Ten Million Little Houses on the Prairie

THE HOUSE WHERE I GREW up in Nebraska sat on an acre of land covered with big trees and studded with ruins—a tiny rectangular pond with a fountain, a brick rose arbor, a small greenhouse, sheds. Next door was a wild, empty acre my parents didn’t own but that my siblings and I treated as our own Neverland. As kids, we spent days and nights on adventures, pretending to be cowboys, trappers, and outlaws, climbing trees and digging foxholes, smoking cigarettes and blowing stuff up. For our annual vacations, my parents took us on camping trips to isolated northern forests and lakes and rivers, where the family more or less pretended to be pioneers. Today my wife and I own a house hours outside New York City where we hunker for days without seeing other houses or people or hearing cars, staring at sunlit hedgerows and forests and the occasional bear, half-pretending we’re settlers or gentry, different people living in a different century, or characters in a novel. For a few years, we really went overboard, raising sheep.

In other words, I have fully and consistently indulged in the great American pastoral fantasy.

Of course, at the turn of the seventeenth century, while Englishmen back in England promoting emigration gushed about the physical magnificence of the New World they’d never seen, the actual emigrants’ reactions tended more toward dread and misery, seeing the place as a horror to be suffered as part of their Christian adventure, a replay of the ancient Israelites’ humbling and testing for forty years in Exodus. In 1662 a prominent young Massachusetts minister published a poem called “God’s Controversy with New-England,” reflecting the standard Puritan view of the place to which his parents had brought him—“a waste and howling wilderness” and “dark and dismal western woods.”*1 That “howling wilderness” was the Puritans’ standard term, from the Bible. But within a few generations, with a lot of the wilderness cut back and ordered by walls, roads, farms, and towns, the American attitude had changed.

We discovered that our wild mountains and forests and rivers were sublime—a word that quintupled in American books during the 1700s. We were defined by our romantic landscapes, untamed and tamed, terrifying and glorious, as painted by Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt and the Frederics Church and Remington, and by the endless little pictures of nature-nestling homes mass-produced by Currier & Ives. The same wild and pastoral America was romanticized in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant and in dime novels about the West—and later by Laura Ingalls Wilder. American pictures and stories helped embed specifically American nature deep in the American dream.

In the past, for aeons, as Leo Marx writes in The Machine in the Garden, dreams of withdrawing “from the great world [to] begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape” had been a genre of pure fantasy, “a poetic theme, not to be confused with the way poets did in fact live.” But in America by the late 1700s, “the dream of a retreat to an oasis of harmony and joy was removed from its traditional literary context….The effect of the American environment…was to break down commonsense distinctions between art and life.” In this infinite new place, land of the literal, you could live this fantasy.

A century after the first English settlers came west to a howling wilderness, a family of persecuted English Quakers came and built a cabin farther west, to avoid persecution by Quakers who’d preceded them, in the howling wilderness of Pennsylvania, and then moved deeper into the wilderness, to North Carolina. From there, one of their middle-aged middle sons led settlers even farther west into a fresh piece of wilderness. On his fiftieth birthday, an eight-thousand-word memoir of his first dozen years living on the new frontier was published, possibly written by him. “No populous city, with all the varieties of commerce and stately structures, could afford so much pleasure to my mind, as the beauties of nature” in “Kentucke, lately an howling wilderness…become a fruitful field.” The little book made Daniel Boone world famous, turning him into an emblematic American, a real-life superhero. Another bestselling as-told-to memoir featured him wrestling a bear and escaping natives by swinging on vines.

Boone lived thirty-seven years as a celebrity, surviving and thriving on the edge of the American wilderness as he made it progressively less wild, more pastoral. His English contemporary Lord Byron, the romantic poet, devoted four stanzas to Boone in his final masterwork in the 1820s: “When they built up unto his darling trees,— / He moved some hundred miles off, for a station / Where there were fewer houses and more ease.” Which was just the kind of stuff Boone claimed to despise: “Nothing embitters my old age,” he wrote, like “the circulation of absurd stories that I retire as civilization advances.” But in fact, he leveraged his living-legend frontiersman celebrity to become a successful politician and less successful land speculator. His life, authentic and extraordinary but also fictionalized even as he lived it, became for his fellow citizens a real-time, real-life fantasy of the ultimate American Natural Man, an early version of the kind of supercelebrity that Buffalo Bill would fictionalize and monetize a half-century after Boone died.

The American pastoral ideal also grew out of the new Christianity that considered itself more perfect because it was more pure and primitive. Americans’ loathing of Catholicism and later of monarchy devolved into a loathing of Europe and of cities as well. All of which made it easier for Americans to turn the lemon of the New World—the horrifying wilderness—into lemonade, to make the new nation one in which (tamed) nature was ever present. Americans wanted it both ways, the prosperity and comfort that required towns and cities and factories and railroads, but also the picturesque fantasy that one was still Boone-like, living near where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.

For all the actual miseries and life-and-death threats the wagon-train generations endured, they moved west equipped with fantasies as well as pans and axes and guns, real-life characters in a narrative jury-rigged out of the romantic tales and biblical stories they’d read and heard and the pictures they’d seen. Those pioneers were a tiny minority of Americans. But forests and mountains and vast grassy vistas were now a key piece of the national story—“a cultural and moral resource and a basis for national self-esteem,” as Roderick Frazier Nash writes in Wilderness and the American Mind. Americans living in towns and cities, in order to feel truly, virtuously American, needed nearby reminders of wild nature, needed to pretend they were pioneers living at the edge of the untamed.

