American Landscape and Social Attitudes and Values

American Landscape and Social Attitudes and Values

The relationship between American society and its natural environment has not only been one of rapid social change, it has also been subjected to radical and complex changes in attitudes towards nature. The extent of the this evolutionary change emanates from an earlier view of nature as a Garden of Eden to the contemporary view of nature as a servant of human technological growth

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In the comparatively short span of our civilization the cycle of primitivism to industrialism has been compressed and laid bare for study. Less than a century divides the era when America was looked upon as a Garden of Eden or savage wilderness and the time when it took first place as the world’s industrial giant. Probably no people have ever so quickly subdued their natural environment.″ (Ekirch 6)

American attitudes towards nature have undergone a complex change in a relatively short period of time – from attitudes of reverence for nature to a view of nature as handmaiden to the technological development. Many environmentalists are of the opinion that America is neglecting the preservation of the environment. The societal attitudes within America are often reflected directly in their attitudes towards nature. However, the attitude towards the natural environment has never been clear-cut and there has always been a certain amount of ambivalence towards nature. This ambivalence is reflected in the work of artist and writers. Jack London’s work, for example, expresses an admiration for nature coupled with an awareness of its dangers and lack of human morality. This ambivalence was also seen in early American society and is a reflection of the societal makeup and complexity of that time. On the one hand the natural environment symbolized the expansiveness of spirit and adventurous nature of early American literature and society. On the other hand there exists the social apprehension of nature as something that is daunting and dangerous in its alien quality. These points-of-view simultaneously reflect the anticipation and trepidation that the early settlers must have felt for the natural environment of a strange country. Generally speaking, the attitude towards the natural environment reflects the society in terms of it values. In other words, writers and artists interpreted their natural environment in terms of the dominant hopes and fears, values and morals of their immediate society.

The early American vision of the fruitfulness and fecundity of nature was reflected in the optimism that the early colonists felt.

The discovery and settlement of America was a tremendous boon to man’s awareness of nature. The American continents were literally and figuratively a New World. At a time when the European environment had lost its pristine bloom, an unspoiled landscape of incredible richness opened up across the Atlantic. Beginning with Columbus, hardly an explorer failed to record his ecstatic comments on the unlimited, natural wealth of the American continents. In a prospectus on the New World the discoverer of America wrote of “fields very green and full of an infinity of fruits as red as scarlet, and everywhere there was the perfume of flowers and the singing of birds very sweet in all these regions.”″ (Ekirch 10)

The main attitude that later developed was that nature was something to be conquered and that the resources were limitless. This was also a reflection of optimism and buoyancy of the early colonists and would later be reflected in the technological view of society and nature in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Nature was something to be conquered, not passively enjoyed. Yet it was also true that the American continent excited the colonists because its tremendous extent and unparalleled riches made them feel that it could never be conquered, much less exhausted. Thus America, it was believed, would be a perpetual fount or garden, the home of a favored people living in an easy relationship with their environment.

(Ekirch 11)

However, there has always been an ambivalent attitude towards nature from within society and this complexity has its roots in the Puritan ethic in the history of America. While the Puritans saw nature as bountiful and as a reflection of optimistic progress, they also felt that nature reflected the untamed “sinful” nature of humankind and was therefore dangerous to his moral and religious development. Nature was often associated with immorality and paganism.

Puritans worshiped a God whose grace was not manifested primarily in nature. Thus they frowned on outdoor sports and hunting for pleasure.

A″ (Ekirch 11)

Something of this ambivalent attitude towards nature and the environment can be seen in the works of Jack London. His work is often associated with an attitude towards the environment called naturalism. This view saw nature as a harsh fact that confronted human society and which was essentially untamable.

A sociological and socio-cultural view sees London’s works as related to the cultural trends, mores, and traits of the time. This can be seen in the well-known story “To Build a Fire,” which is often called the ‘quintessential’ naturalist short story. The reflection of differences and dichotomies in American society can be seen in an analysis of the story. One of the most important themes in the naturalist movement, and also the crux of the novel “To Build a Fire,” is determinism as opposed to free will. Another is the seemingly amoral indifference of nature and the environment, which is coupled with issues of survival and the problem of making moral judgments in an amoral universe. Another aspect is instinct vs. The intellect.

London also reflects another important aspect of the society of the time: namely “masculine” daring and courage that was an important component of his stories. This can be seen in his analogy to modern sports.

