The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture

Forests, Hills, and Prairies


Illustration on Page 332b of the 1853 G. Routledge & Co. Reprint

Scenes of the forests, hills, and prairies that dotted the American landscape were pervasive in the illustrations of The Wide, Wide World. The text itself explores the terrain as Ellen journeys around the Hudson River Valley on her multiple ventures, moving across the landscape to interact with the other inhabitants of the valley or to engage in a quest to convert recent immigrants to her brand of American Christianity via her personal conversations and Bible readings. These movements became widely depicted in the illustrations, alongside others that depict the settlement and development of the land, something that would become a central issue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  

One example of Ellen’s interactions in the American landscape is featured on page 332b in an April 1853 George Routledge reprint. The illustration, created by George Dalziel and occurring on page 332b, shows Ellen leaning against a fence as she watches the approaching newsman emerging from the forest, hoping he will deliver a letter from her mother. A caption below the illustration reads, “The Old Newsman,” referencing a scene from page 333 of the text. Dalziel’s style creates a forest scene that is dim and twisted. The trees seem to curl around the newsman as he emerges from the forest. The illustration depicts the forests of the American landscape as places of danger and possible peril, which is not surprising when we consider that the illustration is featured in a British edition of the novel. Judging from the appearance of the forest, the newsman has completed a great feat in making it to Ellen without coming to harm. It is also interesting to note that, unlike many of the other illustrations depicting the American landscape in various editions of the novel, Ellen is pictured in a dark dress, aligning her with the darkness of the forest in the background.  


Frontispiece to the 1853 G.P. Putnam & Co. "Deluxe Illustrated Edition" Reprint

While Routledge, as a British publisher, features the forest as a place of uncertainty and danger, G. P. Putnam, a publisher based in New York, presented the forest as an aspect of the landscape that invites imagination and opportunities for movement and connection. In November 1853, G. P. Putnam & Co.’s two volumes in one “Deluxe Illustrated Edition” offered the first set of illustrations for an American edition of the novel and highlighted Ellen’s movement across the American landscape in its frontispiece. In this black and white illustration, Ellen walks along a windblown forest path, carrying a basket of flowers, her dress and hat fluttering behind her. A small house can be seen nestled against a hillside in the background and a large mountain rises into the sky behind the structure. The house may be her Aunt Fortune’s home or the home of one of her various neighbors, but in either case the frontispiece connects to Ellen’s various expeditions described in the text that explore the increasingly close connections developing between people of diverse cultures through direct interaction (such as the kind Ellen engages in).

Beyond making connections with her multiple neighbors, Ellen also gains access to converts through her travels across the American landscape. In the text, Ellen spreads the values and teachings of Evangelicalism through Bible readings, discussions, and her own moral example. It is, therefore, logical to view Ellen as a symbol of the expansion of Christianity in Putnam’s frontispiece. In the illustration Ellen is traveling away from the only domestic space visible in the scene, entering into the landscape and into a sphere that lends her more freedom to do the work of spreading the ideals of Christianity, a freedom not afforded her in the confines of the home, which women were expected to constantly inhabit in the nineteenth century. The forest also enacts an important symbolism here. Yi-Fu Tuan explains:

The forest, no less than the bare plain, is a trackless region of possibility. Trees that clutter up space from one viewpoint are, from another, the means by which a special awareness of space is created, for the trees stand one behind the other as far as the eyes can see, and they encourage the mind to extrapolate to infinity. The open plain, however large, comes visibly to an end at the horizon. The forest, although it may be small, appears boundless to one lost in its midst.[1]

Forests were often places associated with uncertainty and darkness, as seen in Routledge’s illustration, but at the same time, as seen in several Wide, Wide World illustrations, the forest can be cast in a positive light when it invites imagination and an extended understanding of space and possibility. On a more personal level, for Ellen the forest, with its lack of identifiable boundaries, may represent the opportunities she has for movement across the landscape, seeking out friends and giving her the chance to help convert those she cares about as she attempts to prepare their souls for the rigors of Christianity.


Illustration on Page 52c of Volume Two of the 1853 G.P. Putnam & Co. "Deluxe Illustrated Edition" Reprint

In the same reprint, Putnam also used a black and white illustration, created by H. B. Hall and appearing on page 52c, that depicts Ellen and Mr. Van Brunt in the woods. Ellen sits in a clearing in the forest on a rock and looks up at Van Brunt. An ox-cart sits in the background, near the edge of the clearing. The image is positioned alongside the scene of Van Brunt taking Ellen to her Aunt Fortune’s house after she arrives in the Hudson River Valley. The scene in the text marks a moment of fear and uncertainty for Ellen as she is placed in the care of someone she views as a sort of backwoods ruffian, but the illustration contradicts this sense of discomfort. Although in the text the pair does not stop during their journey, the illustration adds a moment of respite in the forest. The image echoes the optimism associated with forests in Putnam’s frontispiece because the landscape is figured as a place to safely rest. Van Brunt, standing above Ellen, is a protective presence, dispelling any fear associated with the dim clearing in which he and Ellen are positioned. Van Brunt’s appearance further enhances his presence as as a source of safety. Being a farmhand, one would expect him to appear in casual, possibly rundown clothing. The text itself states that “His dress was as rough as his voice—a grey frock-coat, green velveteen pantaloons, and a fur cap that had seen its best days some time ago.” The similarity to the text stops at the coat and pantaloons. His fur cap has been replaced with a proper brimmed hat, and his white, collared shirt is complete with a neckerchief, lending a formal aspect to his outfit. In the text, his clothing seems to be a major concern for Ellen as it labels him as an uncouth laborer—not someone she is enthusiastic about encountering and certainly not someone she wants to be placed in the care of. The shift in his attire in the illustration recreates him as a figure of authority and one that Ellen is free to feel comfortable with. As a result, both the American landscape and its immigrant inhabitants become symbols of security and possibility rather than danger.


