The first thing the colonists in the New World saw, the stuff they had to define themselves against, was nature. A sense of the wilderness, promising or oppressive, was one of the chief shared signs of American identity, and it became a prime subject of the country's art. "In the beginning," wrote John Locke in the 17th century, "all the world was America." It was not necessarily a reassuring thought, for America seemed very strange to its first European settlers, particularly the Puritans in New England. To them, its rocky coast and tangled woods were--in the expressive phrase used by one...

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