A Rhumb Line into the Wilderness

The Forest reads like a heady and roving literary essay, whose forays into art and environment have a “blink and you’ll miss it” quality to them.

Courtesy Princeton University Press

I drive to upstate New York often these days. Chances are that you have as well. And maybe you too feel as if the drive has become muscle memory, flexing with each voyage, allowing a movie-like reel to unspool in your field of vision as it does in mine. The winding roads, the changes in elevation, the stone embankments that restrain the hills: all of these are imprinted as images onto my own brain, so much so that with each drive along the Saw Mill Parkway through Yonkers and onto the north-blazing Taconic on a rhumb line toward Albany, I focus on details. The carmine rust-proofing on the bridge spanning the Croton Reservoir; small houses perching on tree lines as if they were anticipating daybreak over the Hudson River. It feels like traveling back in time, because every crossing from Putnam to Dutchess, and finally arriving in Columbia County, is a journey through the lands of various nations. Wappingers, Lenape, Sepasco, Algonquin—this is only a brief inventory. These lands were also immortalized in some of the first travel narratives, examples of a new kind of writing instantiated by known figures like Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville and emblazoned onto our popular imaginations by high school English paragons like James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

On such northerly journeys a traveler like me passes through manufactured natures and augmented wildernesses, state parks bounded by property lines and open fields where felled trees presaged crops of all sorts. These lands fueled industry and gave rise to New York, so the story goes. A tale such as this may be lost on contemporary architectural audiences, especially given how we calibrate our interests in the relations between buildings, cities, and nature through the lens of climate change and vigorous investments in environmentally engineered products like cross-laminated timber. An architectural history of the materials that shaped the New York City metropolitan area awaits us. Think of a book like William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991). Now think of something bigger, grander, something befitting New York.

Alexander Nemerov’s latest book, The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s, does not claim to be such a history. It is not an architectural history in the strictest sense. There are buildings and cities and even chapters devoted to them. Not all these take place in New England or Mid-Atlantic watersheds and tree lines. The Forest is something altogether different that readers used to more conventional modes of architectural history and criticism may find appealing. At first blush, Nemerov reads and analyzes early-nineteenth century American art, literature, and material culture as points of contact between humans and the natural environment. It is reminiscent of Leo Marx probing works by Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville to reveal “the landscape of the psyche” in his august The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964). Marx’s influential book is certainly worth a comparison, yet The Forest closely follows the structure and content of Nemerov’s Andrew Mellon Lecture in the Fine Arts, given at the National Gallery of Art in 2017. The lecture—or rather, six lectures—appeared almost casual, unscripted, as if Nemerov were inviting audiences to join him as he sifted through the tangled webs and finely wrought textures in the vast historical fabric residing in his mind. Oil paintings, foxed pages, images of objects lost to time—these visual signposts gave audiences an itinerary of sorts, a wayfinding system through the darkening woods of American history.

It is rare to read an author who shoulders such a heavy load with language that is both orotund and accessible. But this is The Forest, a book that is ostensibly a history of the American natural environment in the 1830s and is upfront in calling itself a “fable.”

Nemerov is a distinguished art historian whose books are insightful and beguiling. He is also one of our best prose stylists—almost to a fault. The Forest reads like a heady and roving literary essay straight out of 1830s America. I would be in a minority, sheepish even, were I to tell colleagues not to read Nemerov for his research on American art, but rather to enjoy his word-drunkenness. I stand by this assertion, however, and point readers to how Nemerov arranged The Forest into vignettes whose forays into art and environment have a “blink and you’ll miss it” quality to them. The forests and trees that play the roles of major characters are fifth business, hard to detect yet ambient, a quality not associated with esteemed written histories. This is to be relished, however, because the reader is given an opportunity to bask in Nemerov’s lambent prose. It is rare to read an author who shoulders such a heavy load with language that is both orotund and accessible. But this is The Forest, a book that is ostensibly a history of the American natural environment in the 1830s and is upfront in calling itself a “fable.” Given my druthers, I would even say that Nemerov’s contribution is to present the American forest as a literary terrain for excursions into art, visual culture, and architecture.

