“Condemned of Nature”: British Travelers on the Landscape of the Antebellum American South
For the nineteenth-century European and American traveler, the experience of travel was often inseparable from the experience of landscape. Although the “Claude glasses”1 and other implements of the picturesque tourist had long since fallen out of fashion, by the mid-nineteenth century the language and key concepts of Romantic landscape aesthetics remained central to many travelers’ motivations, expectations, and judgments. In this respect, the transatlantic visitor to the United States was not to be disappointed. Already established tourist trails through the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys and the experience of Niagara Falls, that “icon of the American sublime,”2 more than met the aesthetic needs of the British traveler. Travel into the Southern states, however, presented a much different and often upsetting experience. Far different from the much-visited population centers and the long-settled regions along the coast of Northern States, the landscape of the South presented to these travelers large tracts of pestilential swamps; dense, seemingly impenetrable forests; and in the Mississippi, a muddy, turbid, behemoth of a river unlike any other they had seen. In place of the idyllic, tidy cottages and fields often described in travelers’ narratives on Europe and the Northern states, the South often offered endless vistas of dark wilderness broken only by the sight of gangs of slaves toiling in the oppressive heat. Where the region’s natural beauty is remarked upon by travel writers, it is marked by the sense of lurking danger in the form of the snakes, spiders, and disease inherent to the more “tropical” climate. As inheritors of the tradition of Romantic landscape aesthetics which structured
their experience of space, these writers ultimately draw a damning connection between a landscape they see as largely unsuitable for civilized habitation and the moral deficiencies of the people who call it home. For many British travel writers, Southerners are, in Frances Trollope’s characterization of a Mississippi River landscape, “condemned of nature,” that is, limited in moral and cultural development by their natural surroundings and at the same time by the institution of slavery which they have propagated upon it.