This Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire's White Mountains, 1784-1911

This Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire's White Mountains, 1784-1911


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This Vast Book of Nature is a careful, engaging, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the ways in which the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire—-and, by implication, other wild places—-have been written into being by different visitors, residents, and developers from the post-Revolutionary era to the days of high tourism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Drawing on tourist brochures, travel accounts, pictorial representations, fiction and poetry, local histories, journals, and newspapers, Pavel Cenkl gauges how Americans have arranged space for political and economic purposes and identified it as having value beyond the economic. Starting with an exploration of Jeremy Belknap’s 1784 expedition to Mount Washington, which Cenkl links to the origins of tourism in the White Mountains, to the transformation of touristic and residential relationships to landscape, This Vast Book of Nature explores the ways competing visions of the landscape have transformed the White Mountains culturally and physically, through settlement, development, and—-most recently—-preservation, a process that continues today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781587294983
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 09/01/2006
Series: American Land & Life Series
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Pavel Cenkl received his BA from Brandeis University, his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire, and his Ph.D. from Northeastern University. He is a member of the adjunct faculty in the Heritage Studies Program at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He lives just north of the White Mountains and divides his time among teaching, writing, and raising his son.

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UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-498-3

Chapter One Texts and Terrain

Jeremy Belknap and Eighteenth-Century Landscape Ideology

ON THE AFTERNOON of 24 July 1784, Rev. Manasseh Cutler looked out from the summit of New England's highest mountain, more than a hundred miles north of his home on the coast of Massachusetts, and saw not the "daunting terrible" land the explorer John Josselyn described a century before, but rather a landscape that "suggested immediately the idea of viewing an extensive marsh from an eminence far above it, with numerous stacks and cocks of hay settled down and extending over a broad base" (Life 104). Before either Cutler or the eight men who stood with him on the summit could offer other comparative views, the weather changed, as it typically does above treeline in New Hampshire, to a "thick fog ... as cold as November" (Life 105-7), requiring a difficult and dangerous retreat from the exposed peak. After spending a night in the relative safety of a ravine below treeline, the men returned to their camp at the base of the mountain, having effected what was at that date the most prolifically documented ascent of the peak.

New England's highest peak, called Agiocochook by the Abenaki, and later named Mount Washington by Reverend Cutler and the New Hampshire historian Jeremy Belknap, saw its first and second recorded ascents in 1642. These initial explorations were performed by Darby Field, who had become an Indian interpreter shortly after his arrival in Boston in 1636. Governor John Winthrop recorded Field's expeditions in his journal, noting that "the report he brought of shining stones, etc., caused divers others to travel thither, but they found nothing worth their pains" (417). Nevertheless, Field, traveling to the mountains with the help of Native American guides, returned with a report of the region's agricultural and industrial prospects, finding near the Abenaki village of "Pegwagget" (Pequawket) "upon the Saco River ... many thousand acres of rich meadow" and, below the summit of the mountain sheets of mica "40 feet long and 7 or 8 broad," "stones which they supposed had been diamonds" (394) and the springs of "four great rivers, each of them so much water, at the first issue, as would drive a mill" (418). Among the earliest of colonial explorers to visit northern New England, Field offered a vision of an inhabited landscape promising untold riches, which was largely at odds with the contemporary rhetoric regarding uncultivated forests, in which Governor Winthrop saw only a "wilderness, where are nothing but wild beasts and beastlike men" (416).

Field's hyperbole over the landscape's potential for settlement and its topography was nonetheless repeated, and embellished, by his contemporaries. Thomas Gorges, deputy governor of the Province of Maine, wrote to his cousin, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, of a "ledge of rocks which [Field] conceaved to be 12 miles high, very steep" and of the "many rattle snakes" (115-16) that Field said he had encountered above treeline. Thomas was informed by Field's report and accompanied him on his second trip to the White Mountains. He was apparently disappointed at not encountering many of Field's spectacles, however, and he wrote to his father simply "I have bin at the White Hills. The fear of the Indians. The next year I hope to see you" (121).

Two decades after this initial flurry of activity in the White Mountains, John Josselyn, sailing from London at the dawn of the Restoration in 1663, reported on the region to the Royal Society in his book New England Rarities Discovered (1672). The society's reception of both New England Rarities and Josselyn's 1674 Two Voyages to New England was less than enthusiastic, mainly as a result of the accounts' inclusion of regional myths and a narrative describing the New World in hyperbolic, Edenic terms rather than with a strict, scientific empiricism. In textually fashioning from the New World an earthly paradise, Josselyn participates in the rhetorical salesmanship that abounds in the works of his contemporaries and predecessors. Though he draws substantially from accounts by John Smith and William Wood, among others, Josselyn's descriptions of "ample rich and pregnant valleys ... grass man-high unmowed ... spacious lakes or ponds well stored with Fish.... mountains and Rocky Hills ... richly furnished with mines" (43-44) so permeate Two Voyages to New England that he feels obligated to defend his text from detractors. Toward the conclusion of his narrative of the second voyage (1663-1671), he counters "sceptick Readers muttering out of their scuttle mouths": "Our tongues are our own, who shall controll us. I have done what I can to please you, I have piped and you will not dance. I have told you as strange things as ever you or your Fathers have heard" (149-50).

