The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture

Reading Landscape

In the years 1850 to 1920, when The Wide, Wide World was finding its way into thousands of homes[1] across a well-established Great Britain and a swiftly expanding United States, depictions of landscape helped these countries develop their unique identities. Because citizens experienced the landscape every day, portrayals of natural spaces were an especially vibrant site of identity formation. These artistic representations created an illusion of national unity and consistency, despite the diverse experiences of each citizen.

Landscapes took on another layer of representation when they illustrated popular literature like The Wide, Wide World. Through the combined experience of reading and viewing, people became aware that they were not only part of a bounded nation but also an unbounded community of readers who experienced the same text and images. In his influential sociological study Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson explains that people

gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field [through print-language], and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community.[2]

The imagined community created a sense of nationality that allowed the citizens to connect metaphorically through their shared textual experience. Anderson amplifies this idea when he states, “Print language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se.”[3] In other words, although language has the ability to unite a nation through shared communication, it is only through print culture that collective ideas develop. In the nineteenth century, spoken language reached only a small number of people in any given amount of time, while print language—as a stable, semi-permanent source of ideas—reached thousands of people quickly, allowing ideas to spread and be shared by a nation.

When landscapes illustrated texts like The Wide, Wide World, these depictions developed the same capacity for spreading collective ideas. The images, seen by thousands across the United States and Britain, helped to create a shared concept of nationality distinct to each country. Through depictions of the landscape, viewers of the images were able to visually tour the terrain of their home country, which became important for Americans because, as Gregory Clark explains in his book Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, citizens “first developed a shared sense of national identity—and continued to perpetuate it—through the individual experience of touring a common national landscape.”[4] Though Clark refers to the physical touring of a nation, his ideas equally apply to visual touring because both acts involve a common experience of citizens who view the same landscapes either through travel or through literature and art. By viewing the landscape, citizens create ideas about their nation. As Denis Cosgrove explains in his book Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, “Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of that world.”[5] When artists and writers compose landscapes, they wield the power to construct a national identity.

Through the common experience of viewing landscapes in the nineteenth century, people were able to develop collective ideas about what their country looked like and how it could be experienced. The landscape became layered with questions of morality and progress because it acted as a symbol that extended across the nation and was accepted by every citizen as representative of the country. As Clark explains, “Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically. When landscapes are publicized … they do the rhetorical work of symbolizing a common home and, thus, a common identity.”[6] This symbolization led citizens to contemplate facets of identity, including moral values, common interests, and religion. These inquiries became more complex throughout in the nineteenth century due to a variety of factors such as the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, an increasing sense of religious tolerance, and environmental destruction in the name of capitalism.

The experience of landscape was different in America and Great Britain. The United States was beginning the process of creating its common identity, whereas Great Britain had been creating and altering its sense of nationality for several centuries. By viewing their nation in its natural state—a state mostly unaltered by humankind—American citizens understood that they were working with a blank canvas of sorts, and the weight of the decisions that would lead to a successful country or leave the country in ruins rested on their shoulders. They inevitably began to consider their role in the country and its landscape, how their nation should develop, and how they should interact with other citizens experiencing that same nation. With less effort needed in its own development, Great Britain discovered a new interest in influencing the cultural formation of its former colony. Although Americans were seeking independence, their new identity was unavoidably influenced by a British past. As Paul Giles suggests in his book Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860, the nationalities of America and Britain were simultaneously created through a reciprocal exchange of cultures and ideas, resulting in identities that were distinct but that did not exist in complete opposition to each other.[7]

Representations of landscape developed via a process in which publishers and artists altered depictions of landscape to suit each country’s ideas about its own identity as well as that of the other. As John E. Dean explains in his article, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape: Romantic vs. Utilitarian,” Britain was more focused on the subtle emotions and controlled landscapes created by picturesque gardens; therefore, the “English valued the American picturesque, informed by the English countryside.”[8] In contrast to this, Americans valued sublime landscapes because, as Cosgrove explains, “the idea of sublime wilderness offered a powerful opportunity for transcendence, a way of appropriating America as a distinctive experience unavailable in Europe.”[9] The United States claimed a sort of monopoly on the sublime. Images of sublimity were promoted in representations of the terrain as a way to evoke powerful emotions and to assert a dominance that had been previously been Britain’s domain.

This collection of galleries analyzes the myriad depictions of landscape that appear across The Wide, Wide World’s 174 known reprints. Landscapes represented in the novel’s illustrations are useful when analyzing the formation of national identity in the United States and Great Britain because the novel takes place in both countries and was published transatlantically. Publishers in Britain and the United States chose how to depict both nations and their relation to one another. As DeSpain suggests in her monograph Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book, publishers like “T. Nelson took advantage of the freedoms of a frontier setting to explore female autonomy.”[10] Other publishers chose to use landscape to depict cultural superiority, such as in illustrations of the brook, many of which show Ellen in a vulnerable position, sometimes situated below or at the mercy of Nancy. These scenes complicate and comment on not only relationships between various groups in America, but between Britain and America as Ellen represents a sort of pure English model while Nancy stands in for Yankee America.

Landscapes, therefore, are important in these reprints because their representation varies widely depending on the publisher, the country of publication, and views regarding nationality at the time of publication. The galleries in this section explore shifts in national identity via these transatlantic landscapes. Galleries discussing illustrations of the ship and the brook investigate nineteenth-century transatlantic relations through ideas about family, immigration, and faith. The “The Cat’s Back” gallery focuses on the role of sentimentalism in developing collective ideas about feminism, morality, and religion. The “Scotland” gallery analyzes views of Britain and its relationship to the United States. The final gallery, “Forests, Hills, and Prairies,” explores the significance of Ellen’s movements across the terrain as well as the tension between commercial development and environmental preservation. Ideas of immigration, culture, women’s roles, domesticity, and religion emerge in the landscapes depicted throughout the many editions of The Wide, Wide World, as well as in the text, making it ideal to examine nationality in relation to landscape and its representations.



[1] According to Frank Luther Mott, over 225,000 copies of Putnam’s editions were sold in the first ten  years of publication. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Bestsellers in the United States (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1947), 124.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991), 44.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 134.

[4] Gregory Clark, Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 18.

[5] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 13.

[6] Gregory Clark, Rhetorical Landscapes in America, 9.

[7] Paul Giles, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature,  1730-1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

[8] John E. Dean, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape: Romantic vs. Utilitarian,” EAPSU Online: A Journal of Critical and Creative Work 3 (Fall 2006): 8.

[9] Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 8.

[10] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book.(Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2014), 56.