The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture



Illustration on Page 250d of Volume Two of the 1853 G. P. Putnam & Co. "Deluxe Illustrated Edition" Reprint

In contrast to the multitude of illustrations depicting the American landscape, several representations of Scotland made their way into the pages of The Wide, Wide World during the second half of the nineteenth century. These illustrations were often placed in the final chapters of the novel (with the exception of James Nisbet’s frontispiece depicting Edinburgh), which, as Sharon Estes explains in her article “In It’s English Dress: Reading Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World as a Transatlantic Religious Bestseller,” “focus on Ellen’s efforts to remain submissive while she is compelled to suppress her Americanness and self-identify as British.”[1] The chapters preceding Ellen’s journey to Scotland help to develop her identity as an American and promote certain aspects of American culture, including religion, women’s roles, and relations between people of various backgrounds. In contrast, the final chapters of the novel test Ellen’s resolve as she is encouraged by her uncle and grandmother to become more British and to release her ties to the United States. On a larger scale, then, the final chapters are a way of testing the American identity against the influence of Great Britain.

The first illustration of Scotland appeared in Volume One of an 1853 James Nisbet “Author’s Edition.” The illustration, a black and white title page vignette of the city of Edinburgh, seen from a distance, is paired with a facing frontispiece of Mr. Van Brunt tending to a flock of sheep in the Catskills with Ellen standing among them. A caption below the facing frontispiece reads, “There ain’t a critter that walks, as I know, that salt ain’t good for—’cept chickens, and, it’s very queer, it kills them,” a quote pulled from the text and spoken by Mr. Van Brunt. The illustration of Edinburgh, created by Edmund Evans, suggests an evening dusk, and a crescent moon appears to hang over the city. Two small figures stand in the foreground of the illustration looking at Edinburgh, and several prominent landmarks can be picked out from the skyline, such as Calton Hill, the Nelson Monument, and Holyrood House. Thick clouds hover above the city, lending an ominous impression to the illustration. Seemingly depicted in the evening, the city moves into darkness, even as two figures (possibly tourists) watch the city from afar.  

In Nisbet’s illustration, the city, when paired with an illustration of an open landscape in America, represents the fulfillment of a capitalist ideal in which the landscape is transformed into a site of production in order to enhance human wealth. In the illustration, nature has been marginalized, only existing on the outskirts of the city. The fact that this is where the figures stand may be a manifestation of the desire to get further from the city and capitalism and closer to the natural world. Denis E. Cosgrove explains, “Land’s natural function in society is to produce the means of human life, a function realised collectively in production,”[2] an idea that the British (and eventually Americans) conformed to as they sought to overwhelm the natural terrain of the country with productive cities. Indeed, Nisbet’s illustration appeared just as Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution was reaching its height and reflects a time when people were beginning to feel the negative effects of industrialization. 


Facing Frontispiece and Title Page Vignette of Volume 1 of the 1853 James Nisbet "Author's Edition" Reprint

While cities like Edinburgh did produce wealth and status for the citizens, they began to alienate people from nature and to restrict them in their everyday lives. In his collection of essays Unto This Last, John Ruskin, a nineteenth century English art critic, painter, and writer, discusses wage laborers in capitalist British society. He argues that men who receive low wages are unable to devote time to their own fulfillment due to a lack of wealth. As he advocates for higher wages for laborers, Ruskin asserts, “There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.”[3] He understands that the low wages being earned by laborers in nineteenth-century England lead to an alienation that is not conducive to love, joy, and admiration because the workers are confined to long hours of production and are unable to connect to nature and other valuable aspects of their lives. Thus, British capitalist society, while more productive and, in some ways, more beneficial to the safety of the citizens, creates a situation in which people are restricted by the necessary dedication to capitalism. In the mid-nineteenth century, this lack of freedom led many to view America, in contrast to Britain, as an idealized, free space where the confines of capitalism did not yet exist (although they were already developing in the nineteenth century). As citizens began to rebel mentally against the restrictions of capitalist society, depictions of pure, rural landscapes appealed to readers who saw them as representing freedom from the restrictions found in cities. Doreen Massey explains that the “persistent focus on cities as the sites which most provoke disturbance in us is perhaps part of what has tamed (indeed is dependent upon the taming of) our vision of the rural.”[4] It should not be surprising, then, that the title page vignette of Edinburgh is paired with an illustration featuring a pastoral setting, and one tied closely to religion.

