Arcadian America The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition Aaron Sachs

New Directions in Narrative History
Publication date:
08 Jan 2013
Yale University Press
496 pages: 229 x 178 x 33mm
54 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

Perhaps America's best environmental idea was not the national park but the garden cemetery, a use of space that quickly gained popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Such spaces of repose brought key elements of the countryside into rapidly expanding cities, making nature accessible to all and serving to remind visitors of the natural cycles of life. In this unique interdisciplinary blend of historical narrative, cultural criticism, and poignant memoir, Aaron Sachs argues that American cemeteries embody a forgotten landscape tradition that has much to teach us in our current moment of environmental crisis.

Until the trauma of the Civil War, many Americans sought to shape society into what they thought of as an Arcadia—not an Eden where fruit simply fell off the tree, but a public garden that depended on an ethic of communal care, and whose sense of beauty and repose related directly to an acknowledgement of mortality and limitation. Sachs explores the notion of Arcadia in the works of nineteenth-century nature writers, novelists, painters, horticulturists, landscape architects, and city planners, and holds up for comparison the twenty-first century's—and his own—tendency toward denial of both death and environmental limits. His far-reaching insights suggest new possibilities for the environmental movement today and new ways of understanding American history.

Aaron Sachs is associate professor of history and American studies, Cornell University.

“A book of great ambition that is charting a changing consciousness on the American scene as articulated through classic literature, the built environment, war, art, and invention. . . . Powerful and evocative.”—Jonathan Holloway, Yale University

 “If you crossed Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden with Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams you would have a book as original and insightful as Arcadian America. This lyrical, eye-opening work will reshape how readers think about American culture and their place within it.”—Louis P. Masur, author of Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union

 “In Arcadian America, Sachs weaves personal memoir throughout an extraordinary review of 19th-century urban planners, horticulturalists and writers who also sought the Arcadian experience. Rich in scholarship, yet very readable, it is stylistically reminiscent of Thoreau’s, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, as both draw on personal experience and historic materials.”—Thomas Potter, Immediate Past-President, Thoreau Society

 "In Arcadian America, Aaron Sachs provides us with a genuine gift—indeed, with one of the most profound moral reflections ever penned by a historian. At times a loving paean to an unknown brother and an aging father, at times a pained reflection on the American way of death, this immensely moving work inspires us to reimagine the very boundaries of scholarly history. Deeply learned, Sachs ultimately transcends the intellectual to teach us how us how we might rediscover true hope in life—by grounding ourselves in our country’s most meaningful traditions of death."—Robert D. Johnston, author of The Radical Middle Class

 "A fascinating exploration of a neglected environmental tradition, Arcadian America is a timely and important book."—Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the General Non-Fiction Category.