Despite the newly founded Royal Society's emphasis on scientific inquiry, Josselyn's report is shaped more as a narrative than is Field's enumerative, substantive report to Governor Winthrop. In New England Rarities Discovered, Josselyn provides only a very brief overview of the journey to the northern mountains: quite remarkably, although the first page of the narrative is his departure from London, Josselyn describes his climb in the White Mountains just five short paragraphs later. Josselyn is also careful to include the reader in his account, noting, for instance, the convenient handholds in the ravines among the mountains (without which he asserts the peaks would be unclimbable): "Saven Bushes [dwarf spruce], which being taken hold of are a good help to the climbing Discoverer" (3). Later, he remarks how, when ascending Mount Washington's summit cone, "called the Sugar-loaf, to outward appearances a rude heap of massie stones piled one upon another ... you may as you ascend step from one stone to another, as if you were going up a pair of stairs, but winding still about the Hill till you come to the top" (4). In juxtaposing this ease of ascent with a landscape that remains "full of rocky Hills ... [and] cloathed with infinite thick woods" (4), Josselyn struggles as he attempts to reposition the White Mountains as accessible, despite their inherent connection with the land described by William Bradford as a "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of beasts and wild men" (70). Although the highest summits appear to lie at the very edge of the colonial frontier, and Josselyn notes that "the Country beyond these Hills Northward is daunting terrible" (4), by situating the reader in the landscape, he not merely presents his observations but also invites those of future visitors. Indeed, the lack of detail and superficiality of his description necessitate further exploration.

Its poor reception by the Royal Society notwithstanding, Josselyn's narrative was positioned within an existing political discourse of appropriation. The very verb to discover, as Bruce Greenfield notes, "implies anticipation, and later knowledge, of an object that has already been defined or allowed for in the contemporary discourse" (20). Such foreknowledge suggests the import of a traveler's preconceptions about a specific place. As a hopeful future member of the Royal Society (a position he would never be offered), then, Josselyn's attempt to integrate his observations with the canon of existing New World writing reveals a politics of landscape that will inhere in New England exploration and discovery narratives throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

THE YEARS BETWEEN the end of the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution saw renewed interest in climbing among the White Mountains. In 1772 a company including New Hampshire governor John Wentworth climbed what he later believed to be "the second [mountain] in height and magnitude" (Belknap Papers 6, 3:64). The White Hills' highest summit was climbed at least three times in the summer and fall of 1774. It was ascended on 6 and 19 June by parties under the direction of Captain John Evans, whose company was building a road through what is now Pinkham Notch, just to the east of Mount Washington. In October of that year, Nicholas Austin ascended the same peak climbed by Governor Wentworth two years earlier (most likely one of the peaks of the lower, southern range), but, "discovering a large mountain E.N.E. from this he travelled about eight miles to the bottom" (Belknap Papers 6, 3:64) and subsequently rediscovered what he believed to be the highest of the White Mountains. The 1784 expedition led by Belknap and Cutler was the first to try to bring scientific methods, including regular temperature readings and barometric measurements to ascertain elevation, to the White Mountains. The timing of the expedition, at the onset of a period of national expansionism, positions it to uniquely negotiate between the rhetoric of occupation (and potential exploitation) illustrated by Josselyn and Field and an incipient focus on the importance of the terrain underfoot that would prevail in later nineteenth-century travel narratives about the region.

Seeing in the forests of spruce and fir that covered the White Mountain landscape the "stacks and cocks of hay" of the sea coast, Manasseh Cutler reads the landscape in the language of his native Ipswich, Massachusetts, ascribing to the northern forests of spruce and fir the quasi-domestic fecundity of coastal salt marshes. Cutler's re-vision of the wilderness before him as a familiar domestic landscape draws attention to a number of significant issues. As an explorer charting the northern frontier in America's first decade of independence, Cutler looks to the mountains as a potential resource, seeing in the region areas for future settlement and agricultural abundance. At the same time, as an amateur scientist, Cutler resists the exuberant rhetoric of Burkean sublimity, tempering his remarks to heed the caveat later written by the expedition's leader, Jeremy Belknap: "when amazement is excited by the grandeur and sublimity of the scenes presented to view, it is necessary to curb the imagination, and exercise judgment with mathematical precision; or the temptation to romance will be invincible" (History 3:32). Curbing an aesthetics of rapture and "astonishment ... of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of terror" (Burke 57) by evoking an agricultural scene, Cutler seconds Belknap's own fear that the unchecked emotion afforded by sublime rhetoric might work against scientific objectivity. Whereas Pamela Regis argues that the sublime and the scientific gaze of late eighteenth-century explorers, notably of William Bartram, "complement each other" (41), in the narratives produced by the Belknap expedition, the two discourses are often in conflict. The tableau of the sublime vista and the static, removed scenes it represents are antithetical to Belknap's agenda of looking past the superficial and to the mountains' details with "mathematical precision." While sections of Belknap's narratives might suggest that he returned from the mountains "filled with astonishment at the romantic sublimity of the peaks" (Lawson, Passaconaway xii), his ability to tread between the rhetoric of scientific and that of sublime observation points to the challenges of accurately representing the details of the mountains' terrain. As much as the sublime was to become central to the tourist experience in the White Mountains in the nineteenth century (though often more as a textual than as an experiential enterprise), Cutler and Belknap do their best to temper Burke's imported rhetoric in the name of both scientific empiricism and an incipient nationalism.