This terrain is also a backdrop for the book’s episodes, some loosely rooted in history, others conjured in the author’s mind. A case in point occurs early on when Nemerov writes from the point of view of—wait for it—puppets: “From the puppet master’s thread across the blue-black height, they felt the thud of the ground in their delicate mechanisms.” As fanciful as this and other moments seem, they are only prologues to the bursts of shimmering intensity interspersed throughout the rest of the book. For instance, there are passages where Nemerov ruminates on Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), made before the artist alighted his passions on telegraphy. It is a painting of a scene of the interior of the Louvre, filled with tiny versions of the actual paintings hanging in the museum (as well as depictions of James Fenimore Cooper, his wife, and daughter). Nowadays, a visitor to the reception wing of Philip Hooker’s Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, New York, can see Morse’s faithful (if not accurate) painting. And from a certain vantage point, Gallery of the Louvre is also reflected in a patinaed mirror designed by the decorative artist Isaac R. Platt. (This is the kind of connection that really sets Nemerov’s mind ablaze.) One work reflecting another, which contained others within its borders—a recursive gesture is elevated to cosmic status when Nemerov observes how Platt’s mirror “contained all things, life exploding in ever-failing warmth.”

I am reminded of a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 where stamps are described as something like the miniature paintings in Morse’s painting. They are “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” according to Pynchon. Although there are putative chapters (each a reference to Nemerov’s individual lectures at the National Gallery of Art), the vignettes in The Forest are also “deep vistas of space and time.” These vistas give us a panoramic view of the 1830s, the American 1830s, the decade of the Great Awakening; the twilight of Robert Owen’s utopian socialist experiment at New Harmony, Indiana; the Indian Removal Acts; and Nat Turner’s revolt, all figuring into a larger historical tapestry in The Forest. We can detect something similar in Nemerov’s other books. In Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s (2013), for instance, he concocts an entire meditation on historical writing based on photographs of Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland flying model airplanes. The same goes for Summoning Pearl Harbor (2017), a chapbook with brief passages reconstructing the lives of Japanese citizens living in America after World War II. Images play a crucial role in each of these texts, but slightly differently than in The Forest. It is customary, for instance, to see images placed in line with the text, press-ganged into service as figures, illustrations, or proof of argument. With reading The Forest, however, the images are placed in a glossy insert toward the last third of the book. This too is customary, and yet I imagine the inserted color plates as a parade of lantern slides, a carousel, or even a storyboard or other piece of sequential art. I had no choice but to confront text before image, to lose myself to the writing, to experience images as echoes or emanations of the printed word.

This book is a chance to reevaluate the domains of history and criticism once they are imbued with a personal point of view.

Being a fan of this book comes with some pitfalls. For instance, if you come away from this review thinking that I am reveling in Nemerov’s potent and abstract ruminations on forests, then I stand guilty as charged. If your only memory of this piece is my endorsement of a book that is wonderfully strange, riven with moments of stunning originality, and occasional flashes of genius: this too is true. Hear me out, however, for I do think that architectural audiences will find a lot to love in The Forest. This is not a book to be savored for historical exegeses on the intersections of the built and the natural. Nor is it the great future material and environmental history of the New York metropolitan region that I mentioned earlier in this review—though the future writer of such a speculative seminal work would do well to avail themselves of Nemerov’s anthology. What this book is—which is not an easy thing to advocate for—is a chance to reevaluate the domains of history and criticism once they are imbued with a personal point of view. Our best histories of architecture are celebrated for their methodological rigor or for their ability to recalibrate our knowledge about buildings, cities, and landscapes. The “canon” is no longer ironclad, and today, the field continues to expand to consider architectural histories of climate change, racial inequality, and social injustice. Rarely, however, do we get a chance to celebrate stylistic innovation, writerly craft, levity, or God forbid, imagination in historical writing.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from The Forest. I imagine that this book will be viewed as a lark or highly stylized amusement. But as an avid reader of both fiction and history, I always try to find ways in which the two can connect. Historians rely on archives and other kinds of evidence to order the past in their work. But this is not to say that such writing intends to “quarantine the past” (to quote Pavement’s “Gold Soundz.”) The version of the history presented in fictional narratives also orders the past if only to resolve the chaos brought forth by time’s ravages. One seeks a kind of truth, the other a truth to experience. The best historical writing can be driven through the shaping of a finely crafted narrative, something that can enter the domain of literature even. But fiction, or any kind of expression that enters this realm, can reveal something closer to documentary truth. The Forest asks a lot of history, and so should we.

Enrique Ramirez is field mate, third class, in the Khaki Scouts of America, an experience that began when he triangulated his first switchbacks in the dense woods surrounding Camp Ivanhoe.