Illustration on Page 394a of the 1887 James Nisbet & Co. "Golden Ladder Series, New Edition" Reprint

In his 1887 “Golden Ladder Series Edition” reprint, intended for Sunday School audiences, James Nisbet & Co. shifted the focus from forests to prairies when they introduced a color illustration of Ellen and her horse, the Brownie. The image, appearing on page 394a, is accompanied by a caption that reads, “The Talk to Brownie,” a reference to a scene on page 394 of the text. The illustration, featuring a lush, open prairie, speaks to the importance of the pastoral in nineteenth-century America. As an open landscape, it offers opportunities for growth and exploration, as well as providing a location for homesteads. The illustration also speaks to the virtues of solitude. Barbara Novak explains that “Such nature feelings, and such a preference for the gentle, solitary spirit, were of course as much a part of New England transcendentalism as of western exploration,”[2] which was happening more and more as American citizens continued to migrate west throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the illustration, Ellen’s solitude allows her to connect not only with nature but with the Brownie. The bond that exists between living beings points to God’s presence in the prairie, appealing to Nisbet’s Sunday School audience. The ease of the interaction speaks to the delight and joy that was accessible in the untouched wilderness as Ellen is able to enjoy a moment of peace without the interference of society. Nisbet, as a British publisher, was likely unable to recognize that the ideal, pristine landscape he was depicting was already disappearing as the United States settled into a period of development that saw the rise of cities and the destruction of nature. The connection to God that Nisbet strove for in his illustration, although once present in the American landscape, had, by 1887, already been marginalized in order to make way for capitalist pursuits. 


Illustration on Page 337 of the 1892 J.B. Lippincott Company "New Edition" Reprint

In 1892 J.B. Lippincott Company published a "New Edition" reprint that included an illustration of Ellen and Mr. Van Brunt in the woods. Appearing as an in-text illustration on page 337, the illustration, created by Frederick Dielman, depicts Ellen standing among the trees, looking at the forest around her, while Mr. Van Brunt stands in the background leaning against an axe as his two oxen stand behind him. The illustration presents a dualistic image as the foreground focuses on the natural beauty of the forest while the background centers on its destruction. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the development of American land for commercial uses was in full swing. The tourism industry began to grow as the citizens developed a greater desire to explore the land they had only been able to experience through travel literature and through novels such as The Wide, Wide World that featured illustrations of the landscape. As the tourism industry grew, the recognition that the wilderness needed to be tamed in order to be inhabitable grew as well. Travel became important because, as Richard H. Gassan explains, it “played a vital role in…heightening the value of American scenery and locations and by asserting an equality between America and Europe.”[3] The new country was a place that needed to be explored by its citizens in order for them to develop a strong sense of their national identity and to assert a cultural awareness that was on par with England. In order to make the wilderness available to tourists, land had to be cleared and altered, often removing the natural beauty that would later become so valuable. For tourists, as Gassan explains, the “wilderness would have been at best worrisome, at worst absolutely terrifying.”[4] The untamed wilderness of America was not something to enter lightly, and to encourage a more open movement of people around the country, the wilderness had to be tamed.


Illustration on Page 422 of the 1892 J.B. Lippincott "New Edition" Reprint

While this vigorous development was taking place, landscape art began to reflect the changes, some of which can be seen in Lippincott’s illustration. Novak explains, “The ravages of man on nature were a repeated concern in artists’ writings, and the symbol of this attack was usually ‘the axe,’ cutting into nature’s pristine—and thus godly—state.”[5] In the foreground of Lippincott’s illustration, Ellen stands in reverence to the nature surrounding her, contrasting sharply to the destruction that takes place behind her as Mr. Van Brunt attacks the forest with his axe. As an American publisher, Lippincott would likely have been aware of the conflict that was taking place in the minds of the American citizens as the untouched landscape began to disappear in service to commercial and industrial uses. Many recognized that the development was inevitable in a capitalist society, yet the desire to preserve some of the natural beauty remained, causing conflicting views, as seen in the binary image in Lippincott’s reprint. For those who viewed the land as God’s creation and therefore as something that should remain mostly untouched, the axe threatened the purity of the American terrain and caused discomfort. But, as Novak explains, in the minds of those who obtained power in the new country (generally affluent white males), when God sent the settlers to inhabit the New World he “had given white America the mandate to develop the land and endowed it with the technology to do so. God’s blessing could never be withdrawn.”[6] Because of this, the ravaging of the land became, if not popular, at least acceptable.

