The picturesque Mississippi

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract

In 1854, when the Grand Excursionists went upriver, the Mississippi was hardly unknown territory, nor was it wilderness. Native people had lived along the river for centuries and European American villages, farms, and trading posts had been established for a hundred years or more. The Upper Mississippi marked the leading edge of white settlement, anchored by the old French city of St. Louis. Lead mines had worked productively at Galena, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa, for some twenty years; Minnesota was still a territory and would not become a state for another four years. Still, what the excursion passengers saw and described was perhaps influenced more by what they had read about the river and about landscapes - what they thought they saw - than by the landscapes actually passing by. What they described was a picturesque landscape, containing very particular elements organized in a distinctive manner and emphasizing the attractive qualities of the natural landscape, particularly those featuring hills, woods, and rivers. Catherine Sedgwick's piece in Putnam's Monthly offers a good window into the descriptive flights of fancy by the Grand Excursionists. She wrote of the bluffs: "They are planted, quite to their summits, with oaks mainly, and trees of other species, as Downing with his love of nature and his study of art, might have planted them: now in long serpentine walks, and now in copses, and then, so as to cover, with regular intervening clear spaces, the whole front of the declivity, producing the effect of a gigantic orchard."1 For Sedgwick, the landscape of the Mississippi was a composition of particular forms laid out according to specific designs to achieve an intended look. The oak-savanna hillsides appeared to her as if they had been laid out according to the artistic theories popularized by Andrew Jackson Downing, a well-known landscape gardener of the era. For her, then, the unfamiliar landscape became recognizable. Consequentially, she could speculate on the landscape's future as a place of wealth and civilization. Sedgwick's article raises critical issues of landscape aesthetics and the connections between how a landscape is perceived and how it is treated. This essay explores those issues by examining descriptions of the Mississippi written before and after the Grand Excursion. First, though, it is important to understand the idea of the picturesque that informed Sedgwick's view so heavily.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGrand Excursions on The Upper Mississippi River
Subtitle of host publicationPlaces, Landscapes, and Regional Identity after 1854
PublisherUniversity of Iowa Press
Pages75-86
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9780877458852
StatePublished - Dec 1 2004

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