Spirits of Place in American Literary Culture

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John Gatta
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190646547.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John Gatta’s Spirits of Place in American Literary Culture is a wide-ranging work, leaping across miles and centuries to provide an understanding of how place has been approached in both American literature and, more generally, American culture. Gatta interweaves literary analysis and personal narrative in focusing on how literature can take geographic space and connect it with experiences, feelings, memories, and stories, turning that space into a more sacred place. Along the way, he shares his belief that it is essential to recover a connection with some form of space. The last part of the book gives a pedagogical, hands-on application of how to do this, using Gatta’s own site-based course for first year college students.

The book is organized by theme rather than chronology and utilizes a wide variety of literary genres. Gatta switches  between general brush-stroke summaries of works and detailed analysis of individual passages. He covers authors one would expect, given their strong literary connections with place—John Muir, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Marilynne Robinson, and Wendell Berry—as well as those less well-known, or less obviously linked to place, such as Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln, and Alfredo Véa Jr.

Gatta’s first theme is home: as a family, home is the first space that most people understand to be their place. The appeal of this type of location stays with us as an ideal, no matter how mobile we later become. Gatta uses Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Willa Cather to illustrate how the home becomes a sacred space, a threshold between the individual and the larger world. Contemporary novels are illustrated through the writings of Robinson and Ernest Gaines, showing how we have lost our rootedness and are now, in many ways, homeless. 

The next section discusses American literature with a focus on those who have left one place to adopt another as their own. Gatta sees this process of emigration and immigration as being central to the American identity, with both reshaping our relationship with what home can come to mean. For this, he covers both pilgrimage and long-term residency. While pilgrimage may be foreign to the US Protestant mindset, American literature is filled with stories of existential journeying—think Muir’s trek to the gulf, Jack Kerouac’s road trip, or Thoreau’s “Walking.” While Gatta touches on each of these, he also discusses Appalachian Trail through-hikers, the firsthand exploration literature of Lopez and Carolyn Servid, and his own story of relocating from southern New England to Tennessee.

Gatta explores how imagination helps to shape our awareness of place. The author draws on a range of philosophers—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Edwar S. Casey—and theologians who focus on a phenomenology of human situatedness that allows us to imagine what might become possible. To illustrate this, Gatta dives into an analysis of the poetry of Walt Whitman and Marilyn Nelson, and the way their use of actual physical locations allows for multilayering, reaching through time to draw on both ancestors and future generations. He then discusses how Vea’s novel, La Maravilla (Dulton Adult, 1993),also serves as a palimpsest, using imagination to reach through time and space to more transcendent connections. 

Gatta then investigates how literature can help us identify contemporary places where we may encounter the numinous. Mountains, watercourses, deserts and wildernesses, cemeteries, and battlefields are among such places, and Gatta surveys their connections with specific pieces of literature or authors. These types of “thin places” have, of course, been discussed in literature and religions for decades. However, Gatta chooses to discuss the ways in which various manmade environmental features can also be sites of spiritual encounters. To make this point, he focuses on three authors less often analyzed in this way—Day, Baldwin, and Alfred Kazin—and examines how each focuses on a part of New York City in which the numinous was  experienced. 

The last section of Spirits of Place makes a major shift, as Gatta discusses his own Finding Your Place course. We learn how students awaken to the spirit of places they’ve never seen through literature. We watch them place-make as they give sustained attention to an individual tree and then read related literary texts like Robert Frost’s “Birches” or “A Tree Outside My Window.” We see them discover new places that have become all too familiar to them as they visit sites that are purposely coupled together—for example, the university chapel and a ceremonial ritual of indigenous people. 

While each chapter gives an overview of the theme being presented, the book often made this reviewer feel as if I were back in a first year survey course which was trying to educate me on over-arching material while also teaching me how to begin to analyze a text. In many of those courses, it was always suspected that the texts given greater analysis were chosen willy-nilly, based on the subjective taste of the instructor rather than for any other reason. As I read the four themed chapters Gatta had written, I had the same response. It’s not clear why more analysis is given to Vea’s novel than to Robinson’s, or why in one chapter we’re treated to the philosophical underpinnings of an idea, while in others, this is completely lacking. If there were reasons, other than subjective taste that explained such choices, it was entirely missed by me, both upon my first reading, and later when I went back to look for it. Nevetheless, Gatta does achieve the intent of the book, showing how writing can indeed inspire people to experience places—both real and imaginary—that become sacred for them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan G. De George is Professor of Philosophy and Religion Studies at Pace University in New York City.

Date of Review: 
April 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Gatta is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South. He is the author of Making Nature Sacred (OUP 2004) and numerous other publications concerned with American literature and the interplay between religion and literature.

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