Hist 3144: American Environmental History Spring 2004
Reading Guide for Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind
Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind is a classic
book that has gone through several editions and continues to be widely read.
Nash chronicles how ideas about wilderness, a particular kind of nature, have
developed, especially in the American context. Don’t get bogged down with
the litany of names that he presents in some of his chapters, but do pay attention
to his major arguments. In general, if you can write a one-paragraph summary
of each of the chapters after you have read it, you should be in good shape
for any assignments (homework, papers, test questions, etc.) related to the
book. Below are some questions and issues to keep in mind as you read. Bring
in any questions you might have for our discussions.
1. Does Nash view humans as part of nature or distinct from it?
2. How and why has the meaning of wilderness changed over time?
3. Why has this book been so popular and influential among environmentalists?
4. What voices are missing from Nash’s story?
5. Is Nash sympathetic to the goals of wilderness preservation?
6. Here Nash orients the reader by briefly giving a sense of where he is going in the book. He provides a quick sense of how the idea of wilderness first emerged in humans. After suggesting that in a fundamental sense, “civilization created wilderness,” he points out that the American attitude toward wilderness is “much older and more complex than we customarily assume.”
7. What does the term “wilderness” mean? How has its meaning changed over time? What does it mean today? What does Nash mean when he says wilderness is ultimately a subjective concept, “a state of mind?”
Chapter 1: Old World Roots of Opinion:
8. How did Europeans conceptualize wilderness and nature? Why did they think about these things in the way they did? Why does Nash mention St. Francis? How did Eastern conceptions of the human-nature relationships differ from those in the West? Why does Nash mention Eastern ideas?
Chapter 2: A Wilderness Condition:
9. How did early settlers respond to the American wilderness? What did they “see” when they encountered the New World? Why? What metaphors did they use? What is their attitude toward “progress?”
Chapter 3: The Romantic Wilderness:
10. What does Nash mean when he says “Appreciation of wilderness began in the cities?” How did antipathy to wilderness give way to the beginnings of appreciation? What three strains of thought contributed to the development of Romanticism? How widespread was Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries? (Again, don’t get bogged down in all the names, but do pay attention to the major arguments Nash is making)
Chapter 4: The American Wilderness:
11. In addition to Romanticism, nationalism provided a second (though admittedly related) basis for the beginnings of nature appreciation in America. What does Nash mean when he says that nationalism led to more interest and appreciation of wilderness? On the day this chapter is due to be read, I will be showing numerous examples of Hudson River School landscapes, so pay special attention to this section.
Chapter 5: Henry David Thoreau:
12. What is Transcendentalism? What is Nash getting at with his discussion of the idea of the “middle ground” (we’ll talk more about both of these things in class)? How does his analysis square with the Thoreau selection we are reading (“Walking”)?
Chapter 6: Preserve the Wilderness!:
13. In this chapter Nash documents how appreciation of wilderness led to early expressions of concern about its passing. Don’t get bogged down in the litany of names.
Chapter 7: Wilderness Preserved
14. How and why does Yellowstone get set aside as the first national park? Was the primary intent the preservation of wilderness? Why did the Adirondack State Park get set aside by the legislature of New York?
Chapter 8: John Muir--Publicizer (not assigned)
15. Reviews the life and accomplishments of John Muir, who was a founder of the Sierra Club (1892), a widely read nature writer, and one of the strongest advocates of wilderness preservation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (We’ll learn more about him in class).
Chapter 9: The Wilderness Cult (not assigned)
16. Looks at how appreciation of wilderness, an idea that begin among an elite, diffused into the broader American culture at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. (We’ll learn more about this in class).
Chapter 10: Hetch Hetchy:
17. Examines one of the most famous wilderness struggles in American history, the debate of the fate of a valley in the midst of Yosemite National Park. Discusses the preservation/conservation dichotomy (there is more on this in some of the earlier chapters) that develops in the early twentieth century. Stresses John Muir’s role in this debate. (More in class).