Cutler's reduction of the "strange to the ordinary" (Franklin 108) at the apex of his journey to the White Mountains situates him, like other members of the 1784 Belknap expedition, at the beginning of an era that interwove scientific inquiry, imperialist expansion, and tourism. Less than a year after the Belknap expedition, on 20 May 1785, the United States Congress adopted the "Ordinance for Ascertaining the Mode of Disposing Lands in the Western Territory," a version of Thomas Jefferson's vision for dividing the public domain into distinct rectilinear units, without regard for the underlying terrain or the residents' cultural identity. This arbitrary construction of what Philip Fisher calls "democratic social space" (Fisher 60) pushed an ideological framework onto a landscape in which, particularly in regions like the White Mountains, it collided with an existing intricate topography. The Belknap expedition was a watershed event in White Mountain exploration and tourism, as numerous accounts of the "tour" were published and found a wide audience among the traveling elite at the turn of the century. Belknap, infamous for his penchant for revision (his allegorical novel, The Foresters, for instance, underwent several distinct permutations), rewrote his account of the expedition in a number of publications. By the publication of the third volume of his History of New Hampshire in 1792, Belknap was able to both confect the reports of his companions and more fully realize the narrative's role as a re-vision of the White Mountains.

Yale president Timothy Dwight was one of the first writers to tour the mountains after Belknap's expedition. Traveling in 1803 along a route similar to Belknap's, Dwight rode north through the Notch of the White Mountains (now known as Crawford Notch) and stayed in the region's first overnight house, operated principally for traders en route from the mountains to Portland and Portsmouth. In his Travels in New England and New York, Dwight wrote admiringly of the inn's proprietor, Eleazer Rosebrook, saying that he exemplified "a spirit of enterprise and industry, and perseverance, which has surmounted obstacles, demanding more patience and firmness, than are in many instances required for the acquisition of empire" (96). Dwight's expansionist rhetoric is not only a reaffirmation of the progress of the 1785 congressionally mandated "improvement" of the landscape that created the nation's "spatial physiognomy" (Buell, Environmental 269) but also the beginnings of a transformation that would shape social perception of the mountain landscape for a century to follow. Acting as one of the White Mountains' earliest tourists only two decades after Belknap's circumambulation of Mount Washington, in his praise of Tocqueville's "poetic ideas" of American expansion (75) Dwight portends the re-vision of the landscape from "an absolute wilderness" to a productive settled region and, eventually, to a tourist resort.

Echoing the sentiments of Jeffersonian agrarianism, the narratives of the Belknap expedition written by Belknap, Cutler, and Reverend Daniel Little of Kennebunk, Maine, variously extol the richness of the region's natural resources. Depictions of springs, with "water sufficient within a mile of their source to carry a Sawmill" (Little 4), or "freshets which bring down the soil to the intervals below, and form a fine mould, producing corn, grain and herbage in the most luxuriant plenty" all conspire to entice New England farmers northward (Belknap, "Description" 49). These specifics of the expedition are framed in the larger context of Belknap's own views of the newly independent nation. In his exhaustive History of New Hampshire Belknap, as Stephen Haycox has said, advocated treating the country "not as a resource awaiting exploitation" but rather as a place in which to build a permanent home (Haycox 48). Belknap shares with his contemporary chroniclers of American identity (among them Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur) the notion of a "hospitable geography," what Leo Marx called the middle landscape, perched between city and wilderness and serving as an "inherent hospice to settlers" (Tichi 100).


Excerpted from This Vast Book of Nature by PAVEL CENKL Copyright © 2006 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Foreword by Wayne Franklin....................ix
Introduction: The White Mountains from Northern Frontier to Tourist Resort....................xv
CHAPTER ONE Texts and Terrain: Jeremy Belknap and Eighteenth-Century Landscape Ideology....................1
CHAPTER TWO Economic Topographies: Unsettling the History of Early Tourism in New Hampshire's White Mountains....................25
CHAPTER THREE The Sublime and the Sumptuous: The Currency of Scenery and White Mountain Tourism....................59
CHAPTER FOUR Alone with Scribe and Staff: Rewriting the White Mountains, 1870-1900....................103
Epilogue: Reading and Teaching Region....................143

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