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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3



David R. Williams

Critics in the Wilderness: Literary Theory and the Spiritual Roots of the American Wilderness Tradition

David R. Williams (M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School) is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University. His publications include
Wilderness Lost: The Religious Origins of the American Mind (Susquehanna University Press, 1987) and Sin Boldly!: Dr. Dave's Guide to Acing the College Paper (Simon and Schuster, forthcoming).


In his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey asks why so many of us Americans feel such a strong attraction not just to nature but to wilderness:

Wilderness: The word itself is music.

Wilderness… We scarcely know what we mean by the term, though the sound of it draws all whose nerves and emotions that have not yet been irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweating scramble for profit and domination.

Why such allure in the very word? What does it really mean? (189)

What indeed? To ask why so many of us Americans respond as we do is to ask about the political and cultural context within which we operate. It is to ask into the constructions of our feelings and beliefs. It is to inquire into the subtle signifying practices of our language, the meanings of our words, the signifieds of our signifiers.

But a tragic misreading dominates the currently available answers to Abbey's question. The deep "allure" of wilderness as wilderness comes not out of the woods or deserts themselves, not out of paganism, not out of German metaphysics or the Enlightenment or European Romanticism or Eastern mysticism. Nor is it a thinly disguised effort of a white middle class to perpetuate its hegemony over marginalized segments of our society. Instead, it comes out of the religious presuppositions that to this day remain at the core of the constructed beliefs within which most Americans understand their lives.

Lynn White's influential essay on "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" (Science 1967) argues that Christianity or the Judeo-Christian ethic is the source of a classic American antagonism to nature. According to White, the Judeo-Christian ethic created the anthropocentric attitude with which the children of Adam and Eve set out to impose their control over the world. Building on this, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind, by using Cotton Mather as his representative Puritan, further reinforced the notion that American Protestantism is at heart hostile to nature. Largely because of the influence of these works, much of the American ecology movement has been wary of Christian language and has looked beyond Christian constructions for alternative definitions of the human relationship to that Other, including wilderness, which exists outside of human culture. In a recent example, Devall and Sessions' Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered has little trouble finding "sources of the deep ecology perspective" in Native American religions, the new physics, primal peoples, Taoist and Bhuddist writings, feminism, Martin Heidegger, and the American romantic tradition from Thoreau to Muir. But for Christianity, the best they can do is quote Lynn White's praise for Francis of Assisi and cite the heresies of Giordano Bruno for which he was burned at the stake.

Yet even Edward Abbey, who declared himself a hard-boiled atheist, owes more than he's willing to admit to his own Protestant roots. Much of Desert Solitaire is devoted to denying that there is anything of any God in the desert. But who ever said there was? After the first protestations it becomes clear that the value of wilderness for Abbey is exactly that of his Protestant ancestors, the place where the soul becomes emptied of the lies of the everyday world and is able to come as close to raw truth as possible. Throughout Christian literature, it is in the desert that humans become cleansed of pride and falsehood and are forced out of their egos, their socially constructed personalities, to face the terrifying emptiness beyond that self. Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Abbey reveals that he comes from the heart of this tradition when, using Old Testament imagery, he writes:

Under that Desert Sun in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean, the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats, a pillar of dust by day; the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning. The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore, sublime (219).

Despite Abbey's protests, the sensibility and imagery here are pure Old Testament, not the nature-conquering Jehovah whom White regrets or Nash decries or Devall and Sessions ignore, but the other mystical strain of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the wilderness tradition. Reality also spoke to Moses in the desert out of a pillar by day, a whirlwind, and a flaming bush saying, I am not the idols that humans create as my image, "I am that I am." Clearly, despite Abbey's protests, the myths have not yet "dissolve[d] like mist."

Another American champion of the wilderness, whom Abbey called "the most cold-eyed and clear-eyed of our national poets," Robinson Jeffers comes out of the same Protestant wilderness tradition. Like Abbey, Jeffers also yearned to pierce the veil of human culture and to confront absolute reality. But unlike Abbey, Jeffers was willing to use the explicitly theological language of Christian orthodoxy.

In his poem "Original Sin," Jeffers sets the human ape in sharp contrast against the nobility of the paleolithic dawn (Selected Poems 79). His sympathies are clearly with the world and not with its human plague. Here, as in all of his poetry, a sinful humanity is contrasted to the glories of the creation. In "Nova," he proclaims "And we know that the enormous, invulnerable beauty of things/Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without grief or fear knowing it survives us" (Collected Poems 598). For him as for Abbey, the wilderness is the place where sinful, egotistic, anthropocentric human consciousness is humbled and forced to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Other.

