The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture

The Cat's Back


Illustration on Page 132a of the 1853 H.G. Bohn Reprint

The Cat’s Back, a fictional setting in the Catskill Mountains of New York, is an iconic location in The Wide, Wide World that Ellen visits in times of hardship. Her first trip to the mountain, spurred by the mistreatment she receives at the hands of her Aunt Fortune, brings her into contact with Alice Humphreys, an English immigrant living in the same valley as Ellen. The meeting, which occurs as Alice comes across a despondent Ellen crying on the mountain, is an important transition in the novel as Ellen encounters her first “othermother,”[1] a term used by Sarah Brusky in her article “Beyond the Ending of Maternal Absence in A New-England Tale, The Wide, Wide World, and St. Elmo” to describe a woman who takes over some of the duties of a biological mother, such as providing guidance and moral lessons, for a protagonist who is either orphaned or abandoned.

Most of the illustrations of the Cat’s Back depict Ellen and Alice’s first encounter, providing various interpretations of the meeting of the abandoned child and her othermother. These illustrations are related to sentimentalism, the power of feelings to serve as a guide to moral conduct, which acted as a political and cultural movement during the nineteenth century. In the novel, sentimentalism guides the reader via Ellen’s own moral struggles in order to steer them toward an evangelical concept of morality and virtue. Alice is a staunch devotee of the Christian faith who serves as Ellen’s moral guide. In the illustrations we see emotion emerge as a way to sway the viewer toward a greater understanding and appreciation of the kind of Christian morality Alice promotes. The Cat’s Back, as a representative sublime landscape—one that is physically closer to God because of its elevation—lends a sense of empowerment and freedom to both Alice and Ellen. It gives them a location to both teach and learn outside the expectations of the domestic sphere. Within the sublimity and Romanticism of the mountain, Alice and Ellen can explore their emotions, religious faith, sense of morality, and their bond as females. With the intimacy they experience on the mountain, aided by the presence of God, they begin to discover their independence and intellectual powers without the interference of a dominant male presence.  

On the Cat’s Back, Alice has the freedom to exert her power as a woman in order to aid the grieving Ellen and to begin her role as a moral and spiritual guide. As Brusky explains:

…[E]ach heroine has occasion to interact with her othermother in a situation, a ‘world,’ that is free from men. These situations, which I will call ‘wild zones,’ using Elaine Showalter’s term, are as imperfect, ultimately, as they are vital to the heroine’s development. Showalter describes the wild zone as a ‘no-man’s-land, a place forbidden to men’ that ‘stands for the aspects of the female life-style which are outside of and unlike those of men.’ In woman’s fiction, the wild zones are expressions of the maternal, the othermother’s lessons to the heroine. These lessons are important to the heroine’s progress toward womanhood, but they also reveal the othermother’s limitations as a woman of the wild zone.[2]

The Cat’s Back plays the role of one “wild zone” in The Wide, Wide World (the other being the mountain where Mrs. Vawse lives), providing Ellen and Alice with a space outside the influence of male power. The location also reveals Alice’s limitations because, in the domestic spaces that she and Ellen will return to, her power diminishes, and she must seek out other wild zones that will allow her to continue her role as guide and protector.


Title Page Vignette of the 1853 G. Routledge & Co. Reprint

Both the Cat’s Back and the mountain that Alice and Ellen must ascend to reach Mrs. Vawse’s house to receive French lessons appear as representatives of the sublime landscapes that stretched across the United States. Denis E. Cosgrove explains that romantic and sublime landscapes were, at this time   

…held by many to be places which declared the great forces of nature, the hand of the creator. In them humans could commune directly with God and feel the unity of Divine purpose and human insignificance. In the context of a religious tradition which stressed individual salvation, the idea of sublime wilderness offered a powerful opportunity for transcendence, a way of appropriating America as a distinctive experience unavailable in Europe.[3]

