White Men, Land, and Literature: The Making (and Unmaking) of an American Pastoral

Brad Kessler on Settler Narratives and the Violence That Haunts American Land and Literature

Twenty odd years ago I moved from New York City to a farmhouse in Vermont. The move from the one-room walk-up on the Lower East Side to southwestern Vermont meant an almost obscene increase in personal space. With the bank documents signed and the deed turned over I became overnight rich in land: seventy-five acres of it. An opalescent brook. An orchard. An opulence my ancestors could never imagine. My grandparents and their parents had always dwelled in cities. Diaspora Jews, they couldn’t own land in the countries they’d come from or hadn’t the money to try.

When my grandmother and great-grandparents arrived at Ellis Island, they were eager to shed their old identities and memories as quickly as the clothes they emigrated in. It was hard to even extract from them later the names of towns where they’d once lived: Lemberg. Vilna Gubernia, Brisk. Cities that had since been renamed as if they were mythic sites that had never truly existed but were merely staging points on their slow march to a safer haven—the New World. Once they’d crossed the ocean they didn’t look back. They didn’t talk about the shtetl or pogrom. And though all 48 states in theory awaited their arrival in America they settled like most of their peers in the archipelago around Manhattan. Most took up residence on the Lower East Side.

I grew up in the near suburbs and lived too as an adult on the Lower East Side but never felt at home in the city. For as long as I could remember I wanted to flee the five boroughs and find a place in the mountains—any mountains—and grow my own food. I’d devoured Thoreau’s Walden as a teen and the poetry of Robert Frost and somehow their invented landscapes and pastoral lives, their blending of culture with agriculture, grafted themselves onto my growing skin. At thirty-two, having searched for a home in rural America in six states in as many years, I left the Lower East Side for the house on a hill in a narrow valley in southwestern Vermont. Verdant in summer. White in winter. For the first time in my life, I felt grounded and at home.

“We begin with the land,” writes Joy Harjo. “We emerge from the earth of our mother and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land.” And so it began for me, with the land, when I moved to that part of Vermont on the border of upstate New York. I was a writer who made my living with paper but wanted to make it with earth as well. I knew the two were intimately connected—land and literature—but unsure how. I understood only that inside unpopulated places, in the woods and mountains, I found a kind of sanctuary I could only otherwise find inside the pages of a book. Landscape and literature: both were safe places, untroubled by actual people.

We were going to raise dairy goats in Vermont, so we fenced in part of the land. Made an enclosure of welded wire and posts. Little did I know I was unconsciously imitating that old European dream of the pastoral. I’d inherited the impulse from countless myths and biblical stories, poems and musical compositions; from the Roman alphabet itself whose letters contained, in their inverted shapes, vestiges of a collective human herding past, i.e.:  The letter “A” from the Hebrew alef, “the bull” reveals its pictographic origin when upturned on its head: “. C, Gimmel, from the Hebrew “camel” shows its hump when tipped upon its side: C. H, from the Hebrew heth for “fence,” reveals its posts and crossbars when strung together: HHHHH. The letter I, from the Hebrew Lamed, makes and means a “shepherds’ staff”: u. Each time we read a sentence we’re herding words across the page.

What haunts American land haunts its literature. Every pastoral, like every paradise, implies exclusion, the things left out of Eden.

The pastoral dream dates back at least to Ur. The word “paradise” comes from the Old Persian for a “fenced place” filled, usually, with friendly animals. In Vermont we were girding in our own “paradise,” making a gated community, pounding posts and stretching wire. The work was rewarding and hard, but when the land was enclosed and the new pasture penned, a certain discomfort began to creep in. What was this indwelling melancholy, this titer of pain, alongside the gratitude? Was it an unconscious acknowledgement (or attempt not to acknowledge, to look away) that our new enclosure, our sanctuary, came with a whiff of shame, a subterranean guilt lurking beneath the false bravado of self-sufficiency? Did every American farmer feel this way (then quickly bury the notion) that beneath their own hard labor, under the topsoil and humus, lay the intractable knowledge, however hidden, that their land was stolen?

