Week 1: Thomas Cole and the sublime

THE passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; its inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect. No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime. ––Edmund Burke, Elements of the Sublime

Another fall semester begins tomorrow.

Here I am sitting at the kitchen table listening to All Things Considered and considering everything 19th Century. Over the course of fifteen Thursday afternoons, we will listen to a nation struggle to find its sleepy voice, eventually awakening into electric song.

I realize: the last time I taught 19th Century American Literature was the semester of “the Sandy storm,” as one ESL student wrote.

When I was visiting Cedar Grove this summer, during a late-June stay with my sister in Hudson, I decided that this is who I would begin with on Day 1, after introductions and the syllabus are dispensed.


Kaaterskill Falls (1826)

Scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator––they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things. ––Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly, January 1836

River in the Catskills (1843)

In this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us. […] Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away––the ravages of the axe are daily increasing––the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement. ––Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery”

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836)

At a lecture last fall for the Stockton exhibit Tomorrow is Never, the artist Emily Weiner projected Cole’s The Course of Empire to illustrate our human fascination with architectural deterioration.

As she clicked through each slide, I felt such a frisson of ruinenlust run through me.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1836)

The Course of Empire: The Consummation (1836)

The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836)

Cole, too, will help to introduce themes of American Romanticism as we move to the Gothic; with works read for Week 2 including the first three chapters of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly; Or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker; Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Ichabod; and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” […]

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