American Sublime

(American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 at Tate Britain spring 2002.)

In the late 1950s, Hollywood was in big trouble. Suffering the full impact of television for the first time, the dream factories came close to shutting down and being sold off as condominium developments. For what turned out to be a mercifully brief period, Hollywood fought back by tweaking its formats and multiplying its presentational gimmicks. There were publicity stunts, 3D, wraparound sound, and competing colour processes, each one more lurid than the one before. The screen size mutated, becoming wider or taller or fatter or all three at once, since this was the age of Cinemascope and Pathescope and all the other ‘scopes. For a while, things got so crazy that we kids, clutching our two and sixpence as we queued for the Saturday matinee, didn’t know from week to week if we’d be watching a screen like a keyhole with the actors squashed into the slit in the middle or, by contrast, craning to take in a screen the height of a house where everyone was stretched so tall and thin their outlines wobbled when they moved. As for the audience, they might be sitting in their usual places or lying on the floor wearing cardboard specs or with their faces buried in scratch n’sniff cards or even- courtesy of one horror film producer, who wired the seats- undergoing a showbiz version of ECT.

The films Hollywood produced during this feverish time were uniformly dreadful, genre pictures drawn from the least fruitful genres. Sword and toga. Pirates. Tired Westerns (Davy, Da-vy Crock-ett, King of the Wild Frontier!), the Western being well past its sell-by date before Sixties revisionists like Peckinpah came along to resuscitate it. But the point of all the fiddling with the form- like the point of Hollywood’s subsequent, equally barren, passion for setting scripts in glamorous “international” locations- was clear enough. It was to do what television couldn’t do, to provide an experience television couldn’t offer. Hollywood wanted spectacle, and the more spectacular the better.

The 100-odd paintings in this show, none of which have been seen in this country for a century and which, even in America, are scattered around regional museums and galleries, reminded me of 1950s Hollywood. If these often gargantuan 19th century canvases with their images of soaring peaks, deserted canyons, storm-tossed clouds, virgin forests and flaming sunsets- nature as a series of sfx- seem strangely familiar, it’s because the artists of the American Sublime also sought the spectacular. They too experimented with their form and weren’t averse to sales gimmicks. Their canvases swelled to wide-screen, Vistavision size. Their palettes were a Technicolor range of blazing orange skies, turquoise mountain slopes and jet-black storm clouds. Like their spiritual descendants in the movie business, they combined a craftsman’s rigorous professionalism with the showman’s commercial nous.

The star of the show, then and now, was Frederic Edward Church. Church took his art “on location” from his New York base, searching for ever more exotic and fabulous subjects to titillate the punters. He travelled as far as the Andes in one direction and the Arctic in the other. Returning to Manhattan, Church would settle down to create one of his enormous pictures- he called them his “Great Paintings”, presumably referring to their size as well as their undoubted quality- then put the result on display, spotlit and hung with velvet drapery, like a toy theatre where the scenery has elbowed out the actors. The public paid ten cents a head to file past the latest Church and had opera glasses handed to them so they could study his naturalistic detail. In three weeks in 1859, Church made a staggering 3,000 dollars from a single painting in this way.

The Tate has reproduced a “Frederic Church production”, darkened room, spotlights, theatrical drapes and all, using his 10-foot painting of icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland. You stand in front of it, as if witnessing the discovery of show business’s missing link between the live theatre of the past and a future of peep shows, three-reelers, the talkies and on to the Hollywood blockbuster and the IMAX saturation image. The fact that you’re gazing at a group of meticulously accurate, sensuously coloured (blues, emerald-greens) icebergs rather than a line of underdressed showgirls is, depending on your point of view, conclusive proof of 19th century repression or an early example of landscape as porn. There’s an overblown, bombastic quality about many of the American Sublime paintings, a sense they’re straining to produce a single, overwhelming impact on the viewer the way pornography strains to produce a single result for its consumers, namely orgasm. That’s the influence of “the sublime”, which always had a sexual element.