Jeffers's Old Testament sensibilities can be traced to his father, a professor of Old Testament Studies at Western Theological Seminary. Jeffers called his own beliefs "inhumanism," and like Abbey he abhorred much of what modern American Protestantism had become, but he had come out of a Protestant tradition nevertheless, as had such other champions of the wilderness as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. That these perhaps our greatest champions of our wilderness tradition came out of Calvinist cultural backgrounds is not a coincidence.

The origins of this wilderness tradition are to be found in the American Puritans' reading of the Old Testament. In a form of interpretation called "Typology," the Old Testament was read as a foreshadowing, a model, of the New Testament. Here, much of the Old Testament is seen as a symbol of what follows in the New. The Old Testament symbol is called a "type;" its New Testament counterpart is called the "Antitype." So Jonah in descending into the whale's belly for three days is a type of Christ's descending into the belly of Hell for three days. Jonah is the type; Christ is the antitype. And both point forward to the Kingdom of God in the world.

For the Puritans, the most important Old Testament type was the story of the Children of Israel leaving Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, wandering for forty years in the wilderness, and then crossing the River Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. This story was read as a type of Christ's crucifixion. Leaving Egypt was the turning away from worldliness, wandering in the wilderness amidst trials and tribulations was the time on the cross, Moses's view of Canaan from the top of Mount Pisgah was the prophetic view of the coming glory, passage into the Promised Land was the resurrection. And together both of these stories, the type and its antitype, pointed to the need for humans in the kingdom of time, us, to undergo a similar experience of egodeath and rebirth in the wilderness (Brumm).

That which we refer to today using psychological terms, the Puritans spoke of using this language of type and antitype. When they signified the need to kill the worldly constructions of the ego, they spoke of the need to leave Egypt and to enter the wilderness. When they signified the fear that the loss of identity produces, they spoke of the Fear of God and of the howling wilderness. When they signified the new perception, they spoke of the beauties of the land of Canaan and of the need to walk with God in harmony in Zion. When they signified the process of change from egocentric selfishness to a sense of the beauty of the whole outside of self, they spoke of the need to leave Egypt, to enter the wilderness, and finally to cross over into Canaan.

It was the job of every Puritan minister to drive his congregation into the wilderness that underlies rational, egocentric consciousness, to drive them out of their secure and self-righteous minds, literally, to drive them mad, in the hope that out of this spiritual crucifixion might come a spiritual rebirth. The hell-fire and damnation sermons for which the Puritans were famous were not attempts to scare people into being obedient. They were attempts to drive people crazy. To go into the wilderness meant to go mad in the hope of finding the mystic liberty that Christ brings (Williams 23-80).

Always the message of the need for conversion was tied to the experience of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. The wilderness was literal, in the Sinai, but it was also typological, in the soul. Their trip into the literal howling wilderness of New England was seen as a type of the need for entering the howling wilderness of the soul to be crucified and resurrected. Accordingly, in the 1630s the Connecticut minister Thomas Hooker used this language and imagery when urging his congregation to turn from self-love to the love of God:

There must be contrition and humiliation before the Lord comes to take possession;… This was typified in the passage of the Children of Israel towards the promised land; they must come into and go through a vast and roaring wilderness, where they must be bruised with many pressures, humbled under many over-bearing difficulties, before they could possess that good land. (Williams 56)

For settlers entering into and struggling with a literal wilderness, this was a difficult distinction to maintain. Thomas Hooker kept the literal and the metaphorical wilderness realms carefully separate, but others were not so careful. Often one gets the impression from these early sermons that these ministers believed that somehow because the New Englanders were in a literal wilderness, they were also necessarily in a spiritual wilderness undergoing conversion. Thus, the spiritual regeneration for which the Puritans came to America was tied up in a very complex way with their perception of the literal wilderness. They came to New England fearing but wanting to experience that terror of the wilderness. The external, literal wilderness became a potent symbol of the internal wilderness of their own deepest fears, fears their religion insisted that they enter and surrender their self-love to.

In Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of the New England Puritan writers, this passion becomes evident. Unlike Cotton Mather, whom Nash used to represent all of Puritanism, Edwards did not imagine himself already saved, and therefore he was not hostile to the wilderness experience. His sense of being a sinner trapped in a sinful consciousness made the wilderness of the fear of God a necessity to him. He preached his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," not to scare people into obedience but in the hope of shattering their pride and forcing them out of their egos to confront the Other. He believed that the ego had to be crucified before it could be resurrected in a new spirit. Only out of the wilderness experience could sinful human consciousness achieve a sense of the true beauty of the eternal reality outside ourselves, what he called "Being in General" or "the Universal System of Existence" or "God."