In the facing frontispiece of Mr. Van Brunt tending to a flock of sheep, the purity of the American landscape is retained and promotes America as a place free from the confines of capitalism. Modeling a connection to Christianity—as God’s children are often referred to as his sheep with God as the shepherd—the illustration evokes moral values that are not present in the illustration of Edinburgh. Another connection to religion occurs in the caption chosen for the illustration. The reference to salt connects to several quotes from the New Testament such as in 2 Chronicles 13:5, which states, “Ought ye not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David for ever, [even] to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt?” or Matthew 5:13, which reads, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” These biblical passages, relating to ideas of friendship, promise, and value, are tied into the facing frontispiece and highlight the connection to religion available through nature in the American landscape, something harder to find in Britain where much of the natural terrain was already developed for capitalist gains. Through the contrast of the two images, Nisbet, known to be sympathetic toward America and immigration, promotes the American way of life over that of the British.


Illustration on Page 546a of the 1886 James Nisbet & Co. "New Edition, Golden Ladder Series" Reprint

Nisbet continued to use the illustration of Edinburgh throughout the nineteenth century, modifying it slightly to keep pace with changing attitudes and opinions. In 1886, he added color and placed it in the text on page 546a. The illustration, appearing alongside the scene of Ellen touring Edinburgh, took on a new significance and was repurposed for its new role. The thick clouds and moon were removed and replaced with a blue sky, and the foreground was colored with a bright green to highlight the open hills surrounding the city. The negative connotation of the city is diminished by the vivid colors and is replaced by a suggestion of progress and optimism, although it is still tainted by the ruin of the landscape. Cosgrove explains, “The progress from nature to culture is the progress of society from innocence to experience, from free sharing to individual acquisition, from ploughshares to the swords which ultimately mean the death of society and a return to the wilderness of untamed nature.”[5] The city, then, can stand in for the cycle that produces culture and experience while ultimately starting down a path that will lead to a return to the wilderness as society must eventually fail in order to rise again. In essence, the city serves as a reminder that development is temporarily beneficial to the citizens but also that decline is a foregone conclusion. When societies grow beyond their means, development leads to the devastation of the natural landscape that is crucial to the human psyche. The illustration does retain a positive outlook not only through the colors, which help to highlight the contrast between the city and nature, but also through the fact that it represents Britain’s extensive history through the landmarks present in the skyline. From this point of view, the United States was inferior to Great Britain in that American identity could not derive from its history, given that the new country was only recently inhabited by white immigrants (who did not count the American Indian’s history as their own). Cosgrove explains that illustrations were able “to arrest the flow of history at a specific moment, freezing that moment as a universal reality,”[6] which embedded the importance of past events into the text of novels such as The Wide, Wide World. Edinburgh, then, takes on the significance of making Britain superior, in one way, to the New World through its ability to represent the past as well as the development of the British identity.

A final appearance of the illustration of Edinburgh’s skyline occurred in an [1893] James Nisbet & Co. reprint.[7] The illustration, now in black and white, was placed on page 546a. With the lack of color, the structures of the city now appear more ruin-like, suggesting a decaying city as opposed to a city of progress. The illustration maintains a sense of culture, history, and solidarity, but loses its sense of advancement and superiority to America. The clouds from the original illustration have been removed, leaving the sky clear and open, but there is no hint of light, which would bestow some religious significance or at least a sense of optimism. The figures remain, looking upon the city from a distance. Massey suggests, “Cities are perhaps the places which are the greatest challenges to democracy (Amin et al. 2000),”[8] providing a possible explanation for why the city appears to be decaying. The illustration may be hinting at the decline of democracy and a path toward the deterioration of society, provoked by the overextension of capitalism and sprawling cities.


Illustration on Page 546a of the [1893] James Nisbet & Co. Reprint

As Nisbet’s illustration was appearing in multiple editions of the novel, G. P. Putnam and Co. introduced a new illustration of Scotland in their 1853 “Deluxe Illustrated Edition” reprint. The black and white illustration, created by H. B. Hall, shows Ellen leaning on a windowsill inside her uncle’s home in Scotland as she looks out longingly toward the open landscape and the city of Edinburgh, which sits on a rolling hillside. Ellen, confined to the realm of the domestic, appears peaceful as the viewer is led to believe she is reminiscing about her homeland. Her access to open landscapes, like those found in America, is limited in Scotland, and she must overcome her restrictions through meditation and contemplation of the nature that does surround her. Barbara Novak explains, “Meditation on nature in the nineteenth century was a recognized avenue to the center of being. The very act of observing nature was virtuous, because nature conveyed a ‘thought which…is good.’ ‘Looking’ became an act of devotion.”[9] As Ellen looks out upon the terrain of Scotland, she retains loyalty to America by observing nature through the context of her experiences in the Hudson River Valley. She also cultivates her sense of morality since, as Novak explains, “observing nature was virtuous.” Even as her Uncle Lindsay and grandmother encourage her to give up her strict notions of religion and her devotion to an American way of life, she establishes a connection to the life she has temporarily left behind through a contemplation of the British landscape. She also acquires a sense of freedom in her solitude because, as Yi-Fu Tuan explains, “Solitude is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity. Alone one’s thoughts wander freely over space. In the presence of others they are pulled back by an awareness of other personalities who project their own worlds onto the same area.”[10] Ellen must show submission and abandon parts of her American identity when in the presence of her Scottish relatives; however, when alone, she is able to reconnect to those parts of her identity and defy the wishes of her uncle and grandmother as she reestablishes her devotion to her homeland.

