THE HEALTH OF THE COUNTRY by Conevery Bolton Valencius


How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land
Email this review


An abstract, arid dissertation on the “imaginative geographies” of 19th-century Americans.

Valencius (History/Washington Univ.) credits the footloose, land-seeking homesteaders who migrated west of the Appalachians with a wealth of ideas and philosophical positions that went largely unreported at the time—perhaps because the pioneers were too busy carving out a living to have much free time for theorizing. That the territory they entered was “new” to the Anglo-American experience was, she writes, “not a reality but a construction,” whatever that means. This construction required settlers to find new ways of envisioning the land and themselves, with words such as “organization” and “constitution” being applied both to plowed fields and the humans who worked them. Such shared metaphors had obvious origins: the new lands on the frontier were astoundingly fertile but easily subject to exhaustion, just like the yeomen who tilled them; civilizing a hostile Indian nation or an unruly teenager was much like the business of changing new land to “ordered terrain”; and sickly places were likely to breed sickly beings. Valencius turns over a library of diaries, letters, and contemporary journals to seek out evidence for her unexceptionable thesis that acclimation to heat, swamps, and oceanic prairies transformed the lives and perceptions of the settlers. These primary materials are almost always more lively than her discussion, couched in careful scholarly prose occasionally punctuated by strained bursts of lyricism (“Here was a world . . . where French perfumes still scented the air of sultry New Orleans, and Creole gumbo steamed the rooms of river villages during cold winter nights along the Missouri”).

Of some value to academic collections, but much too dense for general readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-465-08986-0
Page count: 396pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2002