According to its European theorists, the sublime as an aesthetic strategy was a cross between the Romantic and the Gothic, aiming to produce (or reproduce) the effect of shivering awe or “delightful horror” in the face of Nature’s mightiest, most impenetrable works.But there was another aspect to the sublime, the religious aspect. The sublime is beyond reason, it involves surrendering your mind to the irrational and the irrational can go either way, towards the sensual or towards the spiritual, as Cecil B. De Mille- for whose sex-and sandals biblical melodramas many of these landscapes could serve as scene paintings-always understood. It’s a mistake to think of the American Sublime artists as coldly calculating their effects. In their heyday, roughly the middle two-thirds of the 19th century, they had the field to themselves. There was no box office competition, no rival medium, not even photography, then in its infancy and hardly considered an art. Their real competition came from their subject, from Nature itself, which in America was spelled with a capital N.

Even today, Europeans find their first experience of the United States overwhelming- the scale; the distances; the colours; the height and breadth of the sky. Even if you live there for any length of time, it doesn’t become routine: rather you live with a sense of the absolute which the American landscape not only suggests as a mental image but also embodies as an almost sensual presence- in the way the sunlight slants along the streets, in the vastness and openness of the Western night, in the limpid clarity of autumn in New York or its needle-sharp sparkling neon nights. Now imagine how it would have felt if you were among the first people ever to see that landscape (apart from the Native Americans, whom no one counted) and to see it sans cities, sans freeways, sans jet planes, when the entire continent was one vast wilderness.

Many of the early American painters were European immigrants. All of them modelled themselves on the British school of landscape painting. Thomas Cole followed Turner and John Martin. Frederic Church read Ruskin. Faced with America, their inflated canvases and dayglo palettes look less like showmen’s strategies and more like acts of sheer self-defence, ratcheting up the artistic apparatus of the Old World to meet the impact of the New. For much the same reasons, because Nature seems to demand it, Hollywood is situated in Los Angeles rather than in Ealing or a suburb of Paris.

Nature this grandiloquent stimulates a metaphysical response as well as a technical one. You don’t have to be Ruskin to react religiously. Five minutes after gazing on the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, or even the Catskill Mountains in the days before their domestication by New York weekenders, phrases like Ruskin’s “finger of God” or “God’s handiwork” or “the Garden of Eden” come to mind. Five more minutes, and you start thinking along the lines of “God’s Own Country” and “God’s chosen people”. The clue is in the figures the artists inserted in their landscapes. They’re tiny, toy people: you have to look closely to see them at all. The people are only there as measures, to give a sense of scale, and sometimes also a sense of the exotic (many of the figures are Red Indians). They sum up how it must have felt to be an early American in the wilderness, at one and the same time thrilled and inspired by the monumental works of nature that surround you and dwarfed by them, reduced to your own insignificance.

Walking through the exhibition, there comes a point when all these paintings seem to be the same painting, different aspects of a single image, an ur-image, which is the American primal scene-Mother Nature caught in flagrante with Father God by the infant, early American, whose Oedipal destiny it will be to kill dad and fuck mom by developing the continent. Some of the key themes of American history leap out from these paintings more clearly than from any textbook. One is why Americans became-and still remain- a religious people to the alternate despair and derision of their European cousins. Another is how the quest for identity-what does it mean to be an American?- is the central conundrum of American culture. Both were present from the very start, born out of the confrontation between solitary settler and untamed wilderness.

So it’s not surprising these paintings were so popular because they enact- and enact in a safe, romanticised way- that confrontation and its inevitable outcome, the triumph of the modern American who is far from DH Lawrence’s description of the frontier soul as “hard., stoic, isolate, a killer.” Seen from the perspective of these artists, the essential American is the future tourist, the middle-class lord of a tamed creation. John Updike describes how images of the Americna landscape “reproduced in popular magazines by painstaking wood engravings and lavished upon the middle classes in the photographic form of stereoscopic views were a key to the solidification and spread of American identity from the mid (19th) century onwards.”[1] Nature plays a key role in American nationalism, replacing, and quite deliberately contrasted with, the role that History and plays in the Old World, in Europe. In both cases it is not the real thing but Nature and History invented and re-imagined that serves the purpose.