Putnam’s illustration also creates a conversation about women’s roles as Ellen, previously free to explore the American landscape and mostly unrestricted by her domestic duties, is now confined to a domestic space due to the wishes of her relatives. In her confinement, Ellen is limited to the roles given to women at the time. Because she is not yet an adult, she is even more limited as she is expected to obey the commands given to her by her adult counterparts (in this case, her Uncle Lindsay and grandmother) without question. The illustration, therefore, presents an important contrast to the freedom Ellen experienced in America, showing Britain to be a place of limitations for women.


Illustration on Page 483 of the 1896 Hodder and Stoughton Reprint

A final illustration of Scotland appeared in an 1896 Hodder and Stoughton reprint. The illustration shows Ellen tending a Scottish garden. She stands leaning against a rake while her hand rests on a blooming branch. A fence behind her blocks any view of the world beyond the garden, confining her to the small patch of nature she cultivates. At this time, the garden was important to British society as it allowed the citizens to reconnect with nature, even within the confines of a city. John E. Dean explains, “For the nineteenth‐century English, landscape had value if it embodied the familiar beauty of the English landscape—the Lake District, the green, rolling hills, and the old ruins. The English traveler sought both wild, romantic scenery and the aesthetic variety provided by landscape gardening.”[11] The gardens provided access to nature, but they also added aesthetic beauty to cities that were not always considered pleasing to the eye, especially as they were undergoing extensive development. A connection to religion was also to be found in the gardens; as Novak explains, “wilderness could be transformed through the pastoral ideal into a rural Paradise, resembling the biblical Eden.”[12] Gardens, therefore, provided a connection not only to nature but also to God. Ellen, restricted by her surroundings and therefore limited in her ability to reconnect with the open expanses of her American homeland and the access it provided to her faith, is forced to seek out nature in the limited space afforded her by the garden. Ahmed explains:

The relation between action and space is hence crucial. It is not simply that we act in space; spatial relations between subjects and others are produced through actions, which make some things available to be reached. Or, as Lefebvre suggests: ‘Activity in space is restricted by that space; space ‘decides’ what actually may occur, but even this ‘decision’ has limits placed upon it’ (1991: 143)…. The question of action is a question then of how we inhabit space. Given this, action involves the intimate co-dwelling of bodies and objects.[13]

Ellen is forced to act within certain boundaries because the space she inhabits is already severely limited by physical boundaries. If there is an open landscape beyond the fence, she appears to not have the freedom to explore it. Hodder and Stoughton, as a London publisher, was likely aware of the inevitable restrictions of British society and, instead of depicting the city itself, attempted to provide the kind of connection to nature found in America through the representation of a Scottish garden.

Scotland, when depicted alongside images of the American landscape, comes to stand in for the progress of society and the development of capitalism. While cities like Edinburgh allowed for more material gains and convenience for the citizens, they caused people to become isolated, not only from nature but from each other. Under capitalism, landscape became a commodity--and, in a society where the land’s value rests in its ability to produce wealth for the citizens, isolation is an inevitable result. It is not surprising, then, that the British saw merit in the picturesque and sublime landscapes of their former colony and that many British publishers inserted illustrations of those landscapes into the pages of The Wide, Wide World. Understanding that their terrain no longer held the power that the American landscapes did, they sought refuge in their history and gardens and sometimes slipped into admiring the untouched lands of the New World.



[1] Sharon Estes, “In It’s English Dress: Reading Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World as a Transatlantic Religious Bestseller,” in Transatlantic Women: Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and Great Britain, ed. Beth L. Lueck, Brigitte Bailey, and Lucinda L. Damon-Bach (Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2012), 208.

[2] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 231.

[3] John Ruskin, “Unto this Last”: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1881), 125.

[4] Doreen B. Massey, For Space, 160.

[5] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 67.

[6] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 26.

[7] The date for the [1893] James Nisbet & Co. reprint is based on an advertisement for Miles Murchison. The advertisement mentions it as just published. It was first reviewed in 1893, and the review specifically mentions Nisbet at the publisher.

[8] Doreen B. Massey, For Space, 155.

[9] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 197.

[10] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 59.

[11] John E. Dean, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape,” 9.

[12] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 158.

[13] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 52.