Date of Thesis

Spring 2018


This project studies the works of James Fenimore Cooper, John Muir, and their artistic contemporaries in relation to the shaping of America’s national parks and what it means for the parks and their attending wilderness to be symbolic of the nation. It seeks to reveal the national parks as artistic representations of a constructed wilderness, while also emphasizing the physical experience of the natural world as a means of supplementing our subjective views. Through the lenses of aesthetics, boundaries, and cultures, I narrow my study to focus on three distinct perspectives by which we can understand the national parks and wilderness.

The first chapter follows Cooper’s personal and fictional narratives, placing him in conversation with early conservation, nineteenth-century artists, and the disappearance of Native cultures—in effect, foreshadowing representations and policies that would eventually come to define America’s national parks. The second chapter traces Muir’s history alongside the formative years of the national parks, emphasizing how he bolsters and develops the ideas that Cooper introduces, providing a basis for how we experience wilderness in the parks today. This includes his personal experiences with nature, his political activism regarding the parks, and his encounters with the Natives of California and Alaska—which in their own ways all demonstrate integrated environments of humans alongside nature. The epilogue reflects on the engagement of communities with the national parks today, how Cooper and Muir have shaped those experiences, and how the technology of an advancing world becomes another factor to consider within the human-nature relationship.

I pose the national parks as shared places where we as individuals can reflect on our personal encounters with nature, while also recognizing the deeper collective history that attends these preserved wilderness areas. Wilderness has been a defining aspect of America for centuries, but the wilderness of the national parks represents an authentically more complicated past. Understanding this past allows for deeper reflection not only of national identity, but of self-discovery, as we decide what values to bring to our own experiences in the national parks, and how we might individually contribute to the ever- evolving concept of wilderness.


native americans, technology, representation, ecocriticism, environmental history, nineteenth century

Access Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Type

Master of Arts



Minor, Emphasis, or Concentration

Literary Studies

First Advisor

Alfred K. Siewers

Second Advisor

Rochelle Johnson

Third Advisor

Andrew Stuhl