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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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The Awful Truth: The Aesthetic of the Sublime

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In the Catskills

[5932] Thomas Doughty, In the Catskills (1835), courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
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In Jefferson's famous description of the "Natural Bridge" rock formation in Notes on the State of Virginia, he declares that the bridge is a perfect example of a sublime view: "It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indescribable!" Despite his claim that the scene and the feelings it inspires are beyond description, Jefferson characteristically goes on to describe the Natural Bridge and his response to it in eloquent detail and in doing so provides a useful statement of the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the sublime in the process. While Jefferson clearly sees the scenery as thrillingly spectacular, he is also uncomfortably overwhelmed by it. He warns the reader that upon looking over the edge of the bridge "you involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, and creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height ... gave me a violent headache." Jefferson makes the effect of this "involuntary" and even "violent" physical response even more vivid for his reader by employing the second-person "you" and thus implicating the reader in these intense feelings. For Jefferson, the powerful effects the bridge has on its spectators are just as important to narrate as the conventional details of its size, measurements, and geological characteristics.

Jefferson's analysis of the Natural Bridge's sublimity is indebted to the aesthetic ideas formulated by Englishman Edmund Burke earlier in the eighteenth century. Burke was interested in categorizing aesthetic responses and distinguished the "sublime" from the "beautiful." While the beautiful is calm and harmonious, the sublime is majestic, wild, even savage. While viewers are soothed by the beautiful, they are overwhelmed, awe-struck, and sometimes terrified by the sublime. Often associated with huge, overpowering natural phenomena like mountains, waterfalls, or thunderstorms, the "delightful terror" inspired by sublime visions was supposed both to remind viewers of their own insignificance in the face of nature and divinity and to inspire them with a sense of transcendence. Thus Jefferson's seemingly paradoxical response of falling to a crouch, developing a headache, and then claiming that the "sensation becomes delightful in the extreme" is in fact a standard response to the sublime.

The idea of the sublime exerted an enormous influence over American art in the early nineteenth century. Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt (featured in Unit 5) sought to capture the grandeur they found in the American wilderness as an expression of the greatness of the young nation. So ubiquitous was this aesthetic interest in the sublime that by mid-century, when Margaret Fuller visited Niagara Falls (a mecca for seekers of sublime views), she was disappointed to realize that her experience was inescapably mediated by other writers' and artists' descriptions of the scene's sublimity. She was left to lament, "When I arrived in sight of [the falls] I merely felt, "ah, yes, here is the fall, just as I have seen it in pictures.' ... I expected to be overwhelmed, to retire trembling from this giddy eminence, and gaze with unlimited wonder and awe upon the immense mass rolling on and on, but, somehow or other, I thought only of comparing the effect on my mind with what I had read and heard. ... Happy were the first discoverers of Niagara, those who could come unawares upon this view and upon that, whose feelings were entirely their own." However overused the visual and linguistic vocabulary of the sublime had become by the mid-nineteenth century, it was nonetheless an important category through which Americans conceived of and organized their aesthetic experiences.

As European Americans moved west, they encountered more natural phenomena that fit within their view of the sublime. The Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the geysers at Yellowstone, for example, were all described by early visitors in terms of their sublimity. Americans eventually came to ascribe sublime characteristics to humanmade objects as well: Whitman's description of the power of steam locomotives and Edward Weston's early-twentieth-century photographs of industrial architecture participate in the foundation of an aesthetic of the "technological sublime."

  1. Comprehension: According to eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, what is the difference between the "beautiful" and the "sublime"? Give an example of each, either from literature or from your own experience.

  2. Context: In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, the idea of the sublime was usually applied only to natural objects (and sometimes to encounters with Native Americans, who were perceived as "primitive" and more in touch with the natural world than whites). But sometimes the vocabulary of the sublime was used to describe other experiences. Do you think some individuals might have discussed their conversion experiences during the Great Awakening in terms of the sublime? How might listening to Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" compare to the experience of looking off the Natural Bridge or viewing Thomas Cole's painting The Falls of the Kaaterskill?

  3. Exploration: Does a sense of the sublime still infuse contemporary American culture? Can you think of a late-twentieth-century novel, film, or painting that seems to participate in the aesthetic of the sublime?

[1181] Albert Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite (1864),
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Valley of the Yosemite, 1864; Albert Bierstadt, American (born in Germany) (1830-1902). Oil on paperboard; 11 7/8 x 19 1/4 in. (30.2 x 48.9 cm). Gift of Marth C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, 47.1236. The romantic grandeur and luminism of Albert Bierstadt's western landscapes reflect Hudson River School influences. Realist writers like Bret Harte sought to imbue the same landscapes with the gritty realities of frontier life.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826),
courtesy of the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation.
Cole was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[5932] Thomas Doughty, In the Catskills (1835),
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
Landscape painting of river and boulders framed by trees in the foreground. An artist of the Hudson River School, Doughty painted the same American landscapes that writers such as Washington Irving described.

[9026] George Barker, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Close-up View from Below (1886),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-97270].
Nineteenth-century photograph of the popular tourist attraction. Margaret Fuller and others commented on the sublimity of the Falls.

[9028] Thomas Moran, The Tower of Tower Falls, Yellowstone (1875),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3250].
It was in part by Moran's paintings that Congress was inspired to create Yellowstone National Park. Before color photography, painting captured an important dimension of the western landscape.

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