Publication Date

Fall 1980

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Gary Klee

Subject Areas

English; History; Environmental Studies


As early as the 1820s and 1830s, observers of the American scene, such as George Catlin, John James Audubon, and Alexis de Tocqueville, were expressing misgivings over the rapid settlement of the American West. In their concern over the passing of pristine landscapes and native cultures was a note of nostalgia for an earlier time, the era of exploration, whose journals echoed the freshness of discovery and spoke of the beauty and inexhaustible promise of the New World. The elegiac tone has become more explicit in our own time. In the works of twentieth century writers is seen a haunting awareness that nature itself is vulnerable to human actions, and that the option of even glimpsing a pristine landscape may be vanishing. This paper explores this shifting perception of nature by analyzing selected works of American literature or New World exploration which deal with river experiences or travels. The time span of this study ranges from the 1970s back to early European exploration of North America, particularly the French explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Writers throughout the time span studied have viewed rivers as representing wholeness, integrity; or as ultimate primordial elements of the natural world, and, by extension, of continental, cosmic forces, large-scale cycles and patterns--though manifestations of such qualities become more explicit in twentieth century works. Rivers, being complex and unpredictable, an unfamiliar medium, have always posed the possibility of upset, loss, or privation. A river also signifies passage; and passage, to the early explorers, meant access to fabled lands and riches. But perceptions and needs have changed. To today's traveler a river and its environment offer the possibility of purification, renewal, identification with the unfathomable. Such a transformation may be accompanied by a lasting change in perception or perspective.


A Special Major Thesis Presented to The Departments of English and History and the Environmental Studies Program.