In time, as the word "God" or the phrase "the fear of God" lost its ability to signify fear, God ceased to be a figure of terror but became instead a symbol of romantic essentialism, not the wastes without but a comforting benevolent spirit within. Thus Calvinism mellowed and eventually gave way on one side to rationalism with its faith in science and human culture, and on the other side to a romanticized Christianity which imagined God as a benevolent presence within the soul. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it, in the nineteenth century "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross" (193). After this change, the word "God" ceased to signify the terror beyond our idolatrous structures and instead signified an essentialism which reinforced structure instead of confronting it. When that happened, the literal wilderness alone remained as a symbol of that unstructured Other. But since our external perception answers to our internal structures, for many even the wilderness ceased to signify terror and instead came be seen as a garden.

In the romantic era, Ralph Waldo Emerson read the wilderness tradition in just such a literal and benevolent manner. The heir of a long tradition of New England ministers, he nevertheless felt that one of his tasks was to transform what he called the old "Hebraic Mythology" into a secular mythology and to free men from fear. The wilderness, instead of being an Other faced with fear and trembling, became a garden where one could walk with the divine. Emerson went into the woods, sat on a log, and waited for the mystic vision to come. He remains famous for his belief that one can come into communion with God in nature. But he did not arrive at this notion on his own. His was a literal interpretation of the central spiritual metaphor of orthodox Protestantism. Like Edwards, he wanted an experience of love of the Other, of nature, which he defined as the "not me." But he forgot what the wilderness originally signified. He wanted the garden of Canaan without having to lose his ego in the wilderness; he wanted the resurrection without the cross. To make matters even worse, he mistook the literal for the symbolic and imagined he could find love in the woods. From Emerson's inversion of the older reading, it is an easy step into the more modern notion of wilderness as garden. Emerson in his old age even met John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and one of the great nature mystics of American culture.

What Abbey's example shows is that there remains in modern American culture a subtly transformed secular remnant of the old Puritan spiritual duality toward the wilderness, that wilderness is both literal and mystical, and that both literal and spiritual wilderness can signify terror and/or grace, either the "howling wilderness" of the Puritans or the benevolent garden of their descendants. In either case, we value it not just for itself but because wilderness somehow symbolizes to us, as it did to Abbey, the possibility of a chance "to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us" (6). Jonathan Edwards could not have said it better.

Here then is the origin of the allure of the very word wilderness. This fascination with wilderness is not anti-Christian but in fact comes out of the very heart of American Protestantism. And yet to read White, Nash, or the deep ecologists is to assume that Christianity is somehow the enemy.

As one good recent example, Max Oelschlaeger's ambitious treatise, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, offers a new, exhaustive exploration of this theme not just in an American context but on a global, indeed cosmic, scale. But what he presents is a new version of what Perry Miller called "obtuse secularism," a well-meaning but ultimately myopic view of the significance of wilderness in American culture.

After several chapters on the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer's Eden and its "fall" into neolithic agricultural civilization, Oelschlager hurries through the Biblical epoch to rest where he assumes modern consciousness to have really begun, in Greece, among the rationalists. He then leaps nimbly from stone to stone of the rational European tradition, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, the Enlightenment, to the Romantic era, before leaping across the Atlantic and landing in the arms of Henry David Thoreau whom he sees as crucial to the birth (!) of a distinctly American idea of wilderness. It is a familiar pantheon, and it seems oblivious to the other tradition of theological belief and imagery coming out of the Old Testament and the Reformation.

And yet religion is in fact the theme of the book. Wilderness consciousness as a new postmodern theology is the goal he is pursuing. He insists that this is somehow something new and radical even as he concentrates on individuals whose attraction to the wilderness is constructed out of historical religious traditions. John Muir is presented, as he must be, as the son of a rigid Presbyterian. But Oelschlaeger insists that "his seemingly orthodox religious vocabulary does not carry traditional Judeo-Christian presuppositions with it" (174). Robinson Jeffers, likewise, is treated as being in the tradition of Whitehead, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer with only puzzled reference to the fact that his father was a professor of Old Testament studies.

