This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent

Daegan Miller. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-226-33614-5
In this inventive debut, landscape historian Miller argues that since landscapes are human creations they all have a history. His reading of 19th-century American landscapes uncovers “histories of dissent, of freedom, of equality, and of justice” that are rooted in concerns over a rapidly industrializing country. Miller organizes the book into four “acts,” with an intermission of indeterminate value. The first act opens in Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau investigates the best use of the Concord River: powering mills or sustaining agriculture and green landscapes. The second and fourth acts are the most intriguing. In act two, African-American settlers in the Adirondacks envision a utopian agrarianism that challenges racial views during a time when slavery debates are tearing the country apart. In act four, giant sequoias in California inspire the creation of the socialist Kaweah Colony, which sought to sustain both human and nonhuman life. Act three is the most esoteric and densely jargoned; here, Miller explores how photographer A.J. Russell refashioned Rocky Mountain landscape aesthetics to critique manifest destiny. Miller tries too hard to craft elegant prose and the interspersed first-person narratives don’t mesh with the rest of the material. Still, Miller’s book should be valued by scholars for its creative linking of radicalism and landscape. Illus. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 01/15/2018
Release date: 03/01/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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