One of the main ways the process of reinventing and re-imagining the American landscape works is to empty it. There are no people in these paintings, or only the tiny toy figures there for purposes of measurement, to dramatise the sheer scale of the wilderness that surrounds them- the sky, the forest, the mountains. In these paintings American history, captured as it were in the painted equivalent of a snapshot, becomes the elemental confrontation of settler and virgin continent, individual and Nature, that America’s national mythology requires. But in reality, the wilderness wasn’t empty at all: it was inhabited by a prior people, the home of the Indians or Native Americans as they’re now known. The process of settling and developing America was also a kind of colonial conquest that involved many years of brutal racial war against an alien and “savage” other. Even today, very few Americans know or care to know the full blood-soaked story and it’s that story, long repressed, which creates the shadow side of American nationalism and national identity, the unconscious to Americans’ national self-image as compassionate decent, democratic, optimistic etc.- the psychology Lawrence described as “hard, stoic, isolate, a killer”. [2]

The third major American theme in these paintings is the theme of America’s later, proto-industrial development whose critical period coincides with, and conditions, the artistic movement called the American Sublime . Once again, the theme is conspicuous by its absence from the actual pictures. The omission is conscious and deliberate, which is what makes it interesting. You’d never know from this show that the decades covered by the “American Sublime” were the crucial decades in America’s development. Settlement was going on at a furious rate. The railroads penetrated ever farther west. The very physical dimensions of the country were in flux and constantly expanding. Between 1861 and 1865, Americans fought a bloody civil war over what sort of nation they wanted to have- a static, rural, slave society or a dynamic, democratic, industrial one. There are landscapes in the exhibition that we know no longer looked like this by the time the artists painted them. The artists chose to leave out the coal mine and the railroad spur and the shanty town, to attempt to restore nature to a state of pristine innocence. Since innocence is unrestorable by definition, it’s no wonder their pictures are full of anxious hints, gloomy sub-texts and apocalyptic musings.

America was Paradise and the Garden of Eden. But it was also, and simultaneously, the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise. The paradox gives these paintings their dramatic interest, their peculiar hopped-up tension. No one (or no one in his right mind) would choose these landscapes for the covers of chocolate boxes. Their energy is neurotic, far from the serenity Ruskin believed came from contemplating nature, or even from any Wordworthian-style nostalgia. The American Sublime artists didn’t need to search their memories for the moment when shades of the prison house began to close about them. It was happening in front of their eyes, just across the way, where the pioneers were clearing the forest, chopping down the trees, smelting the iron and erecting a brand-new jail alongside the saloon and the brothel and only a shotgun blast’s distance from the church. Men like Frederic Church or Sanford Gifford or even Albert Bierstadt were as thrilled as the next American by the huge potential of the New World and the heroic task of taming it now that the natives had been exterminated or reduced to remnants. At the same time, they were acutely aware of everything that was being lost- the wilderness they loved and prized in the first place. Nor was this paradox purely a psychological one. The last room in the exhibition shows it being acted out in the most concrete terms in the career of a painter like Thomas Moran.

Moran accompanied expeditions to the West where he painted the Grand Canyon numerous times. The US Congress bought his first, massive “The Grand Canyon at Yellowstone”. The railroad companies commissioned his later versions to use as advertisements.From visionary wilderness to tourist brochure in sixty years. From start to finish, the history of the American Sublime spans scarcely a single lifetime. The nature whose loss the artists of the Sublime acknowledged by omission, the writers dealt with more directly. According to Czeslaw Milosz, rather than the painters it was those “writers who brought fame to American letters of the 19th century-Melville, Emerson, Thoreau” who thus became the missing link between the early American Paradise and that Paradise Lost[3]. Milosz suggests that the Mexican-American war of 1846 and the annexation of the Far West was a crucial turning point between the “two Americas”, pioneer America on the one hand and modern, gigantic America on the other. Once the Civil War was settled in favour of the North and frantic industrialisation began, there was no turning back.

Add on another century of development, and the sheer material abundance implicit in all the raw American Nature had been more or less manifest, like a Moloch freed from imprisonment in his rock. By the 1950s, Development- or rather Materialism which is Development fulfilled, Development delivered- had triumphed over the other themes in American life and turned into a religion in its own right. Meanwhile, conformity and consumption became the official answers to the enigma of American identity. The frontier had closed and so had America as a whole, shut down like one of those Atomic civil defence drills that punctuated the 1950s, its citizens buttoned up politically into the Cold War and buttoned down economically under the corporate rule of the Men in their Grey Flannel Suits (with Hollywood wide-screen colour representing their inflamed subconscious). This is the society in which “The Graduate” has his entire life and future mapped out for him by his elders and betters in a single word- “Plastics!”. It’s also a society in which the same creative impulse that led the artists of the American Sublime to celebrate Early America prompted their successors to rebel against Middle America.