Americans took pride in the sublimity of their new country, highlighting the sublime in artwork, literature, and tourist brochures. Through the concepts of sublime landscapes that were being expanded and developed to fit the needs of the developing nation, the sublime, as Novak explains, “was being absorbed into a religious, moral, and frequently nationalist concept of nature.”[4] This would later contribute to the “rhetorical screen under which the aggressive conquest of the country could be accomplished,”[5] but in the early years of American independence, it gave the citizens the power to view their country as more accessible to God and his power. It was the British, though, that appealed to the power of the sublime most often in the illustrations of The Wide, Wide World, representing the landscapes that were not available in their own country as a way to claim that power for their own purposes. British publisher H.G. Bohn first included a depiction of the Cat’s Back in a reprint of the novel, and while at least seven British publishers included illustrations of the mountain in their reprints between 1850 and 1920,  only one American publisher did the same. This is evidence that the British saw the Cat’s Back as offering what Novak refers to as “overwhelming natural energies”[6] such as those sought in religious practice, as well as representing a time when intimacy and sentimentality allowed for meaningful, communal connections. In an 1851 Sampson Low reprint, the British publisher included a preface to the novel, written by an anonymous British clergyman, who states, “It will have a special value from its descriptions of American scenes and customs of the back-woods, with the sociality of that life where every one must necessarily depend on his neighbor, and where, as a consequence, a law of sympathy and hospitality holds its sway, quite unknown to what is called highest civilization.”[7] The connection that Alice and Ellen are able to make on the mountain represents the social connections, geniality, and dependency that the British were nostalgic for as they lived with the consequences of the overdevelopment of their own landscape. They expressed this nostalgia through the many depictions of the Cat’s Back found in British reprints. It was not until the 1890’s that an American publisher would take up images of the Cat’s Back as a way to express their own nostalgia as they watched their formerly pristine landscapes succumb to the overwhelming expansion of society.


Illustration on Page 424a of the 1853 G. Routledge & Co. Reprint

As the sublime images inserted into the pages of the novel become associated with female representation through Alice instructing Ellen in Christian morality, the mountain and Alice are transformed into symbols of feminine power and freedom. Moral questions become connected to women in the illustrations of the Cat’s Back, suggesting that moral teachings are most effective when mediated by the pious woman that Alice represents, recognizing an important and generally unacknowledged female role in American Christianity.

The first illustration of the Cat’s Back appeared in a January 1853 H.G. Bohn reprint of the novel. The image, found on page 132a of the text, depicts Alice and Ellen sitting on the mountain. A caption reads “Don’t cry any more.” Ellen leans into Alice as Alice looks sympathetically down at her. Branches and ferns extend above the pair and another mountain can be seen in the background. Both wear white dresses as symbols of purity and innocence that exemplify the religious teaching occurring in the scene. Although placed on the sublime mountain, Alice and Ellen’s position under the protective bush makes it seem as though they have managed to construct a safe, domestic space on the Cat’s Back.

Through the caption, which informs the reader that Ellen has been crying, Bohn’s illustration calls attention to the sentimentality of the scene. Ellen’s distress not only gives Alice the chance to begin her work as Ellen’s othermother but also leads the reader into a state of sympathy. Sentimental novels operated on the assumption that in connecting to a reader’s emotions they could alter the opinions, values, or perspective of that reader. In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860, Jane Tompkins explains that many sentimental novelists appealed to emotions because they believed reality “[could not] be changed by manipulating the physical environment; it [could] only be changed by conversion in the spirit because it is the spirit alone that is finally real.”[8] In the nineteenth century, in a country pulsing with religious fervor, it was inevitable that authors would appeal to readers through emotion and their spirit, the ultimate connection to God. Through the depictions of the Cat’s Back, publishers insist that their readers face suffering like Ellen’s “…or else remain unsaved. And they force their readers to face it by placing them inside the mind of someone whose life is a continual series of encounters with absolute authority.”[9] This theme continued to appear in the illustrations of the Cat’s Back throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

In April 1853, G. Routledge & Co. introduced a second depiction of the Cat’s Back as a black and white title page vignette created by William Harvey. The illustration shows Alice coming over a ridge of the mountain and discovering Ellen, who lies flung across the ground, her head resting on her arm. Her hat is thrown carelessly to the side, and Alice, carrying a book (likely a Bible) reaches out her hand to comfort the crying child. The pair is surrounded by rocks and lush trees. Ellen’s innocence is highlighted by her white dress, while Alice’s dress is dark, drawing the viewer’s eyes to her figure and instilling a sense of power in her posture. She stands upright, over the vulnerable Ellen. Yi-Fu Tuan explains that “[u]pright, man is ready to act,”[10] so Alice’s erectness adds a sense of preparedness to her position as she appears ready to take on the task of comforting and providing guidance.


