Dr Linda Freedman
The Lawson Lecture Room, Kennedy Hall
Smooth Myths and Rough Histories: Mark-making and the Textures of Eden in Thomas Cole and Walt Whitman
‘Myth’, Roland Barthes reminds us, ‘is a mode of signification, a form.’ The trick of mythic speech is to inflect history in such a way that it appears natural and eternal: an inevitable truth. But, of course, there are no eternal myths, only ancient ones. Myth is rooted in history, sustained, sometimes concealed, by it, even as it impoverishes that history by stripping it of contingency. The myth of America as a New Eden has a foundational, if parasitic, relationship with the history of American colonialism. Repeatedly constitutive and reflective of the colonialist enterprise, it also holds the complexity of that history at a distance, naturalising the ideology of dominion in the semiology of the landscape. Because it is a way of speaking, myth, caught always in a relationship with history, asserts itself in the texture of the text: the mode, rather than the literal meaning, of the utterance. Reading the textures of Eden in American culture thus becomes one way of getting at the moral fabric of its national mythology. Positioning Whitman alongside Cole exposes smoothness as an Edenic texture that belongs to the mythic speech of the 1855 edition of the Leaves as much as to the pristine landscapes Whitman admired in Cole and later American painters of the 1840s and 50s. This paper argues that, for the painter and the poet, smooth and rough textures mark an encounter between semiology and history in the myth of America as a New Eden. Texture thus becomes a way of apprehending mythic speech across mediums, as well as the scepticism that the mythologizing urge attempts to keep at bay.