In the same reprint, on page 422, Lippincott included an illustration featuring a pastoral landscape, in which Mr. Van Brunt tends to a flock of sheep on an open prairie near the forest. Ellen stands to the side near a fence in her prairie dress and bonnet as she watches the flock. As nature continued to be lost through human exploitation, a new recognition of nature’s intrinsic value came to inhabit the American mindset, making the pastoral more appealing as the century wore on. As explained by Barbara Novak, “intense reverence for nature came only with the realization that nature could be lost.”[7] Even with this realization, the devastating development of the land continued because the citizens were now unwilling to give up the prospect of increased wealth and access to the terrain. Lippincott may have been attempting to balance the destructive development apparent in the illustration of Mr. Van Brunt’s axe with this image of the pastoral ideal. 


Page 350a of the [1910] R.F. Fenno & Co. Reprint

In R.F. Fenno’s [1910] reprint,[8] an illustration by W. Herbert Dunton appeared on page 100a, featuring Ellen riding in the ox-cart as it travels up a hill, approaching a curve that obscures any view beyond it. A caption below the illustration reads, “Slowly, very slowly, the oxen drew the cart,” quoting a line from page 100 of the text. A small village where several houses are placed among rolling hills can be seen ahead of the cart. This twentieth-century illustration reflects back on a period prior to the nation’s capitalist development. Because the cart moves toward the village, it suggests an uncertainty concerning this economic growth in which land was to become a commodity and nature a rare luxury. The curve invites the viewer to anticipate the unknown, to project themselves into Ellen’s future and, more abstractly, America’s future. Will the land beyond the curve in the road feature a more expansive society or will it open up into a pristine landscape? The fact that the future of both Ellen and America are unknown at this point harkens back to a desire for the simplicity of the past in which Americans knew that, around every curve, the untouched frontier could be accessed. The journey in the ox-cart, when viewed in the context of the text, also marks Ellen’s movement into hardship and spiritual tribulation, reflecting the difficulties Americans would face as they moved into an industrial era. 


Illustration on Page 350a of the [1910] R.F. Fenno & Co. Reprint

Fenno, like Lippincott, also included an image of the iconic axe in their reprint. The illustration, featured on page 350a, depicts Ellen and Mr. Van Brunt walking into the woods. Ellen carries a basket of flowers while Mr. Van Brunt walks with an axe slung over his shoulder. A caption accompanying the illustration reads, “Always a basket for flowers went along,” quoting a line from page 350 of the text. While the caption forces the viewer to focus on the flowers Ellen carries and her innocent interaction with nature, it is impossible to ignore the smiling Van Brunt and his axe. The illustration brings us back to the impending destruction of the wilderness, and, unlike Lippincott’s illustration, it is not tempered with an ideal pastoral image. If anything, the image pays more attention to land development because the background features a house and several small paths atop a hill. Even as they enter an untouched tract of forest, society peers at them from afar, reminding the viewer that, at this point, civilization and its development are unavoidable. The appearance of the axe only works to assure the viewer that untouched nature will soon be a rarity. Novak explains the dual symbolism of the axe and its importance to concepts of nationality when she states, “National identity is both constructed and threatened by the double-edged symbol of progress, the axe that destroys and builds, builds and destroys. The paradoxes of this relationship to nature are sharply revealed in the ‘civilizing’ of the land. Progress toward America’s future literally undercut its past.”[9] America’s past, already in a precarious position because of its short span, was undermined further through the destruction of nature, which had been the legs America used to stand above the rest of the civilized world, including Britain, and the thing that had allowed them to boast a uniqueness not available in other countries.

As capitalist enhancement of the land continued, the American citizens realized, as

Denis E. Cosgrove explains, “If cultivated land, resources and labour were increasingly unnatural, nature could only exist where human society had not intervened, or at least where the appearance of non-intervention could be sustained, in the wild and unused parts of the environment.”[10] This realization did not stop them from continuing to exploit the land for commercial gains, but it did instill a sense of regret in minds across the nation as they saw one of the original sources of their collective sense of nationality—the pristine terrain—altered in irrevocable ways. The new economic order forced the collective sense of morality the citizens had developed to shift as they were less and less able to find it in the landscape that was quickly disappearing. Without the strict religious devotion of its citizens to maintain the power of nature, America’s landscape faded into the background of its history, serving as a distant reminder of the influence nature had on the shaping of American nationality.




[1] Yi-Fu, Tuan, Space and Place), 56.

[2] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 153.

[3] Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism, 3.

[4] Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism, 52.

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

[6] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 164.

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

[8] The earliest advertisement for the [1910] R. F. Fenno reprint appeared in The Publisher’s Weekly, September 24, 1910.

[9] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 157.

[10] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 232.

Transatlantic Landscapes
Forests, Hills, and Prairies