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This report is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.

Letter from Harper's Ferry, West Virginia David C. Ward
The scene, wrote Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia (1781, 1785) was worth crossing the Atlantic for. He meant the view at Harper's Ferry, ninety-odd miles northwest of Washington, at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The rivers run between steep, heavily wooded escarpments that are part of the Blue Ridge mountains, one of the several eastern mountain ranges that occur as one moves westward. When Jefferson called the view 'stupendous' he associated it with the American Sublime, the combination of sky, water and land that would become a mainstay of American landscape painting in the early nineteenth century. But in writing about Harper's Ferry, Jefferson was also making an explicitly nationalistic argument. In his sections on natural history, Jefferson was eager to refute the theories of European naturalists that the climate, broadly defined, of America caused otherwise hardy European species to 'degenerate'. So too did the future president want to counter any idea that the American landscape itself was in any way inferior to Europe's, either in the richness of the soil or in its aesthetic properties. The tit-for-tat of nationalistic agendas aside, the view from 'Jefferson's Rock' - a site halfway up the ridge beneath which the rivers collide - is spectacular, especially when the water is running high.

The naturalists' quarrel died down once the Europeans accepted Jefferson's premise that there were distinctive, not degenerated, American species: the moose, for instance, or the American turkey. But the water power that Jefferson found so ...


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