Oelschlaeger, like Emerson, wants the old theology without the Hebraic mythology. This is understandable. But as a scholar he at least ought to acknowledge the historical context of the ideas he is so exhaustively exploring. Instead, he seems to want to create an ancestry for his postmodern wilderness theology that is safely secular. In his final chapter, he summarizes his discovery that though certainty was once found in God, or reason, or experience, "today, because of the irreducibly textual character of our beliefs, all arenas of certainty are in question" (325). This calling into question of the old claims to absolute certainty is, he says, "a frightening specter." Indeed! But to say that this is somehow new is to reveal ignorance of American theology. Oelschlaeger sees his new wilderness consciousness as "leading humankind out of a homocentric prison into the cosmic wilderness." In this, he is putting the old wine in new bottles, but he seems not to know what grapes that old wine was fermented from. When he calls Muir's father's God a "Cosmic Hitler" (192), we get a taste of his own sensitivity toward the old theology.

When Oelschlaeger refers to the "irreducibly textual character of our beliefs," he is conjuring up a new element in this conundrum. In many ways, the critical language of post-structuralism presents not so much a new challenge, but a new front. Those concepts once signified by the word "wilderness" are here presented as if for the first time. This is promising in that it shows the endurance of these concepts. But before critics can see the connections between post-structuralism and the older tradition, it is necessary to cut through post-structuralism's open hostility to the presentation of "nature" or "wilderness" as if these were always naively essentialist.

Reduced to its basic concepts, post-structuralism, as defined by such spokespersons as Jacques Derrida, argues that all of human cultural assumptions are contained within language, which is itself always socially constructed. What we believe, and what we think about what we believe, even what we think we see and hear outside of ourselves, is bound up within socially constructed categories that were created out of the power relationships of competitive society. Post-structuralists like to quote Derrida's "Il n'y a rien hors du texte"—there is nothing outside the text. There is no reality out there, no "presence." There is in fact nothing, say these deconstructionists, outside the categories of human interpretation; hence, there is no such thing as "nature" defined, as Emerson defined it, as the "not me." Everything we see and say is a product of social constructions. Deconstruction thus becomes a breaking down of the constructions of meaning, of the texts from within which we perceive the world. It attempts to take apart the webs of meaning and significance with which our "irreducibly textual" perception of the world is woven. These "postmodern" readings are known for their awareness of the "ontological uncertainty" that arises from an "awareness of the absence of centers, of privileged languages, higher discourses." This awareness contrasts with the modernist clinging to rationally defined hierarchies and centers, and avoids "the consequences of the radical indeterminacy" that are, on the contrary, accepted by the postmoderm (Natoli 2).

But postmodernism's rebellion against modernism's claim to absoluteness is not as new or as revolutionary as the postmodernists imagine. On the other side of the enlightenment, theologians like Edwards argued in much the same way against those then emerging modernists who thought they had a truth other than the terrifying undoing of all human discourse in the terror of the fear of God. It was the rationalists and romantics of the nineteenth century who thought they had "the truth," not the older Calvinists who worshipped a Deus Absconditus, an absent God not a presence.

A growing concern within ecological literary studies within the academy has to do with these parallels and the problems of language created by them. A crucial difference separates the old wilderness mysticism from post-structural theory. If there is, according to post-structuralism, nothing beyond the text, if there is no essential reality but only a socially constructed one, then there is no nature out there. There is no there out there. Human beings cannot speak of an "Other" outside the language of human culture. "Nature," as we tend to speak of it, as a reality beyond human experience, does not exist because all texts are situationally created rather than hermeneutically revealed. In The Social Creation of Nature, Neil Evernden refers to these folks as "the Barthesian thought-police at work weeding nature from our cultural gardens" (30). When poststructuralists like Barthes hear ecologists talking about nature, they get out their weeders. When feminists hear white male ecologists talk about the wilderness, they see, not respect for an Other beyond human cultural constructions, but an attempt by men to create a space in which they can act out hostility to women and maintain their hegemony over marginalized groups within their own culture. They see, in post structural terms, the socially-generated concept of nature as a tool of male hegemony. Are they right?

