Into the Wild: A Terrible Beauty - The Wilderness of American Literature by Jonah Raskin

Review by Eric Weinblatt

The word “wilderness” is constantly evolving and shaping the minds of writers. For some it is a setting of great mystery and adventure, for others it serves as a theme of inner peace and a rich connection with the very land they use as a backdrop. The influence of the unexplored and uncultivated shapes each writer differently, and the very definition of the term wilderness makes radical shifts from generation to generation. Jonah Raskin observes this word and successfully traces the influence it has as on the canonized writers of North America in his latest book A Terrible Beauty – The Wilderness of American Literature. Mastering literary theory and history, Raskin takes his readers beyond America’s literary canon to immerse them in a world that never fails to inspire and delight.

Before colonists revolted for independence, Europeans came to the continent of North America to explore a new wilderness to unsuccessfully attempt to cohabitate with the already prosperous native populous. While Native Americans had no formally written records of their own, European explorers documented their encounters, including vast details of the world they had been sent discover. These early records are filled with  inspirations they felt in the wondrous new world, and this would captivate  the more literary minded generations to follow. Some popular names that appear in the pre-colonial period include John Smith and William Bradford. Raskin reads these authors along with their European contemporaries including the infamous Daniel Defoe; to explore the power the wilderness had over the mind of the writers of the time. Many of these early documents have been stricken from the history books to preserve a more pristine image of the colonists. Fortunately, Jonah Raskin uncovers these with ease and uses them to introduce his readers to the wonderful natural world as well as canonically accurate plateau to embark on the understanding of the American literary canon. 

Continuing on through the American Revolution, Jonah Raskin traces the instances of wilderness in both fictional and nonfictional writing of the emerging decades. He contrasts early frontier writers such as Noah Webster and Washington Irving with the historical documentation of Lewis and Clark as they embark on their President-appointed quest of discovery. Jonah Raskin binds these narratives together while using contemporary theory to underscore and illuminate the various ways the open world of United States has influenced generations of writers. To some, the open world is a territory of danger and fear due to the implicit savagery they see in it. To others, however, the open world is an unknown frontier, an adventure to be conquered and a resource to be cultivated for personal and political gain. Raskin keeps all opinions chronological and balanced, offering up a richness that is found within the outside world.

As the white colonists expand westward, and the decades progress through the Civil War and into the present day, so too do those who embrace and shy away from the vast wilderness of the North American continent continue to emerge. Jonah Raskin colorfully exemplifies the experimentation and development of the great literary minds throughout American history, linking Melville and Emerson as well as Hawthorne and Thoreu to the land, and pointing out the impressions they continue to leave on readers today. Raskin works in a way as poetic as Whitman and as eloquent as Fitzgerald as he pieces together the canon of American writers paired with their contemporary theorists and how the world of nature reflects in each highly regarded piece.

Above all else, Jonah Raskin’s A Terrible Beauty – The Wilderness of American Literature serves as a field guide to the great outdoors and the canon that it breathes through. Raskin’s creative nonfiction tightly binds together the voices of several generations so that they too sing wilderness in America. A Terrible Beauty exemplifies the evolution of prose and poetry as the timeline ticks forward. Raskin reminds his readers that the world around them has many wonders to offer, and that in spite of fear or in the face of adventure, the natural world is place of inspiration and eclectic development. From John Smith to Gary Snyder, Jonah Raskin collects an epic of America nature writers, and explicates the beauty of their enduring canon. 

Jonah Raskin was born in New York and raised on Long Island. He attended Columbia College and the University of Manchester, England where he received his Ph.D. He has taught at Winston-Salem State College, The State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Sonoma State University (SSU). He moved to California in 1975 and began to teach in the English department at SSU in 1981. From 1988 to 2012 he was the chair of the communication studies department at SSU, where he taught media law, reporting and media marketing. He is now a professor emeritus. As a Fulbright Professor, he taught American literature at the University of Antwerp and the University of Ghent. From 1985-2005 he was the book critic for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He reviews books for The San Francisco Chronicle and writes for the Rag Blog and Swans. He is the author of fourteen books, including most recently James McGrath: in A Class By HimselfMarijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, and Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He has published six poetry chapbooks among them Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation. You can learn more about Jonah Raskin here.

A Terrible Beauty - The Wilderness of American Literature is available on Amazon.