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The garden and its myths in the USA and GB - University of Angers

The garden and its myths in the USA and GB

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The Garden and its myths in the USA and GB

poster of the conference
Within the framework of its research program “Myth and Rewriting”, the CRILA research centre of the University of Angers, in collaboration with CERHIO (Angers) and the History Department of Temple University in Philadelphia, United States, is hosting an international symposium from November 29 to December 1 on the topic: “The Garden and Its Myths in Great Britain and the United States from the 18th to the 21st Century”.

We welcome papers in short fiction or in British and American history of ideas or cultural studies. Our purpose is to study fictional, ideal or existing gardens in relation to the archetypes in the biblical texts and Greek myths. We will therefore discard essentialist definitions of myths to concentrate on those that determine them according to their functions.

In literature, the garden of Eden is indeed the archetype—however, it can also be the garden of the Hesperides, the garden of Eros and Psyche, Persephone's grove, Gethsemani's garden or the gardens of Babylon--among others. A locus of culture, harmony and shared felicity between men and god(s), the garden can also be a place of boredom, temptation, discovery, rebellion or torture in which good and evil, the masculine and the feminine, docile imitation and audacious creation confront one another. It can also be a place of enchantment, metamorphoses and recreation—numerous mythological characters get changed into plants. From Chaucer to Hawthorne and Wilde, then to Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen, Lessing, Hemingway, Burgess, Byatt and McEwan—the list is far from being exhaustive—the garden is used as a theme or motive through the rewriting of a myth. One should be careful to consider the pragmatic dimension of the poetical forms through which these archetypes and the myths that contain them become meaningful through their rewriting in short fiction—short stories, fairy tales and poems in prose.

In the field of cultural studies and the history of ideas, the ideals and values ​ ​related to the myth of the garden and natural landscapes, as well as the various myths related to nature in the history of Great Britain and the United States may be explored. The notion of myth can be considered both in its traditional structuring function, as well as in its broadened contemporary meaning, by virtue of which it can be widely assimilated with the notion of stereotype.

In Great Britain, the garden and its mythical and symbolical values can be considered in relation to their impact on the social history of parks and gardens. The development of public parks and botanical gardens, as well as that of private gardens in the emergence of the agrarian revolution and of scientific concepts may also be discussed. The French gardens and their genius for a more formal and symmetrical style can also be compared with more natural designs that often prevailed in Britain, as related to their ideological and mythical implications. The different fashions in that field, their more general relationship with the evolution of ideas, as well as the garden as a rural and pastoral utopia may also be investigated. Long considered as a privilege for the aristocracy and a sign of wealth, the garden has gradually been democratized in British society. Vast lawns and landscapes have given way to smaller gardens. The English middle classes have often been perceived as avid gardeners. The importance of owning a garden in the ideology of the home and the myths associated with it can also be explored, not to forget the ideological and political impact of victory gardens. Other topics may include the symbolic and cultural function of public or private gardens, as a response to industrialization and population growth in cities, the contribution of gardens and green spaces to urban areas, or the social and political impact of allotment gardens and garden cities, the choice of plants in defining national identities, the influence of English gardens in the US, the impact of climate change on gardens and parks, etc.

In the United States, the garden and the notion of the lost paradise were amongst the founding myths of the nation. The wilderness areas of the West, which have always occupied an important place in the American identity, represent an individualistic dream of freedom and personal achievement. The myth of the garden has a symbolic value in the evolution of American social thought (the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner is an example). The myth of the return to nature has often been a source of inspiration and renewal in American culture. Its representation can be found in paintings (George Catlin Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School to name a few), in literature (Walt Whitman, William C. Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper) and in the cinema (exemplified in westerns). We also welcome papers on the pastoral myth and the agrarian dream of the Founding Fathers. Among other topics, the notion of the frontier and the creation of a myth may also be defined in association with the territorial expansion of the US and its representations, as well as the impact of progress on nature in the nineteenth century (The Machine in the Garden, in the words of Leo Marx). The philosophical writings that have influenced ecological thought (utilitarianism, transcendentalism, romanticism ...), the influence of the founders of the conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century, or the factors that led to the creation of national parks and wilderness areas can also be investigated. The representation of the myth of the garden can also be studied in the nature writings of John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry or Henry David Thoreau.