They were the Beats-Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady and the gang. To my own Sixties generation, the Beats were (anti-) heroes, prophets. Criticising them by conventional artistic standards was beside the point. They were what was happening, man, when precious little else was. Walking round the American Sublime show, I realized the other reason these works seemed so familiar to me, apart from their resemblance to 1950s Hollywood movies, was because they reminded me of the Beats. True, the best-known Beats were writers rather than visual artists, but that was only because painting, after undergoing a series of profound formal revolutions in the early part of the 20th century, had (temporarily) abandoned the social world to explore its own essence. But the difference in medium is less important than what these artists, or groups of artists, had in common. There are the experiments with form (Kerouac’s continuous typing on paper rolls; Burroughs’ cut-ups; prose styles modelled on jazz solos). There’s the feverish, hopped-up use of language in the Beats, which is a literary equivalent to the Sublime painters’ overheated colours. Though the Sublime school, to my knowledge, never wrote a manifesto (and it can be argued the Beats never wrote anything else, disguising their manifestos as poems, novels etc) there’s the obvious parallel between the Beats’ search for “kicks” and the painters’ search for “the sublime”. Both groups of artists look for ways to shock themselves out of dull rationality into a deeper, more irrational, more authentic response to life.

Even the subject matter is the same once you allow for the hundred year gap. The Beats were “landscape writers”. Re-reading them, it’s remarkable the extent to which observation and description take the place in their work of conventional elements like plot, character and dialogue. The Beats had two principal subjects- America and their own consciousness, and they were at their best (in Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ or Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’) when they worked on the fault line between the two, the knife edge where you didn’t know if you were looking at Paradise or Purgatory, the American Dream or an American nightmare.

Listen to this piece of early Kerouac:

To Peter, the course of his life now seemed to cross and re-cross New York as though it was some great railroad yard of his soul. He knew that everything on earth was represented within the towering borders of New York. It thrilled his soul; but at the same time it had begun to mortify his heart.

He could stand on Times Square and watch a Park Avenue millionaire pass by in a limousine at the same moment that some Hell’s Kitchen urchin hurried out of its path. The gay group of young Social Register revellers piling into a cab, and some young bitter-fierce John Smith tempered by Public School No. 16 standing at a hotdog stand watching them, before going into an all-night movie to see them on the screen. The trio of influential businessmen, fresh from the convention dinner, strolling by absorbed in high conversation and the tattered young Negro from 133rd Street dodging meekly out of the way. The meditative Communist committeeman brushing shoulders with the sullen secret Bundist from Yorkville. The Greenwich Village intellectual looking down his nose at the Brooklyn machinist reading the Daily News…”

And so on and so forth for another full page at least of pure, Whitmanesque celebration of the scale and possibility of America and its impact on individual consciousness (“It thrilled his soul”) by a hunter of the Sublime. The only change is that, after a hundred years, the landscape has moved, migrated from the country to the city. It’s no longer a natural landscape but an urban one. American society itself has replaced the American landscape, ingesting its qualities even as it swallowed and destroyed the original wilderness with the spread of settlements and the growth of industrialisation. Now the Manhattan street scene, with its crazy combinations of people, its hyperactive social collisions and interactions, so much richer and more dramatic than its Old World counterparts, is what the artist has to reckon with, the new source of quasi-religious experience and potential change in consciousness. But the substitution isn’t seamless (“at the same time it had begun to mortify his heart”).

This is from Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’:

"Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blank windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the spectre of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!"

Ginsberg hymns the downside.‘Howl’ is a great anti-hymn (or rather a great rabbinical anti-chant) about everything that’s been lost in the transformation of American Sublime into American Inferno, a gigantic, inhuman, material Moloch. The very scale of America that in its unspoilt natural origins inspired men to a spiritual response, to awe and wonder, now exists only in an artificial form as a Frankenstein’s monster which crushes the life out of them. Half the time, the Beats wanted to reach out and embrace America, to hug all its amazing variety and abundance to their breasts: the other half of the time, they felt it had become this terrible, repressive Moloch, a death-dealing travesty of its early promise. The American Sublime painters felt the same ambivalence, but in their case fifty years early, and the intervening century between their work and the Beats only sharpened the conflict, upped the ante.