I suspect that to a degree they are. Abbey's often hostile references to women certainly reinforce this interpretation, even if he did remove the worst of them from later editions. But that we are totally products of our contingencies, and that we do create the products of our discourse out of our own power demands, does not alter the existence of something beyond the borders of our language/culture cages. That we cannot get from within these cages to an "out there" does not mean that we ought to deny any reality outside ourselves. Just as we destroy the literal wilderness as an Other the second we set our L.L. Bean hiking boots in it, so perhaps we cannot write or speak of nature without carrying the corruption of our own human perceptions into that speaking. But to go from this insight to a denial that anything exists outside of human consciousness is foolishly solipsistic. This is why the Hebrews could not speak or write the full name of Jahweh; they knew that their human constructs were unable to approach God, but neither were they foolish enough to deny that the unnameable God exists. Their writing J-W- was a way to signify their understanding that human constructions cannot possibly represent the Other, that any human attempt to do so, even this shortened form, is caught up in the corruption of human constructions, but that some form of reference is nevertheless needed. We can only know that we are contingent and constructed if we have some sense of that Other beyond our constructions, call it J-W- or God or wilderness or Other.

This is the challenge of nature writing. This is the literary role of the wilderness. Wilderness is the paramount symbol of that realm outside the text which Derrida claims does not exist, of that essential reality beyond humanly created constructs, what appears to us as absence, what our forebears called "the fear of God." In Desert Solitaire, Abbey, echoing Thoreau, says he went to the desert "to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus" (6). Abbey wanted to see without his own cultural lenses. But except for occasional rare moments of almost pure spiritual egolessness, he could not, and he knew he could not. But he did not allow this to force him back into the slums of Hoboken. We need wilderness, he said, because we need to be reminded that there is an out there beyond the cage of human consciousness. He wrestles with the dilemma that all of his attempts may be "constructing not a picture of external reality but a mirror of the thinker." And he concludes that even though the desert may be a construct, it is a construct "of a realm beyond the human" (270). He rejects the "classicist" view that the human is all there is.

Despite the dangers of forgetting that symbols like the wilderness are only symbols, we still need some such symbol of the Other if only to remind ourselves that there is an Other. Otherwise we will fall into the opposite crime of worshipping human culture as if humans were all there were. Without symbols of that Other, however tainted they are unavoidably going to be by our human corruptions, we would soon embrace an egocentric humanism and drown in our own wastes. We need such symbols to remind us that even if our perceptions are totally bounded within the circle of our socially constructed conceptions, the wilderness is a reality out there beyond those constructions; the island of human culture is not, after all, everything.

In "The Old People," his preface to "The Bear," William Faulkner writes:

Like an old lion or a bear in a cage, he was born in the cage and has been in it all his life. He knows nothing else. Then he smells something...there for a second was the hot sand or the cane-break that he never even saw himself, might not even know it if he did see it.... But that's not what he smelled then. It was the cage he smelled. He hadn't smelled the cage until that minute. (167)

We construct that which we call wilderness to remind us of our cages. To say that we ought not speak of an Other, a nature, a wilderness because we are entrapped in culture is to take away one of the most important symbols of the memory within our culture of our encagement. Perhaps we cannot get out of these culturally conditioned contingent cages, but we can remember that we are in culturally constructed cages and occasionally rattle the bars. That in fact is what the post-structuralists are trying to do, to remind us of our cages. Deconstruction is the act of rattling the bars. And this is what the traditional orthodox language of the reformed theology was trying to do; this is what Jonathan Edwards was trying to do: to shake us out of our sinful worldliness and to force us to confront the terror of the void called the fear of God.

The language of orthodox Christian Protestant theology thus in many ways parallels the language of post-structuralism, and because of this relationship the image of wilderness and the importance of wilderness is tied inevitably to both. Hence, rather than divide ecological consciousness from either traditional religion or from the post-structuralists, there is a need to bring these language systems together, to show where and how they are saying similar things. Abbey asks of wilderness, "Why such allure in the very word/ What does it really mean?" It means nothing, and because of that Everything.



Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness . New York: Ballantine, 1968.

Brumm, Ursula. American Literature and Religious Typology . New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1970; see also Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. Typology and Early American Literature (Boston: Univ. of MA, 1972).

Devall, Bill and George Sessions, eds. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered . Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1985.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Personal Narrative," "The Nature of True Virtue," "Of Being," and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Ola Winslow, ed. New York: NAL, 1966.

---. Images or Shadows of Divine Things. Perry Miller, ed. New Haven: Yale, 1948.

Evernden, Neil. The Social Creation of Nature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1992.

Faulkner, William. "The Old People." Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1942. Jeffers, Robinson. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1965.

---. The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Random, 1959.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale, 1973.

Natoli, Joseph, and Linda Hutcheon, eds. A Postmodern Reader. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper, 1959.

Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven: Yale, 1991.

White Jr., Lynn. "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155 (March 1967): 1203-1207.

Williams, David R. Wilderness Lost: The Religious Origins of the American Mind. Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna, 1987.


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