Illustration on Page 76c of the [1879] Milner & Sowerby Reprint

In the same 1853 Routledge reprint, another illustration is included on page 424a that depicts John finding Ellen on the Cat’s Back after Alice’s death. The illustration features a caption that reads “John finds Ellen on the mountain.” In this illustration, the main male character of the novel (who will eventually act as a suitor) invades the wild zone, replacing the othermother and reclaiming his power over the female protagonist. In the black and white illustration, Ellen faces away from the viewer, her arms thrown around John’s neck as he kneels to embrace the grieving Ellen, thus restricting her movements. The sense of spaciousness experienced in the title page vignette is no longer available. As Tuan explains:

Spaciousness is closely associated with the sense of being free. Freedom implies space; it means having the power and enough room in which to act. Being free has several levels of meaning. Fundamental is the ability to transcend the present condition, and this transcendence is most simply manifest as the elementary power to move.[11]

In the illustration, Ellen is constrained by John who holds her in place. She is not allowed to experience the space of the mountain, suggesting that her power as a female is being moderated by the male power that has replaced the deceased othermother. This is emphasized even more by the fact that Ellen is faceless in the illustration, as if her identity is being overpowered by John, whose face is fully visible to the viewer. In this moment, Ellen has returned to the mountain to seek guidance from God in the place where she first connected with her now lost othermother. But, as Doreen Massey explains in her book For Space, “you can never simply ‘go back’, to home or to anywhere else. When you get ‘there’ the place will have moved on just as you yourself will have changed.”[12] Ellen returns to the Cat’s Back only to find that it has, indeed, changed with the death of Alice as she falls into the arms of John instead of the arms of an othermother. Ellen must now submit to a more powerful male presence, a common theme in the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century. In some ways, though, Ellen’s submission contradicts a lack of power because, as Tompkins explains, “her submission is not capitulation to an external authority, but the mastery of herself, and therefore, paradoxically, an assertion of autonomy.”[13] Ellen, unable to assert herself through direct rebellion against authority due to her status as a woman, must instead assert herself through an ability to accept her position and to become emotionally independent. In her submission to John, we see this contradiction at work.


Illustration on Page 149 of the 1896 Hodder and Stoughton Reprint

The focus shifted away from Ellen’s submission and back to Alice and her power as an othermother in an [1879] Milner & Sowerby reprint, which retained a religious presence through its use of light.[14] Ellen lies on the ground on the Cat’s Back as Alice stands over her in a long, white dress and dark jacket; she is surrounded by streaks of sunlight that break through the clouds behind her and reinforce the sublimity of the mountain. Novak explains that “God’s moods could be read through a key symbol of God’s immanence—light, the mystic substance of the landscape artist.”[15] The mountain offers a location physically closer to heaven and God, and the light that cuts through the sky behind Alice reminds the viewer that God can be accessed in the wilderness. Alice’s influence as Ellen’s othermother is also heightened by the authority of God as manifested in the sunlight. Not only is she positioned in a sublime landscape, which exerts a sense of awe and fear, but she is also backed by the power of God.

As the turn of the century approached, the sentimental novel’s appeal to emotions largely fell out of favor, for, as Tompkins explains, readers began to engage with a text assuming that it would simply seek to represent the world, not to change it—an assumption that has been carried into the present-day.[16] Despite this cultural shift, more reprints of The Wide, Wide World were produced during the 1890s than in any other decade, and many of these evinced the nostalgia for the intimacy and emotionality of sentimentality apparent in Sampson Low’s preface.

A new illustration of the Cat’s Back, created by Frederick Dielman and used by Philadelphia publisher J.B. Lippincott in 1892 and by British publisher Hodder and Stoughton in 1896, reached back to a time when nature was endowed with religious significance and sentimental power. The black and white in-text illustration depicts Alice approaching Ellen, her hand outstretched, as Ellen sits on the ground with her hand covering her face. The two figures are placed in more equal positions in the illustration, but Alice’s proper dress and deportment set her apart from Ellen’s plain dress and apron. The presence of the sublime has been mostly eliminated as the pair is placed in a location that does not highlight the prominence of the mountain in the landscape. In fact, the location is ambiguous enough that they could be at the foot of the mountain. Because the sublime is not the focus of the illustration, more emphasis is placed on the intimacy between Ellen and Alice. Alice reaches out to Ellen, attempting to establish a sense of connection that reflects the intimacy both America and Britain were nostalgic for.

