Reading the "Book of Nature": Thomas Cole and the British Romantics

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The rapidly developing field of transatlantic studies has opened up new opportunities to chart how ideas fluidly circulated between British and American Romanticism, while also substantially changing in their new American contexts. One such concept was the "book of nature," the idea that the physical landscape can be "read" for spiritual meaning as an alternative scripture. While this metaphor was an overarching motif of transatlantic Romanticism, it changed in its new political, national, and aesthetic climate, forging hybridizations of British Romantic concepts of nature. The 1820s and 1830s were a particularly fertile period of Anglo-American contact, because these were early decades in the formation of American literary and artistic traditions. The life and career of the landscape painter and poet Thomas Cole (1801-1848) provide good examples of transatlantic hybridity: Cole's views of nature merged his extensive schooling in British Romanticism with specific and local American articulations of landscape.1 This chapter focuses on Cole's handling of the book of nature metaphor - best exemplified in one of his most famous landscapes, The Oxbow, - as part of a richly cross-pollinated vision that was indebted to British Romanticism and yet was reinterpreted in distinctively American ways. Cole engaged with Romantic categories such as the wild and the pastoral, the individual and national, the book of nature versus the book of history, the emotive responses of wonder and anxiety, and temporal shifts between the past, present, and a prophetic future.

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