Michael Kammen: Why the Four Seasons Matter So Much to Americans

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Kammen, on the subject of his forthcoming book, A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture; in the Chronicle of Higher Education(March 8, 2004):

...The four-seasons motif arrived in America in the 17th century. Before industrialization, it remained largely derivative from European perceptions and rarely innovative. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, for example, were spellbound by "The Seasons," written by the 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson. Often considered the first book-length poem in English to feature nature, "The Seasons" saw in nature God's plan, helping to reconcile the existence of good and evil.

With the onset of industrialization and urbanization during the 19th century, as fewer Americans lived close to the land, what might be called a "flattening" of the seasons occurred. Seasonal change ceased to affect human lives to the same degree that it once did. The advent of canned foods at the turn of the 20th century transformed the American diet and liberated people from longstanding seasonal constraints. During the 1920s, the Caterpillar company advertised that, with its new snow-removal equipment, "January can be just like July" -- at least in terms of driving automobiles, and especially in American cities. I discovered, nonetheless, that engagement with the four-seasons motif did not diminish. Instead, its appearance in art, music, poetry, and other forms of literature, including the writings of naturalists, actually increased during the 20th century. I have tried to provide a window on the reasons why.

In the 19th century, national chauvinism mattered a great deal: Americans earnestly believed that the seasons and seasonal change were more spectacular in their country than anywhere else. The leading cultural journal at mid-century, The Crayon, quoted a representative response to Jasper F. Cropsey's dramatic painting, "Autumn on the Hudson": "They who know the aspect of Nature in the autumn in England only, have no notion of the glorious garb she elsewhere puts on at that time. In America, the woods are all ablaze." On the eve of the worst sectional struggle in American history, it was not surprising that national chauvinism enjoyed a great surge.

In an echo of the contradictory impulses that Smith and Marx had noted, nostalgia, and a sense of American loss, also mattered, because so many people felt increasingly out of touch with the natural world and with the lifestyle of preceding generations. Ambivalence about modernity played an important part in the attraction to seasonal invocations. Consider the pictorial splendors of Victorians like Cropsey (who created at least a dozen sets of seasonal images, more than any other American painter) and the beloved lithographs of Currier and Ives. The earliest of Currier's images in 1855 did not emphasize seasonal distinctiveness in the United States to an unusual degree, but, within a dozen years, new ones that highlighted romanticized scenes of rustic work and play did.

Consider, too, the seasonal essays of such Brahmins as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and James Russell Lowell, as well as the enormous popularity of books and essays by Burroughs and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. When Holmes lamented, in his 1868 essay on "The Seasons," that too few people paid adequate attention to seasonal change, he was primarily addressing urban dwellers like himself.

The advent of cultural modernism in America early in the 20th century offered fresh challenges and new ways to think about the seasons in metaphorical and allegorical terms. Whereas creative people had previously been most intrigued by the presentation of seasonal peaks, increasing attention came to be devoted to seasonal transitions. Allusions to change became a prominent metaphor. The pace of life seemed to accelerate as the 20th century progressed, and so did the production of books, essays, and art of every type depicting the seasons, quite often as a metaphor for the human life cycle. As in earlier periods, the changes were manifest in high as well as mass culture: in Charles Burchfield's vivid watercolors and the seasonal calendars of Norman Rockwell, in the challenging but moving poetry of Wallace Stevens and W.D. Snodgrass, in the nature writings of Hal Borland, Edwin Way Teale, and Joseph Wood Krutch.

When Jasper Johns completed his famous suite "The Seasons" in 1987, he allowed his dealer, Leo Castelli, to sell three of them. He retained "Autumn" for his personal collection, however, because he felt he had been in the autumn of his life when he created the series. In 1964 the magic realist Peter Blume began his seasonal suite, and in 1972 when Marc Chagall was persuaded to accept a commission to make a monumental mosaic block as public art for downtown Chicago, he selected the four seasons because of the universal appeal of the theme....

Thoreau's justly revered Journals, published in their entirety just a century ago, are jampacked with seasonal observations, including an entry on June 11, 1851: "No one, to my knowledge, has observed the minute differences in the seasons." A book that did so, he wrote, would be "a Book of the seasons, each page of which should be written in its own season & out-of-doors, or in its own locality wherever it may be." That is just what I have tried to do, except for Thoreau's admonition to write out-of-doors. My work required electrical outlets as well as aesthetic ones.

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