What haunts American land haunts its literature. Every pastoral, like every paradise, implies exclusion, the things left out of Eden. How can any outgrowth from American soil not be touched by the two elements underlying its culture: genocide and slavery?  Who inherits the land (and who doesn’t) and how it will be used is the subtext of America’s earliest literature. Benjamin Franklin, America’s “first writer,” sold thousands of broadsides and books while at the same time encouraging the extermination and replacement of America’s native people with White people—“cultivators of the soil.” The “penny saved is a penny earned” author believed America’s unmeasured real estate ripe for exploitation. In his 1751 essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” he rallied the British people to come to the colonies so that “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) reads as much as a literary land brochure as a map of Jefferson’s mind. His detailed queries on climate, rivers, flora and fauna, iron mines and gold lead to his views on race. Aboriginal Americans are noble and barbaric (and removable). Black people need less sleep than Whites, can’t comprehend beauty or tenderness, forethought or grief; are unable, notably, to compose poetry (or create literature). “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry,” Jefferson writes in Query XIV. But what of his published contemporary African American poet, Phyllis Wheatley? “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Or the writer and former slave Ignatius Sancho? “His letters do more honor to the heart than to the head.” Jefferson’s contempt and evasions underscore his literary-agrarian vision. America’s literature, like its land, is already foreclosed to anyone who isn’t White.

The career and books of James Fenimore Cooper best illustrate the expansion of American territory and letters in the nineteenth century. Melville called him “America’s national novelist” and Cooper’s novels were the most widely read at the time. Born in New Jersey in 1789, Cooper grew up in upstate New York in what was considered then the frontier west of Albany. His father was a land speculator who purchased 100,000 acres of First Nations land, making for himself and his family a large fortune off stolen Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) land. What had been an Iroquois village at the foot of Otsego Lake, Coopers father renamed after himself—Cooperstown, New York.

There Cooper sketched his stories, inscribing narratives across the lakes and hills and woods. His plots proved as lucrative as his father’s and became the foundation of American fiction. His cycle of five novels, The Leatherstocking Tales, fantasized the founding and expansion of the settler nation by reimagining the period between 1740-1804 as seen through the lens of a single man: Nathaniel “Natty” Bumpo.  In the course of the Tales, Bumpo transitions from a British settler-trapper to an adopted “native” to a pioneer on the western prairie.

The most pivotal moment in the cycle occurs when Bumpo becomes the adopted son of Chingachgook, a fictional First Nations chief of a fictional “Mohican” tribe. Having earned the blessing of the vanishing chief and obtaining a new “native” name—“Hawkeye”—the White settler becomes in a sense indigenized. When Chingachgook’s biological son and Bumpo’s companion dies at the hands of a Huron warrior, Bumpo becomes, by extension, the “rightful” heir to all the native lands. The Last of the Mohicans and the first of the New White Americans.

Critics Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call the Tales a classic “settler adoption novel” in which the act of adopting indigenous ways makes Bumpo deserving of being adopted by the Indigenous. The settler adoption fantasy, played out in numerous stories since, alleviated the European settlers’ anxiety of unbelonging and assuaged any lingering remorse or guilt over the killing and theft caused by their settlement. It’s starkly clarifying to see the connection between Cooper the father and Cooper the son, how the hard power of real estate transaction and removal is eased and concealed by the “soft power” of published fiction. Cooper’s portrait of Indigenous America—the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” the willful looking away, the premature nostalgia—further served frontier settlement propaganda and violence against the figures in the landscape who never left.

Cooper’s Tales formed an indelible imprint on the American imagination. The Last of the Mohicans has been remade into countless films and TV, radio, comic book, and Marvel Illustrated series adaptations. Yet its most consequential legacy may be in its construction of what Tuck and Wayne call the “pivotal triad of archetypes” that forms the basis of an American national literature, the settler-native-slave triad: “The resourceful Frontiersman, the vanishing Indian, and the degenerate Negro.”

Enslaved Africans arrived on American soil as early as 1619. As Toni Morrison observed thirty years ago, this “Africanist Presence” predated the arrival of any and every American author who came after. Try as subsequent White settler authors might to ignore this pre-existing “Africanist Presence,” that very presence helped shape “the nature and even the cause of literary whiteness.” Through her close reading of the American canon (Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Cather, Hemingway), Morrison showed how a White identity was invented against the shadow of an equally invented Black identity. An “unsettled and unsettling population” (the “not-free” and “not-me”) defined those who could settle and spread: Whites. More recently the writer Jess Row, following Morrison’s lead, explored the racial subtext of White American post-war fiction through its various movements (modernism, minimalism, post-modernism, etc.).