To view things from the other end of the historical spectrum, the Beats were like European Modernists only fifty years later. They responded to the same transfiguration of the old world by modern industrial civilisation with the same mixture of excitement and disillusion that the Modernists had done. ‘Howl' introduces Modernism in its negative aspect into American art.‘Howl’slanguage, for example, closely resembles the language of the Futurist Manifesto, except that the Futurists celebrated the very industrial dynamism that Ginsberg attacks.[4]

The Beats tried to solve the paradox posed by modern industrial society by shifting the American landscape once again, this time from the city into their own consciousness. Beat is the American pastoral as displaced by historical conditions, first (and paradoxically) into the urban landscape, then displaced for a second time into an interior, mental landscape, from where it functions as a critique of those very conditions and of the loss of the original, pastoral paradise, the virgin New World celebrated by the American Sublime painters. America took up residence for the Beats inside their heads. The only thing that was different about the Beats’use of this traditional creative strategy was their full-blooded attempt to act it out, to make it into a way of life. The vehicles for their would-be phase-change were drugs; music, which in those pre-Presley days meant jazz; and movement- going “on the road”. So the early Kerouac of ‘The Town and the City’ becomes the classic Kerouac of ‘On the Road’:

"Finally he got hold of some bad green, as it’s called in the trade-green, uncured marijuana- quite by mistake, and smoked too much of it.

The first day,” he said, “I lay rigid as a board in bed and couldn’t move or say a word; I just looked straight up with my eyes wide open. I could hear buzzing in my head and saw all kinds of wonderful technicolor visions and felt wonderful. The second day everything came to me, EVERYTHING I’d ever done or known or read or heard or conjectured came back to me and rearranged itself in my mind in a brand-new logical way and because I could think of nothing else in the interior concerns of holding and catering to the amazement and gratitude I felt, I kept saying “Yes, yes, yes, yes”. Not loud. Just “Yes”, real quiet, and these green tea visions lasted until the third day. I had understood everything by then, my whole life was decided…"

And a few pages later:

"Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman bawling horn across the way, going “EE-YAH! EE-YAH! EE-YAH!” and hands clapping to the beat and folks yelling “Go, go, go!” Dean was already racing across the street with his thumb in the air, yelling “Blow, man, blow!” A bunch of coloured men in suits were whooping it up in front. It was a sawdust saloon with a small bandstand on which the fellows huddled with their hats on, blowing over people’s heads, a crazy place…Dean was in a trance. The tenorman’s eyes were fixed straight on him; he had a madman who not only understood but cared and wanted to understand more and much more than there was, and they began duelling for this; everything came out of the horn, no more phrases, just cries, cries “Baugh” and down to “Beep!” and up to “EEEEE!” and down to clinkers and over to sideways-echoing horn sounds. He tried everything, up, down, sideways, upside down, horizontal, thirty degrees, forty degrees, and finally he fell back in somebody’s arms and gave up and everybody pushed around and yelled “Yes! Yes! He blowed that one!”

It’s interesting how difficult it is to quote from Beat literature. The writing doesn’t lend itself to excerpts. It’s stream of consciousness souped-up- or hopped up- an inner landscape that relies for its emotional affect on being read as a whole. In the same way, the paintings of the American Sublime need their scale. Despite Church’s opera glasses, you can’t really take out details and study them as you can with, say, Renaissance art.

There are many, different ways to view the Beats- Norman Mailer suggested a score or more of them in his famous, if confusing, essay, ‘The White Negro’. But the way I’ve suggested leads seamlessly into the Sixties and the hippie movement, two of whose tenets were that everyone was (or could be) an artist and everyone should go on the road, “all gone to look for America” as Simon and Garfunkel sang[5]. The Beats didn’t invent the Higher American Travel, travelling across America as a spiritual quest or a search for identity. That credit rightly belongs to the artists of the American sublime. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, their tradition had become domesticated into the cover art of a Norman Rockwell and a popular style of travel writing that attracted mainstream authors like John Steinbeck (‘Travels with Charley’); though John Updike argues the Subline never went away but instead was reinvented, “reborn in the mid-20th century in the oversize, utterly abstract works of Pollock and Kline, Motherwell and Still, Rothko and Newman.”[6]

