatt supports his thesis with illustrations from eleven writers: Richard Henry Dana, Zenas Leonard, John C. Frémont, John Muir, Clarence King, Mary Austin, Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Robinson Jeffers, and Gary Snyder. The imagination under discussion is the Romantic imagination. In interpreting landscape in terms of their own experience and emotions, writers using this approach can become the “apotheosis of the Pathetic Fallacy.” Wyatt uses critical theories about William Wordsworth and John Milton, in particular the former, to illustrate and elucidate his interpretations, as well as some concepts drawn from William Carlos Williams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. For the Western writer, “poetic selfhood is imaged as a lonely figure in an empty landscape,” a definition that could apply with equal force to the quintessential Western hero.

Organized chronologically, Wyatt’s study begins with an analysis of Dana and Frémont, familiar to most readers, and Leonard, whose journals were one of the early sources of information about the Far West. Dana’s experience of California differed significantly from that of most others. He arrived by sea rather than by land, and his perspective of California was the coastline, most of it seen from shipboard. His first impression was that of bleakness, and it was not until he returned years later to find the area, especially around San Francisco, settled and changed, that he saw the land as a paradise. Lost, Leonard, who arrived via a difficult trek over the Sierra Nevada and the desert, saw California as Eden indeed. In contrast to Dana, who tended to stand apart from the landscape as an observer, Leonard identified with it and colored his account with his own vision. Before photography, explorers had to rely on artists for pictures to accompany the written descriptions of their discoveries. Although even photography can and does reflect the sensibilities of the photographer, the artist’s rendition, like that of the writer, is more decisively colored by the perception of the beholder. Though Wyatt does not emphasize the visual artist in relation to his thesis, he does include in the illustrations some early renderings by artists. Frémont, a controversial figure whose journals were the most popular and accurate sources for Western emigrants, not only gave his own perspective but also, by entering politics—a process Wyatt defines as turning landscape into real estate—participated in the Fall rather than merely observing it.

Muir, Wyatt contends, unlike most observers, “looks at landscape as if it were there,” perhaps, Wyatt speculates, because Muir was once blind for a month. Though he introduced narrative into his writings to vary the descriptive passages, Muir, unlike Wordsworth, ignored or avoided experiences of the sublime. Even in describing the most awesome scenery or adventure, his accounts avoid emotional involvement. Muir’s Eden was Hetch Hetchy, a valley much like Yosemite; in comparing the two, however, Muir gave primacy to Yosemite. After the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, the valley was dammed as a reservoir for the city. Muir was devastated, but in the long run the conservation movement in the United States was strengthened by this irreparable loss, and Muir is credited with saving the Yosemite Valley. For Muir, Wyatt maintains, the Sierra Nevada landscape became both his Eden and his home, an Eden he achieved late in life. Muir’s early childhood was spent outside the garden, literally and figuratively. He was the son of a severe Scottish father in whose garden Muir played at the risk of thrashings. When the family emigrated to Wisconsin, Muir worked a sixteen-hour day with two holidays a year, and learning was discouraged. At twenty-five, Muir left the University of Wisconsin for, in his phrase, “the University of the wilderness,” to spend the remainder of his life in botanical and geological exploration. In marked contrast to his friend Emerson, Muir wanted to make people aware of the landscape, in this way becoming politically involved rather than imposing on and deriving from nature an inner vision.

In contrast to Muir, King, the first director of the United States Geological Survey and author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), became actively involved in his accounts of the landscape. King’s metaphor for material success became the conquest of a mountain; his life was a series of successes and failures, as were his mountaineering adventures. He finally did achieve Mounts Tyndall, Shasta, and Whitney. With Richard Cotter, he formed one of the “classic” American comradeships, and their climbs together took on the proportions of an epic. King, with his friend Henry Brooks Adams, shared the catastrophic theory of Earth’s origins, to which Muir was opposed. Wyatt suggests that King’s geological views mirrored his own catastrophic life; he attempted mining in Mexico, failed, and died in Arizona of tuberculosis. Eden, success, and even catastrophe eluded him:

He saw the geology of the Sierra Nevada as a series of upheavals and new beginnings, but his life took on a fated cycle of repeated failures.

Austin’s conflict was between motherhood and the land, between the demands on her as a woman and the demands of her creativity as an individual and writer. She early realized that there was something wrong with her only child, Ruth, who had to be institutionalized; later, Austin was to attempt, unsuccessfully, to establish a mother-daughter relationship with her niece, Mary Hunter. Austin’s own mother had rejected her, but later she was to develop a muted mother-daughter relationship with her father’s former fiancée. Austin, Wyatt argues, in her career “explores the connection between a woman’s...

(The entire section is 2603 words.)


Kenyon Review. New Series. IX, Winter, 1987, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 24, 1986, p. 4.