The tradition of the mountains

The tradition of mountain literature in modern times can be extended back to 18th century Europe. It was here that a new interest in nature, expressed through romantic poetry and fiction, came into being. By the early 19th century notable figures like William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott were extolling the virtues of shepherds and highlanders, respectively. These two strains would later turn into themes of the pastoral and the wilderness - complementary ideas that would take on new meaning in 19th century America.

In many ways, the English foreshadowed America's interest in the mountains. As England urbanized during the Industrial Revolution, numerous social and environmental concerns arose as well - a full century before similar concerns would be voiced in America. One critic analyzed the new European interest in the hills and their residents in the following way:

"Primarily, the new romantic response to mountains and the hills naturally carried with it the suggestion that anyone who lived in such a magnificent setting would in some fashion partake of the 'mountain glory,' and live a different life for it. Secondly, there was a general cult of the primitive which in its extreme forms became the search for the Noble Savage but in a more moderate version was often a search for the primitive and isolated man - in this instance, the hill dweller." --Harry Robert Stoneback (1970)

In the early decades of the American republic, meanwhile, the image of the mountains was subsumed within a larger frontier myth. The West, as represented by the exploits of Daniel Boone and the ideology of Manifest Destiny, served to satisfy America's search for the natural world and for nature's subjugation by human civilization. (See Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land, for a greater exposition on the meaning of the West in 19th century America.) The image of Boone and the literature developed around the early frontiersmen - most notably James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales - described the individualism and self-reliance of the Western man, providing a touchstone for larger myths about American culture in general.

Indeed, there was no need for a mythological mountain culture, or a need to study the Eastern hillfolk, when the West had yet to be won. But by the end of the 19th century, American writers and intellectuals faced just such a crisis: the West had run out. Where, then, could they look to discover the primitive? The answer turned out to be in their own backyards.

Proceed to "Cult of the primitive"