The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s

Our foundation believes in the parallels between and analogies of forest and society, in a systemic way. It is nice that now and then a book crosses our path with principles alike. A recommend book by Annie Proulx, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Shipping News: “One of the richest books ever to come my way.” It is published by Princeton University Press.

Alexander Nemerov* | 2023

Set amid the glimmering lakes and disappearing forests of the early United States, The Forest imagines how a wide variety of Americans experienced their lives. Part truth, part fiction, and featuring both real and invented characters, the book follows painters, poets, enslaved people, farmers, and artisans living and working in a world still made largely of wood. Some of the historical characters—such as Thomas Cole, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fanny Kemble, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nat Turner—are well-known, while others are not. But all are creators of private and grand designs.

The Forest unfolds in brief stories. Each episode reveals an intricate lost world. Characters cross paths or go their own ways, each striving for something different but together forming a pattern of life. For Alexander Nemerov, the forest is a description of American society, the dense and discontinuous woods of nation, the foliating thoughts of different people, each with their separate shade and sun. Through vivid descriptions of the people, sights, smells, and sounds of Jacksonian America, illustrated with paintings, prints, and photographs, The Forest brings American history to life on a human scale.

“Somewhere beyond emblems and fantasies was a secluded pool, a lonely place at which trees stared at themselves, redoubling their silence to repel the words of the writer as much as the blade of the axe. The writer, after all, was just a lumberman of a different kind – splitting the world into lengths of meaning, shaving it in the milldam of his story-works  though unlike the lumberman, he recognized that his aim was to harvest the riches of the trees before, not after, they were killed. Hawthorne envisioned writing a story of “some treasure or other thing to be buried, and a tree planted directly over the spot, so as to embrace it with its roots.”

For him, trees were brains, arbors of thought, much like his own.”

The book is published in association with the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

*Alexander Nemerov is the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University.