The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 2. Nature and the Natural Man

If territorial expansion and the development of geographical science are to be noted in studying the literature of travel, the general background of eighteenth-century thought must not be forgotten. The so-called rationalism of the French, with its tendency to destroy traditional distinctions, to suppress imagination, and yet to end in a kind of deism, is too large a subject for more than passing notice. On the other hand, we may dwell for a moment upon the sentimental treatment of external nature in Rousseau, and upon his conception, in part derived from early American travellers, of the “natural” man in a terrestrial paradise. Such a being could, in fact, exist only in a tropical or sub-tropical environment such as the favoured regions in which the first American explorers and missionaries encountered the natives. Yet the transference of the idea to the Indians of North America was easy in an age when popular geography was vague; and the faith of the Jesuits in the potential goodness of the savage doubtless helped to propagate a general belief that the aborigines were noble. The idea, which seems rather to have come from the travellers than from Rousseau, but possibly is dormant in almost every educated mind, is well established in American literature from William Bartram to Fenimore Cooper. The related notion of social equality in a state of nature has a more solid basis. As in Crèvecœur’s American Farmer, it grows out of the facts of life in a new agricultural settlement.

An opposite conception was also prevalent. Side by side with the ideal of an eloquent stoic, artless, magnanimous by nature, we find—often in the same book of travels—the cruel savage as he is, vengeful and impure. Montaigne, indeed, a predecessor of Rousseau in admiring the unlettered aborigines, had held that the European surpassed the savage in barbarity; yet when he turns from the ideal to the actual, there is but a step between Montaigne and Hobbes, who declares the life of nature to be “nasty, solitary, brutish, and short.” And Hobbes merely anticipates Voltaire and Pauw, whose unedifying pictures of American natives were put together from the accounts of travellers. We have, then, in the literature of Europe the same opposition between observed fact and preconceived notion that we meet in Bartram or Carver. On the one hand, wer have La Jeune Indienne of Chamfort, presented at the Théâtre Français in 1764, or Rousseau’s Chanson des Sauvages and Danse Canadienne; on the other, a debate among the learned on the question whether the villainy of the Indians was original, or had been acquired through contact with civilization. In De l’Amérique et des Américains, published at Berlin in 1771, the anonymous author attacks the theories of Pauw, and vigorously contends that the savages were evil enough to begin with.

Man in a state of nature suggests solitude; and solitude, with its charms for the eighteenth-century poet, suggests the so-called “feeling for nature” that of late has been much discussed by literary students in dealing with the period. Though the point is not always made clear, the actual topic under discussion is the Neoplatonic doctrine of divine immanence. To a man who believes in this, the world, with its plants and animals, is no longer a work of art, shaped by the fingers of a Master-Artist; it is filled with a subtle spirit which is interfused in all material and living things, “rolls” through them, and is their principle of movement and pulsation. In one form or another, this notion of immanence, familiar in the earlier poems of Wordsworth, characterizes the reaction against the age of reason, and may be found in many observers of nature in America. Its origin is obscure; nor can one readily see why Neoplatonic ideas should cast a spell over minds so diverse as those of Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth, and the Quaker Bartram. The suggestion has been made that the writings of the mystic Boehme had an influence upon the Society of Friends. But the sources of the “feeling for nature” are likely to have been as various as the evidence of it in American travellers.