The illustration captures the essence of the Catskills as a mountainous region containing an abundance of plant life through the inclusion of the rocks and vegetation that surround Alice and Ellen. As Graham Clarke explains in his article “Imaging America: Paintings, Pictures and the Poetics of Nineteenth-Century American Landscape,” the mountain range stands in as “a natural region…untouched by settlement or agriculture. It thus connotes a sense of America as, once again, prodigal and inspiriting—grand and wild…. There is no mark of the human and yet neither is there a wilderness inimical to human needs.”[17] The setting then, is a consistent reminder of the attractiveness of the American terrain and its impending destruction.


Illustration on Page 120a of the [1896] Walter Scott, Ltd. Reprint

The illustration also marks a subtle shift as the religious symbolism readily apparent in the earlier Cat’s Back illustrations begins to diminish; neither the divine light nor the Word of God so endemic to the earlier illustrations is present in Dielman’s version. The change is related to the weakening of the religious zeal experienced in the mid-nineteenth century. Suggestions of God’s presence are now only subtly expressed in details such as the plants and Alice and Ellen’s white dresses. The shift occurred in unison with the rising prominence of science, which proved a threat to God’s place in the American (and British) consciousness. Because of this, the focus shifted away from religiosity and was replaced by illustrations that emphasized the simplicity of the rustic—also seen in Lippincott’s depiction of the brook in the same reprint—a simplicity that was being lost to industrialization in both the United States and Great Britain. Beginning with Dielman’s illustrations, publishers became less interested in presenting images representative of modern developments and more interested in depicting landscapes that harkened back to a simpler time that was perceived as being more closely connected to religion and the power of emotion.

In the [1896] Walter Scott, Ltd. reprint,[18] an illustration of the Cat’s Back, created by T. Eyre Macklin, brought the focus to the craggy rocks and uneven terrain of the mountain. Scientific discoveries (including those made by examining the age of rocks) and the publication of Charles Darwin’s defining work, The Origin of Species (1859), threatened the prominence of religion by introducing a scientific explanation into how landscapes were created, an explanation that threatened to make God obsolete. This created tension in the middle of the nineteenth century between those who became interested in scientific developments and those who clung to religious values. Novak explains the significance of this moment in history when she states:

Given the indissoluble union of God and nature at this moment, the fate of both God and nature is obvious. A future mourning the loss of faith and consumed with ecological nostalgia was not far away. But though the nineteenth century acknowledged its fears to some extent, it worked hard to reconcile the various myths, to retain God and nature in any combination that seemed workable. Thus, if Wilderness became cultivated…it could still be a Garden. If the Garden was not Paradise, it could offer the possibility of a Paradise to be regained. To this idea of Paradise, original or regained, much energy was devoted.[19]

Instead of losing faith in God, many sought to explain the scientific discoveries by defining them as clues to God’s greatness. In this illustration, Alice, dressed in a straw-brimmed hat and walking suit (evidence of the decade in which the illustration appeared) sits on a rock, wrapping an arm around Ellen, who kneels next to Alice and leans into her to be consoled. A caption below the illustration reads, “Don’t cry any more,” a quote from page 123 of the text that was also used in Bohn’s 1853 reprint. The reappearance of the caption perpetuates the sense of nostalgia found in Dielman’s depiction of the mountain, incorporating emotion and sentimentalism into an illustration that appeared during a time when religion and sentimentality faced the threat of science and logic.


Illustration on Page 128b of the [1902] Ward, Lock and Co. Ltd. "Complete Edition" Reprint

In a [1902] reprint,[20] Ward, Lock and Co. Ltd. included an illustration of the Cat’s Back on page 128b that carried the sense of nostalgia through its inclusion of small details to remind the viewer of God’s presence in the landscape. In the illustration, Alice leans over Ellen, who sits against a rock, crying into her hands. The outlines of several mountains can be seen in the background and a small branch extends over Ellen’s head. A caption below the illustration reads, “Ellen was wrought up to the last pitch of grief,” a line taken from page 129 of the text. The illustration does not feature the usual evidence of God’s presence such as light or clouds. However, the branch over Ellen’s head is a sign that nature is extending its protection, presenting a fragile but notable connection to God and revealing a sense of nostalgia and a desire to return to a time when nature provided a connection to spirituality. The presence of a plant in this position is also significant because, as Novak explains, “flowers and plants, imbued with a formidable wealth of association, are perhaps the best emblem of being and becoming fused in one.”[21] At this point in the novel, Ellen’s being has been threatened by a loss of faith, but with the appearance of Alice, she will have the opportunity to become a more resilient individual, as well as a more devoted Christian. It can be said that the crossroads of what Ellen was and what Ellen will become occurs on the Cat’s Back.

