Contesting the Sublime: New Versions of an Alternative American Tradition

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SPELL(Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature)



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As theorist of the American sublime Rob Wilson has noted, "the aesthetic of the sublime, as a trope haunting the will to any distinctly American sensibility," has become "increasingly recognizable" in the years following the second world war 6). Nowhere has this haunting presence of the sublime been more clearly linked to sensibility than in late twentieth-century written and pictorial accounts of Mount Everest summit experiences published by American climbers. An examination of the rather striking differences in two of the most well publicized accounts of the ill-fated May 1996 Everest ascent reveals the way American writers define distinct political sensibilities through their approaches to the sublime. The nearly simultaneous summit accounts published by Jon Krakauer and Sandy Hill Pittman convey alternative versions of the American sublime traceable at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederic E. Church, on the one hand, and Henry David Thoreau and Asher B. Durand on the other. Acknowledging the tensions conveyed in these differing traditions usefully illuminates the internally contested relationship America has always maintained with the natural sublime, while also clarifying the political dispositions each tradition conveys. Understanding what might be thought of as the "politics of the sublime" is especially useful in accounting for the way late twentieth- and early twenty-first century nature writers like Krakauer and Barry Lopez seek to recuperate the lesser known communally oriented and environmentally sensitive sublime of Thoreau and Durand as a corrective to the aggressively self-oriented Romantic sublime of Emerson and Church.

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