Partaking in a dialogue as to the meaning of nature expanded itself into a literary tradition. American authors seeking higher power, belonging, meaning, and more engage in this literary discussion by asserting their own interpretation. To illustrate the vast shift of the role of nature in American literature, I look to Christopher Columbus’ classification of nature as usable land, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s spiritual and intellectual expansion of that definition, and finally Walt Whitman’s finding of unity and individualism in the physical lure of nature.
The inaugural notion of nature existed only within a physical realm, though viewed in a selfish manner. As a means of personal gain, Christopher Columbus explored islands on his numerous voyages. Reporting back to King Ferdinand and his wife, Isabella, Columbus writes specifically of the “many harbors” and the fertility of the land to a “limitless degree” (Columbus 25). The awed sense Columbus portrays, though, holds no indication of an appreciative outlook of the nature surrounding him. Instead, he perceives the new expanses of nature as a direct ticket to financial gains and power, offering also that the area is “accessible” and “cultivatable” (Columbus 26). The letter addressed to the royal family opens with descriptions of naming the various islands, stressing that to each one he “gave a new name” (Columbus 25). The accentuation of his sole power to name the islands of his discovery marks certain domination over nature. Furthermore, the assertion that he assigns a new name to the already-named islands affirms a power of redemption in himself, supposing his name for the region is the correct one. In this writing, Columbus views nature as nothing more than lifeless land waiting for ownership and portrays the common use of it as beneficial only by use as a bargaining chip for personal gain, lacking spiritual value. Land functions as a showcase of imperial duty and feeds the God complex of its conquerors, inspiring Columbus to write on the matter.
As a mass rejection of limiting the realm of nature to only physical land, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes his “Nature.” Harshly contrasting Columbus’s vantage, Emerson presents the reader with two elements of nature in the world: a visible, physical nature and a spiritual nature. The physical nature also differs from that which Columbus sees which he describes in his chapter on beauty. No longer should land be stamped with ownership, but taken as “a delight” (Emerson 513) to the individual in all sceneries. The beauty surrounding individuals he believes serves as a point of education because nature is “a metaphor of the human mind” (Emerson 519) and a natural stimulus. His notion that we need an escape from intellectual stagnation is particularly American here as other American authors seek similar ends. Though there exists a physical sense to Emerson’s perception of nature, this is “the least part” (Emerson 514) in his concern. More importantly, nature holds a spiritual presence. The “perpetual presence of the sublime” (Emerson 509) makes solitude an impossibility and transforms nature into Nature. However, Emerson determines the nature we experience differs by person as only “few…can see nature” (Emerson 510). For the first time, American literature introduces philosophical idealism as the spirit is the only real existence that remains constantif nature may be interpreted individually. His belief of Nature being an independent spirit that we perceive based on our own sense of self reveals Emerson’s romantic style of interpretation. As a Romanticist, Emerson proposes that all should be taken from the imagination and emotion of oneself which he projects onto nature. This individualistic approach to nature illustrates the shift from land as an object to nature as a spiritually and mental actor.
Whilst Emerson shatters the singular depiction of nature, Walt Whitman engages in the shaping of nature’s definition. Though Whitman writes in agreement with Emerson of nature as a spirit, Whitman recognizes the lack of discussion of nature’s impact on physical sensation and the unity of people. Taking a similar individualistic approach typical of the American author, Whitman expands on Emerson’s ideas. No longer should the beauty be observed and contemplated for intellectual stimulation, but experienced physically. As he becomes “naked” and “undisguised,” (Whitman 1025) Whitman goes to nature and experiences the physical lure. There, admiring the bank and the wood, he expresses being “mad for it to be in contact” (Whitman 1025) with him, feeling physically one with nature itself. He goes on to reflect on the “peace and knowledge” that sprang from his encounters with another individually while experiencing a “transparent summer morning” (Whitman 1027). Viewing nature not only as a spiritual entity but one that can connect with an individual physically liberates the natural sexuality of the individual. In this way, Whitman claims that nature is the link between the free unification of people and their liberation of expression as an individual that is so categorically indicative of American writing. Nature is a part of oneself, but in order to foster the unification of a “we are we” mindset, nature must be the connection and inspires Whitman’s writings of the individual.
In summation, the notion as to the significance of nature in a human’s life saw vast changes over the course of American literary history. First, Columbus identified nature as an object to be claimed and owned for power. Emerson intervened, viewing nature as an entity of its own that must be observed for beauty but dealt with as a spirit. Finally, Whitman interjects, supposing that nature brings people together and liberates sexuality. These differing interpretations testify to the importance of nature as an inspiration for writing in the expanse of American literature.