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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 354 Response

The Pastoral Myth

by Bertil Falk and Don Webb

Challenge 354: The story is based on an American cultural archetype: the pastoral myth. How would American readers perceive the story if the myth were reversed, making the city the focus of all that’s good and the frontier the focus of all that’s bad? Readers in other countries won’t necessarily share the same cultural presuppositions. How is the story read outside of America?

It seems to me that one easily could replace New York with Mumbai (Bombay) and the Rocky Mountains with the Himalayas. As New York City might be perceived as the very symbol of sin (at least in the eyes of some Alaskan who can see Russia from her home), Mumbai with its divorcing Bollywood stars and college boys and girls walking hand in hand represents Indian sin, while the Himalayas represent the pastoral myth.

The archetype is not only American. I would stretch this thought as far as making it possible to replace New York with Stockholm in my native Sweden, the fjelds of Lapland being a similar symbol as the Rocky Mountains, but the resemblance is not as strong as it is when it comes to Mumbai and the Himalayas.

In short: this is a human contrast between city and country. As to the first part of the question, I cannot say how Americans would perceive the story reversed. I am not so sure that it can be reversed in a convincing way. Trying it would probably be in a forced manner.

Bertil Falk

Quite true, Bertil: the contrast of city and countryside can be found in many cultures — today. In summer, Ontarians flee the cities to vacation in “cottage country.”

However, a friendly view of nature has not been the rule historically; in fact, it’s relatively new. Up to the mid-18th century, European cities and towns were safe havens; nature was wild and threatening.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains forcefully his aversion to cities. And yet his works made nature writing one of the prominent features of Romanticism, and the theme appealed strongly to urban readers: witness the top “blockbuster” novel of the century, La Nouvelle Héloïse, especially part I, letter 23.

The American pastoral myth has its origins in Romanticism, and we can see the Romantic tradition in the long-lived genre of the Western in its novel, film, and television versions. Even latter-day parodies and satire of the genre pay it a backhanded tribute.

Likewise, any motor trip through rural America will reveal endless family farmhouses, which are living relics of frontier days. Such is not the case in Europe, but you don’t even have to go there to see the contrast. Rural Quebec has reminders of France: villages — not isolated farmhouses — are the rule.

The American pastoral myth adapted itself to the Industrial age. Rousseau sees man living in harmony with nature, but the American tradition has been one of struggle, settlement, and ultimate conquest. Now, more than a century after America’s western frontier was officially declared closed, the culture is beginning to come full circle and return to the original tenets of Romanticism as Rousseau first set them forth.

Other countries — even so close a neighbor as Canada — have not had the same experience as the U.S. And I have to wonder whether the inhabitants of other countries such as Holland, Belgium or Bangladesh, which have no mountains, or even Australia, which is geologically very old, would view mountains in quite the same way as readers in the U.S.A.


Copyright © 2009 by Bertil Falk
and Don Webb

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