The Willey slide: The problem of landscape in nineteenth century narrative

Date of Completion

January 1994


Literature, Comparative|American Studies|History, United States|Literature, American




The 1826 avalanche that killed the entire Samuel Willey household in New Hampshire's White Mountains--but spared their house by a fluke--was celebrated in literature, art, travel writing, local histories, newspapers, and scientific journals. My dissertation analyzes how 19th-century artists, writers, and scientists developed new landscape narratives in response to the Willey disaster.^ Chapter one reconstructs the Willeys' story from local histories and reminiscences. The real problem the Willeys posed for 19th-century intellectuals was their isolation. The year before the slide, they chose to leave a good farm to move to Crawford Notch to open an inn. The choice seemed odd to an age which idealized Jefferson's public-spirited farmer.^ Chapter two describes the economic rationale that drew the Willeys to the Notch. In the 1820s, competition from the midwest forced many White Mountain farmers to abandon their land to the forest. The Willeys helped reinvent the White Mountain landscape as an Arcadian wilderness to appeal to wealthy urban tourists. The landscape's economic value increased sharply even as the region seemed to be returning to a wilderness state.^ Chapter three proposes a new theory of American landscape. Since Frederick Jackson Turner, historians have assumed that land develops from nature into culture. The Willeys better illustrate the nature of American land use because they made money helping consumers cross back into nature from culture. The Willeys took land that was worthless according to one narrative and invented a new narrative to make it valuable. In the same way, land in America is returned periodically to a state of worthlessness, out of which it can be profitably reinvented.^ Chapter four describes how Thomas Cole, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George P. Marsh and others responded to the changes caused by speculation. Speculation works by bringing about unexpected changes in land's status. Not understanding speculation, intellectuals often imagined those changes in terms of natural catastrophe. The 19th century underestimated the extent to which the landscape had already been shaped by the imagination of entrepreneurs like the Willeys. ^