Row’s surgical reading of writers as diverse (stylistically at least) as Annie Dillard, Don DeLillo, Ben Marcus, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, and Marilynne Robinson, reveal to him glaring evasions, silences and lacunae regarding race. Row maintains the heart of White American fiction is located in avoidance and shame and how White writers have responded stylistically to their own isolation. His theory is this: if White people sealed themselves off in segregated suburbs in the fifties and sixties and seventies, an equal escapism occurred in American literature.

A movement on the land—supported by government subsidies and redlining—mirrored a movement in American letters. White people gained entry into new territory (once again) that displaced or excluded people of color. The psychic costs of that ongoing segregation continues to inform and deform American fiction. Only recently, often reluctantly, White American writers have begun to acknowledge that the same type of redlining occurred in American literature’s related places of power: the academy and the publishing world.

Publishing is always a form of occupation. Occupying the page, the available space, taking up room, not just metaphorically, but literally: shelf space, library catalogs, bookstores, print columns, bandwidth. I’ve long been interested in books as space, texts as tracts; the Manifest Destiny an empty notebook implies. The loss of land and the inheritance of “The Book”—trading the land for letters—is the allegory of the Jewish Diaspora (and maybe every diaspora since). Land and literature; how does occupying one reconstruct the other? Every pastoral since Theocritus depends on the elimination of the native and replacement of what came before. The shepherd and sheep don’t arrive on the scene until all the native fauna are killed or kept at bay. Writing itself is a kind of displacement, words stand in for the real, the autochthonous. We can never gain what was lost through letters. We can only fill empty spaces with words.

What does it mean that as a White American man, a writer and farmer, I am a direct heir to Cooper’s fictions and Jefferson’s agrarian policies? What does it say that some of my favorite literary forebears, from Walt Whitman to Wallace Stevens, were racist? How does one step into their tradition and not reinscribe the same narrative on the page (or on the land)? Wasn’t I doing just that in my rural isolation? I’d imbibed the celebrated qualities of the American character Toni Morrison describes so well in Playing in the Dark: the rugged individualism, the imagined autonomy, the self-sufficiency.

Writing itself is a kind of displacement, words stand in for the real, the autochthonous. We can never gain what was lost through letters. We can only fill empty spaces with words.

Thoreau’s “Solitude,” Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” Melville “containing multitudes” (while isolating himself at Arrowhead, his farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts). Even Emily Dickinson’s cloistering in nearby Amherst had at its core a querencia, a defensive posture. A misanthropic hiding away. Robert Frost, who farmed just minutes down the road from where I live, advised: “Make yourself up a cheering song” and “pull in your ladder road behind you and put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.” Hadn’t I done the same by following his “Directive”? Why the defensive posture? What were all these writers defending against? What imminent violence, humiliation, pain?

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and poet, the novelist and environmental activist, intuited early on that American racism infected not only its people but its art. “A work of art that grows out of a diseased culture,” he wrote in The Hidden Wound, “has not only the limits of the disease—if it is not an affirmation of the disease, it is a reaction against it.” Berry also understood how brutality against Indigenous and Black people was linked to brutality against the land, that cultural and ecological annihilation, undertaken by Europeans, dated back to the conquistadors, and continued to this day.

There are places in rural America where the weight of the past hangs so powerfully over the land you can feel the heaviness in the air. Places that feel violently unsettled, that shout: Run Away! Sites of unrecorded massacres or a region where mountain-top removal has left the land poisoned, the soil dead.  Call it the “spirit of the place,” or psychic energy, or the ghosts of lives cut short. Like all bodies, the land keeps the score. One reason it took so long to find a home in rural America, is that we looked for places unpolluted by America’s past. We started looking in West Virginia and worked our way all the way north for a clean slate. A blank page. It was a fool’s errand, of course, for no such place exists. There are no blank pages anymore, only ones less than more defiled.

