A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature

When I was reading Jonah Raskin’s book A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature, I began to have wilderness dreams, as I have always had them, about undiscovered landscapes just beyond the daily familiar. If you’re an American and if you believe you have grown up with anything close to a spiritual relationship with Nature, then you owe it to yourself to read this beautifully written book, for the depth of Raskin’s knowledge, his generosity in sharing it, his wit and gentle irony, for his voice of a storyteller.

Perhaps you are like me. All my life, American literature has been the neglected cousin. But here, Raskin brings him tapping at my door, and right away it turns out he’s not my cousin at all but more the intellectual father I’ve pretended not to know.

Because of his book, I began to remember other relatives—books I had been a little ashamed of (a message from a distant Puritan ancestor?), some I had forgotten entirely. Like William Henry Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, set in 1840, with its Argentine and Guyanan forests and Rima, the bird girl, the perfect embodiment of my wilderness spirituality, my romanticism and a fifteen-year-old’s sexual yearnings. The same English teacher plopped Hillaire Belloc’s essay “The Mowing of a Field” down in front of me, adding rhythmic, sweaty scythe-swinging work to my trinity of yearnings. Both books included the act of cutting, or taking from the paradise, the destruction theme—genocide, tree felling, buffalo slaughter—that Raskin follows throughout the book. Belloc’s wilderness was a domestic one in the South of England, but a world “remote from ambition and fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of grass in the summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.” A kind of Brigadoon, and dream-like, with mowing as metaphor, an activity Thoreau would have approved of— the honest work of harvest. And of taking.

Cotton Mather (the worst of me), Cooper, Hawthorn, Melville—it turns out I was baptized in their words hundreds if years before my birth. A Terrible Beauty reminds me that I am only one of a long line of travelers through woods and forests. Raskin opens a door to something that has been slumbering for a lifetime in me, in this boy of the forest, this young Transcendentalist, who thought no one else knew about these things. This little Lewis or Clark who also carried a rifle, but without a Sacagawea to guide him, the boy who saw meaning in dark New England ponds and in turtles that passed through the plane of what can be seen and what can not. This boy writer, me, is now old and trying to understand his long connection to Nature, his need for Wilderness, his need to explore and colonize, construct the hidden nest or hut—the little murderer still wanted as killer of innocent rabbits and other living things.

Raskin is a master of exploratory prose, like a weaver who advances, then circles back to pick up a color or texture, who threads in a streak of irony or wit. On Mark Twain he writes: “(He)…had wrestled with a definition (of civilization) for years, he confessed, until, knowing he was near the end of his life, he realized he had to nail the word down or die trying.”

Cooper, Melville, Thoreau, Twain, Dickinson, Cather, Fitzgerald—I carried all of them into the forest with me—along with Hudson and Belloc, along with Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) on the French and Indian War, handed to me by my father.

My forests were filled with light and dark, with enchanted clearings and the shadows of German soldiers and some Japanese. As far as Indians went, I was the Indian and not the enemy. At sixteen, my father showed me a mailing from the Exeter or Harvard Alumni Association. It was a story about one or the other of those two schools sending a letter to a New England Indian chief, inviting him to send some of his young men to learn Latin, poetics and English. The chief politely wrote back, thanking the school and saying that they had found such education had not benefited their young men the way they had hoped it would. But on the other hand, if those schools would send a few of their young men to him, they would learn to run fifty miles, argue persuasively in councils, shoot arrows with accuracy and be leaders of men.

And so, some of my admiration for Native Americans must have come from him—my quiet father. In my later years, I wrote a story (“It is Wrong to Steal,” www.sterlingbennett.com) about my grandparents giving up their own food to feed hungry Apaches in Arizona, then being nursed and fed by the same Apaches when it was my grandparents’ turn to fall sick. The Indians did this by stealing a white rancher’s calf. When the sheriff and his posse arrived on horseback, my grandfather, still sick, led the troop in the opposite direction, far to the north, away from his Apache friends. With all that said, I never had an Indian friend. Which speaks to the cultural contradiction that I live. Like others of European descent, I romanticized the people who were here before, but do not have one as my friend, did not count their culture as equal. In that way, I follow my literary ancestors and participate in the destruction of the very Wilderness I worship, accept the displacement and liquidation of the American Indian (as well as the what is wild and independent), make him a foreigner in his own land, put him on a reservation in my mind.

While I was at Berkeley in graduate school, the most important person in my life was already dead almost twenty years before I was born, the Yahi Indian Ishi, whom Theodore Kroeber immortalized in her books, Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi, The Last of his Tribe. I even instructed that my ashes were to be placed at the top of a certain cliff overlooking Deer Creek, Ishi’s home canyon until he was driven out and became the “Last Wild Indian.” If I had known him, would I have allowed him to be my friend? Or would I have participated in an attitude of colonization and exploitation? This is a question I would never be asking had I not read Raskin’s extraordinary book. Devouring every single page of it.

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