If you had the American fantasy knack, enough belief in your own beliefs, you could feel immersed in nature without traveling far or risking a thing. When I was sixteen, in 1970, I read Walden and adored it. I believed in civil disobedience to oppose an unjust war of aggression on impoverished foreigners, and so had this guy a century earlier. I had briefly lived in a tent by a pond in the woods by myself—and he had published a famous book about doing pretty much the same thing.

Henry David Thoreau invented a certain kind of entitled, upper-middle-class extended adolescence. After college he hung around the nice Boston suburb where he’d grown up, taught some school, wrote the occasional essay, networked, became personal assistant and protégé to a famous local writer (Ralph Waldo Emerson), decided eating meat was bad, and on a camping trip with a local rich kid accidentally burned down three hundred acres of forest.

Then, at twenty-seven, in 1844, he hatched a high-concept plan for a project that epitomized the pastoral fantasy that American suburbanites and hippies and country-home owners have reenacted ever since. On a wooded lot that Emerson owned, young Henry built a one-room cabin. He moved in on the Fourth of July—nice touch—and imagined he was an American hinterlander, rustic and self-reliant, fully communing with nature, pure and virtuous. Walden was the book of pensées he published chronicling his two years “in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself…and earned my living by the labor of my hands only….I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life….Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow—no gate—no front-yard—and no path to the civilized world.”

In fact, his cabin, which his friends helped him build, was barely a half-hour walk from the prosperous old town where his mom and dad and a couple of thousand other people lived, and only a seventeen-mile trip on the new railroad from the third-largest city in America. John Muir, the nature-worshipping American who actually walked the walk a generation later, mocked Thoreau as a poseur pretending to “see forests in orchards and patches of huckleberry brush” a “mere saunter” from Concord. Indeed, when Thoreau left Walden Pond to spend a couple of weeks in the true wilderness of northern Maine, he was horrified—“grim and wild,” “vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature.” After eight hundred days living deep and sucking out all the marrow of existence, he returned to town, helping run his father’s pencil-making business, living for the rest of his life at his parents’ big house on Main Street. Thoreau epitomized this particular have-your-cake-and-eat-it American fantasy, a life in harmony with nature as long as it’s not too uncomfortable or inconvenient.

In addition, Thoreau believed in fairies and astrology and thought the full moon enabled him to have out-of-body experiences. He and Emerson were Transcendentalists, the lightly Asian-flavored link between the bland, educated Protestantism of the American Enlightenment and the spicy potluck animism and mysticism efflorescing when I first read Walden. “Standing on the bare ground,” Emerson told an audience shortly before Thoreau published Walden, “my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifting into empty space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Humans are essentially good. All creation exists in a magnificent web of interconnection. Nature is God and God is nature. What’s not to like?

Right around that time, thirty-two-year-old Herman Melville wrote a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne about this wave of romantic giddiness. Melville appreciated the delicious, seductive power of their peers’ transcendental ecstasies, but he also understood them to be on a slippery slope toward a very American solipsism. “ ‘Live in the all,’ ” Melville wrote to Hawthorne.

What nonsense!…

This “all” feeling…there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the allfeeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

That is, it only becomes problematic when people refuse to let blissful epiphanies remain mostly obscure and evanescent.

This American impulse to live a pastoral fantasy, as Leo Marx writes, also “was embodied in various utopian schemes for making America the site of a new beginning for western society.” History was rhyming again. Just as religious dissenters like the Quakers and Shakers had split off into their own fantasy communities during the 1600s and 1700s, citizens in the 1800s with idiosyncratic ideals—political, economic, nutritional, sexual—set out into the countryside to form better, more perfect micronations within their new nation. More than a hundred utopian communities were established across the American countryside during the First Great Delirium. Among the most famous were Fruitlands and Brook Farm, organized by well-to-do Transcendentalists outside Boston. The other settlements ranged in size from a dozen to hundreds of people, ridiculous and fascinating and adorable American fantasias. Except for the free-love Oneida Community, which had multiple branches in the Northeast and lasted for decades before morphing into a major cutlery and tableware company, they were short-lived—but in the late 1960s, at the birth of modern American Fantasyland, they reincarnated as communes.

At the beginning of the 1800s, 94 percent of Americans lived in rural places. By 1900, nearly half lived in towns and cities. The population had grown fourteen times as large, and the economy seventy times. But the American Dream required living in a little house on the prairie, in the big woods, on the banks of a creek or shores of a lake. Or rather, as the twentieth century proceeded, in some plausible facsimile of such a place. It was a perfect amalgam, nostalgia for the pioneer life along with a sense of spiritual purity. And so, going on two centuries after Thoreau played backwoodsman, most Americans today live in suburbs, if not in pastoral simulacra actually called Walden Pond (in Indianapolis, near Cleveland, near Detroit, in Durham, North Carolina, sea to shining sea), then in Maple Creek, Witherspoon Meadow, Oak Run, Eagle Valley, Elm Lake, Barrington Brook, or Turtle Knoll.*2

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

*1 The same minister the same year also published Day of Doom, America’s first bestseller, an extremely long and cheerfully terrifying poem about Judgment Day: “However fair, however square, your way and work hath been…Earth’s dwellers all…suffer must, for it is just, Eternal misery.”

*2 Apart from the subdivisions actually called Walden Pond, the others are the product of the Suburban Development Name Generator, an entertaining app.

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