From NYTimes.com:
The Greeks might have invented the pastoral, the genre in which the rustic life is idealized by writers who don’t have to live it, but it’s found its truest home in America. To Europeans of the so-called Age of Discovery, the whole North American continent seemed a sort of Edenic rod and gun club, and their descendants here still haven’t gotten over their obsession with the pure primal landscapes they despoil with their own presence. A straight line — if only spiritually — runs from Fenimore Cooper’s wild Adirondacks and Hawthorne’s sinister Massachusetts forests to Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to Cheever’s domesticated locus amoenus of Shady Hill to the theme park in George Saunders’s pointedly titled “Pastoralia” — where slaughtered goats are delivered to employees in Neolithic costume through a slot in the wall of their cave, much as Big Macs appear at a drive-through window. The line even leads to “Naked Lunch,” which pronounces America “old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians” — simply a calculated blasphemy. Apply enough ironic backspin, and almost any American novel this side of “Bright Lights, Big City” could be called “American Pastoral.” Or for that matter, “Paradise Lost.”

Toni Morrison has already used the title “Paradise” for the 1998 novel that I think is her weakest. But it would have been a good fit for her new book, “A Mercy,” which reveals her, once more, as a conscious inheritor of America’s pastoral tradition, even as she implicitly criticizes it. Her two greatest novels, “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved,” render the rural countryside so evocatively that you can smell the earth; even in the urban novel “Jazz,” the most memorable images are of the South its characters have left behind. But Morrison, of course, is African-American, and hers is a distinctly postcolonial pastoral: a career-long refutation of Robert Frost’s embarrassing line “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The plantation called Sweet Home, in “Beloved,” is neither sweet to its slaves nor home to anyone, except the native Miamis, of whom nothing is left but their burial mounds. In “A Mercy,” a 17th-­century American farmer — who lives near a town wink-and-nudgingly called Milton — enriches himself by dabbling in the rum trade and builds an ostentatious, oversize new house, for which he orders up a fancy wrought-iron gate, ornamented with twin copper serpents: when the gate is closed, their heads meet to form a blossom. The farmer, Jacob Vaark, thinks he’s creating an earthly paradise, but Lina, his Native American slave, whose forced exposure to Presbyterianism has conveniently provided her with a Judeo-­Christian metaphor, feels as if she’s “entering the world of the damned.”
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