Amid the current critical preoccupation with the cultural contexts of literary works, little has been done to examine the role of a uniquely American sporting culture in shaping the attitudes of naturalist writers such as Norris and London toward masculinity; professionalism, national identity, and the role of the artist. As artists with an active, documented interest in the rise of spectator sports, these men created texts that reflect the ideological concerns central to the athletic craze that began in the 1890s. Spectator sports became an important reflection of the issues of race, class, and gender that divided American society at the turn of the century; and the predominantly white, middle- and upper-class men who comprised the primary audience for such contests found in them a confirmation of their own manliness and position in society;


In other words, the elements within the ethos of modern sports form a foundational perspective for understanding the works. This in turn is reflected in his attitude towards nature.

One of the most important aspects of London’s work is the ‘discontinuities’ or differences that are revealed between man and nature, and between civilization and instinct. This is particularly true with regard to the work “To build a Fire,” where civilization and society are brought into extreme contrast with nature. These discontinuities are important issues in contemporary society on many levels, including the debate between human development and the environment. The central character of the story dies because he has neglected to adhere to the strict and merciless laws that nature prescribes. There is a sense that nature is amoral and uncaring. As Howard states, “The antinomy between nature and culture is perhaps the most fundamental of these oppositions and the most characteristic and distinctive figure of London’s effort to grasp and to resolve that difference is his complex image of the wolf.”

(Howard 50)

Modern Views and Technology

Our modern technological point-of-view has relegated nature as a controllable “commodity” and the battle against nature has, from some perspectives, been won. London’s works are therefore seen as “romantic” in their veneration of nature. Modern attitudes towards nature promote the idea of nature as a “commodity” to be used and also something to be overcome. This attitude reflects the dominating aspects of modern culture and is often the cause of environmental criticism. “Technological change, of course, is part of the way by which modern man both adapts to and reshapes his environment. But the change can be so violent and pervasive in its geographic scope as to invite a fresh cycle of disasters.″ (Ekirch 6)

The idea of nature as something that needs to be subdued differs from the Romantic view that is reflected in Jack London’s works. This view – that nature should be subdued – was a reflection of the dominance and progress in society, in terms of technological growth in the nineteenth the century.

Nature was degraded into a realm of un-freedom and hostility that needed to be subdued and controlled. Modernity involved the belief that human progress should be measured and evaluated in terms of human domination of ‘nature’ rather than through any attempt to transform the relationship between humans and nature.

A” (Macnaghten et al.)

The above attitude relates to what sociologists see as the two transformations of nature. Firstly, nature has been transformed in that it has been “deadened” from a life giving force to dead matter, from spirit to machine. Through the new sciences of physics, astronomy, and mathematics, the study of nature became the study of how nature was materially constituted.″ (Macnaghten et al.)

Secondly, nature is seen in the modern world as being secondary to the human. This is the opposite of the way that London and other ‘”naturalists” would have described nature. “The second transformation involved the construction of a state of nature thought of as prior to humanity, or at least prior to civilized society.” (ibid)

The modern view of nature is a reflection of the way that society has changed. This view of nature is in fact a reflection of the way we see ourselves. It is also a view that is essentiality selfish and is leading to a neglect of the natural world.



Angus, Ian. “Free Nature.” Alternatives Journal Summer 1997: 18+.

A″ “American Literature.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2000.


Ekirch, Arthur A. Man and Nature in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.


Elkind, David. “The Death of Child Nature: Education in the Postmodern World.” Phi Delta Kappan 78.3 (1997): 241+. Questia. 28 June 2004


Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.


Huth, Hans. Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.


Leiss, William. The Domination of Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.


Macnaghten, Phil, et al. “Towards a Sociology of Nature.” Sociology 29.2 (1995): 203+. Questia. 28 June 2004


Miller, John. Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997.


Minai, Asghar Talaye. Aesthetics, Mind, and Nature: A Communication Approach to the Unity of Matter and Consciousness. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993.


Northumberland. “Inside and outside the ring: manhood, race, and art in American Literary Naturalism.,” College Literature, January 1, 2002″

Murphy, Raymond. Social Action in Context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.


Noyes, C. Reindd. Economic Man in Relation to His Natural Environment. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.


Russell, Sharman Apt. Kill the Cowboy: A Battle of Mythology in the New West. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

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