Where I live in southwestern Vermont the old indigenous names have all been erased, substituted with Anglo ones (to the east), Dutch (to the west), and French (to the North). The rivers are called “kills” from the Dutch. Its easy to forget in a purely linguistic sense, in the daily usage of words, that the land used to be linked to a local language that limned its features and contours, its flats and brooks, its past events and confluences, that native names were a type of text or geographic novel that read from one end of the country to the other, in multiple tongues, not unlike the songlines of Aboriginal Australia. These are whole libraries lost. All our creeks have become “kills.”

Yet land still speaks. We’ve largely lost the ability to listen. It takes a long time to hear what a piece of land has to “say,” or perceive what it wants. There’s a whole consciousness in the woods outside my window I can barely access even when I’m immersed in it. Only now, after decades living on this same stamp of land, have I learned some basic grammar and can discern the faint furrows in the woods formed by past plows, or read a rock wall or the vanished race of an abandoned mill. Of the land’s older occupants—Abenaki to the east, Mohawk to the west—I know next to nothing.

What surprises still is my own ignorance of place and the stories right around me I’ve never learned. A few years ago, I met a woman in Italy who lives in the Pacific Northwest. When she learned where I lived, she assumed I knew the story of the Great Peacemaker, the First Nations prophet. I did not. The Great Peacemaker was an Onondaga a man who lived in the fifteenth (some say twelfth) century. He was said to be sent by the Creator to unite the warring “Six Nations” of the northeast—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—and form the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy. He set off as a young man from Lake Ontario in a canoe carved of pure white stone and paddled all the way east to the Mohawk people.

Land still speaks. We’ve largely lost the ability to listen. It takes a long time to hear what a piece of land has to “say,” or perceive what it wants.

The Mohawk were impressed by the man’s sincerity and bravery but didn’t buy his message. Rejected, the Great Peacemaker scaled a towering pine that grew beside the raging falls of the Mohawk River where it meets the Hudson. He told the Mohawk people beneath to chop down the tree. The onlookers watched the falling pine plunge into the Kahon:ios Falls and the Great Peacemaker, riding on top, disappear into the rapids. Afterward, everyone assumed him dead. Yet the next morning they found him sitting unharmed by a campfire. His miraculous act convinced the Mohawk to join him and become the founding Nation of the Haudenosaunee.

Why had I never heard the story of the Great Peacemaker? I lived only an hour away from where he performed his miracle at Kahon:ios falls which is called Cohoes Falls today. I’d passed through the town of Cohoes, New York, hundreds of times on my way home from Albany (usually to buy gas). It was as if I lived near the Sea of Galilee and had never heard the name “Jesus.” One story gets erased, another inscribed on the land. That I’d never been taught the story of the Great Peacemaker was unsurprising. That I’d never made a point of learning felt shameful.

We who live in rural American have a lot of work to do, especially here in Vermont where we can hide behind our liberal politics. While some of us here can pride ourselves on Bernie Sanders and our stated commitment to social justice, we live in the whitest (if not the whitest) state in the country, a place where we can talk racial justice until blue in the face but never encounter a black one, or an immigrant, or any person of color. Our beliefs are rarely tested by reality. We live very much still in a gated community; even if the gates are invisible, they’re implied.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor stopped by to help cut down an old maple tree that had been dying for years in our yard. Jim—I’ll call him—is a white man in his sixties, a retired arborist and forest ranger who’d worked decades for the government in the nearby National Forest. Our valley is split down the middle politically between red and blue (but we’re all white) and Jim is a Democrat, on the progressive side of things. He’s also an avid outdoorsman, a turkey and deer hunter and skilled fisherman. Like most of my neighbors, he owns several guns. He also happens to be a casual reader, someone who borrows books routinely from the local library. The day he came over to cut down the dying tree, we talked afterward about books. What was he reading now? What interested him?  Science. Some science fiction. But what excited him the most that day was a novel he started rereading again, his favorite, one he returned to again and again every few years to give him solace or remind him of something.

What’s the novel? I asked.

He set his chainsaw on a log.

“James Fenimore Cooper,” he said. “The Last of the Mohicans.”

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Brad Kessler’s novel North is available now via Overlook Press. 

Brad Kessler
Brad Kessler
Brad Kessler is the author of two previous critically acclaimed novels, Lick Creek and Birds in Fall, which was a recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a memoir, Goat Song. He has been awarded a Whiting, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, the Kenyon Review, and BOMB. North is his latest novel. He lives in Vermont.





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