A final illustration of the Cat’s Back appeared in a [1920] Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press reprint.[22] The aquatint illustration, created by Elizabeth Earnshaw, was the first to depict a scene between Alice and Ellen on the mountain that did not include Ellen crying. It was also the first to place Alice and Ellen in similar positions so that one does not display more vulnerability or weakness when compared to the other. This illustration moves away from the nostalgia that had been present in the illustrations of the 1890’s and early twentieth century, shifting instead to women’s changing place in society. In the image, Alice and Ellen sit on a rock, Alice extending a finger to point to a village below the mountain, as Ellen cranes her neck to see the view. A caption below the illustration reads, “You see that little white village yonder?” The illustration retains Alice’s position as an othermother and guide for Ellen, but also places Ellen in a position where she is absorbing the guidance given to her by Alice, giving her power that was not available in any of the previous illustrations. The bright colors and soft lines evoke a sense of optimism and enhance the majesty of the mountain. The location provides not only a beauty connected to God’s creation, but also a sense of stability. Massey explains:

Some of our strongest evocations of place (in the Western world but not only there) indeed draw on hills, on ‘the wilderness’ (dubious category anyway), on the sea. We escape from the city maybe to replenish our souls in contemplating the timelessness of mountains, by grounding ourselves again in ‘nature’. We use such places to situate ourselves, to convince ourselves that there is indeed a grounding.[23]

Alice and Ellen, situated above and looking down on the domestic spaces of the town of Carra-carra, establish a place of power for themselves, reflecting women’s shift away from domestic spaces in the twentieth century. They are allowed to ground themselves in the stability of the mountain, to replenish their souls, as Massey describes. Although the stability they experience at this point in the novel does not last in the text itself, the illustration allows them to find a permanent respite and sense of stability as they ground themselves in women’s developing presence in the social sphere previously inhabited almost exclusively by men.


Frontispiece to the [1918] Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press Reprint

The image also connects to ideas of western expansion and Manifest Destiny that were prevalent until the end of the nineteenth century as America sought to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Alice and Ellen both look to the west in the illustration, pointing to the lands that America would continue to accumulate. The sense of optimism in the design of the illustration is linked to this idea as the American citizens looked to the west as a place of opportunity and exploration.

Over the years, the Cat’s Back developed into an iconic location for the readers of The Wide, Wide World. It demonstrated the appeals of sentimentality and became important in expressing a desire for the simplicity of the intimate communities that were widespread in the early nineteenth century. As both American and British publishers appealed to the sublime and the nostalgia and emotionality it evoked, the mountain provided a source of connection for the countries as they lamented the loss of the untouched landscapes and the freedom and sense of spirituality they afforded.



[1] Sarah Brusky. “Beyond the Ending of Maternal Absence in A New-England Tale, The Wide, Wide World, and St. Elmo,” ESQ 46 (2000).

[2] Sarah Brusky. “Beyond the Ending of Maternal Absence,” 154.

[3] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 185.

[4] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 38.

[5] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 38.

[6] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 35.

[7] Preface to The Wide, Wide World. By Elizabeth Wetherell [Susan Warner]. London: Sampson Low, 1851.

[8] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 133.

[9] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 173.

[10] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 35.

[11] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 52.

[12] Doreen B. Massey, For Space. (London: SAGE, 2005), 124.

[13] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 162.

[14] The date for the [1879] Milner & Sowerby reprint is based on advertisements in the reprint, including Ann. S. Stevens’ Doubly False, first published in 1868, and Anna Lee with 1879 as the oldest date.

[15] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 17.

[16] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs, 125.

[17] Graham Clarke, “Imaging America: Paintings, Pictures and the Poetics of Nineteenth-Century   American Landscape,” Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (1985): 201.

[18] The date for the [1896] Walter Scott, Ltd. reprint is based on advertisements in “Walter Scott’s List,” The Bookseller, July 3, 1896 in which T. Eyre Macklin (the illustrator for the reprint) is first mentioned.

[19] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 5.

[20] The date for the [1902] Ward, Lock and Co. Ltd. reprint is based on a presentation label from 1902 inserted into the reprint.

[21] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 123.

[22] The date for the [1920] Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press reprint is based on an advertisement in British Books in Print on Google Books.

[23] Doreen B. Massey, For Space, 131.