For the painters as well as the poets, the Sublime had moved indoors and inside their own heads. The Beats tried to radicalise that tradition. In the Sixties, they looked like pioneers and prophets. But, as this show makes clear, the reality was the other way around. Rather than the start of something, the Beats were the end of something, the last hurrah of the Sublime. In visual art, the dividing line was set by Andy Warhol. With Warhol, American nature definitively gives way to American culture, the god in the landscape becomes the fetish in the commodity. Being America, the commodities are universal commodities and the fetish has pretensions to universality also. The icons Warhol painted or silkscreened- Presley, Monroe, the Empire State, the electric chair, Brillo boxes and Coca Cola bottles- were not just national, American icons: they were the common property of the Western world, at least for my postwar generation, huddled in our freezing bedrooms in the north of England, cutting out and collecting images for our scrapbooks from the rare, precious American glossy magazines that found their way to our island fringes of the empire. Warhol hadn’t invented himself yet (only in America!) but we responded to the same images, experiencing their power without understanding their significance.

If America was the Promised Land, then Warhol painted the emblems on the banners of the army marching towards it. The defeat or collapse (or both) of the Sixties meant the defeat of both wings of American idealism, the radical and the utopian, the Beats and “Saint Andy”. From then on, American idealism had nowhere to go except to be redirected into the traditional categories of power and wealth as the United States resumed its post-war drive to become, in Gore Vidal’s phrase, “the last empire”.[7]


[1] John Updike, ‘The Artist As Prospector’ in ‘The New York Review of Books’ Vol LIII no. 13. August 10 2006.

Updike goes on to link the American landscape painters with the growth of tourism from the 1880s onwards, as the landscape itself became a commodity. “Semi-tamed landscape had become a middle-class consumable with the development of vacation resorts, a process in which the artists served as groundbreakers.” The middle-class American habit of taking their young families on “trips” to see the country- or parts of it- in the combined spirit of pleasure and patriotism was still very much alive when I first visited America in the 1960s.

[2] Once defeated, there was room for the Indian to return in a new guise of the Noble Savage or Primitive who becomes and important figure in American Romanticism (eg in Moby Dick) and ironically symbolises the old world that was lost- The Last of the Mohicans.

[3] Melville, for example, reacted to the new commercial-industrial civilization spreading across the US by “construct(ing) a legend of withdrawal into unspoilt nature, into the primitive (His successors in Europe would be Lito, Gauguin, the near-folkloristic myth of Tahiti, isle of bliss, and American beatniks were, most likely, simply a revival of the same nostlagia).” (Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision’ (U. of California Press, 1977). p. 146).. My own view of the Beats is that they were more complex and ambivalent about modernity than Milosz allows. As much as they were successors to Melville and co, their attitudes also resembled those of early 20th century European modernism, only fifty years later and on a different continent

[4] “We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers......” –Manifesto of Futurism F.T. Marinetti 1909.

[5] A third trope among the early hippies again relates directly to European modernism- the belief that they could develop a revolutionary politics out of art, which in their case meant rock music. This was one of the original themes of Rolling Stone magazine, for example. Allen Ginsberg, the one major figure to span both the Beat and hippie eras, had his own politics of universal democratic eroticism and poetic inspiration.

[6] John Updike, ‘Essays on American Art’. In the work of one of the most interesting modern American painters, the figurative Edward Hopper, the American wilderness, the vacant American vastness, reaches out to reclaim or swallow up the isolated figures. Hopper’s real subject could be considered a kind of anti-Sublime, as if the whole gigantic history of America’s settlement and development contained within it the seeds of its own collapse and reversion. Hence the acute feelings of tension and anxiety in Hopper’s paintings, many of which, not coincidentally, are set at night. This “negative Sublime” or anti-Sublime becomes an important sub-theme among modern American artists in various media, including the abstract painters Updike mentions- Mark Rothko is an obvious example.

[7] An explicit terminus or bookend for the American sublime is Robert Lowell’s poem, Waking Early Sunday Morning. Written in the wake of 1960s political assassinations and Vietnam, the poem describes a world from which hope is gone, but this world has the features of United States (the ‘New World’, after all) which has traded its original energies, including its religious faith, for a culture of material success and a patrotic, martial identity. The last stanza of the poem reads – “pity the planet, all joy gone/from this sweet volcanic cone/peace to our children when they fall/in small war on the heels of small/war-until the end of time/to police the earth, a ghost/orbiting forever lost/in our monotonous sublime”.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014