“It was a sort of flat paradise; but, I am afraid, not unfrequented by the devil.”
We seem to like irregularities in our landscapes. We mock flatness and flock to mountains and mere hills. I grew up in Cleveland, roughly twelve miles from Lake Erie, and never thought of it as flat, at some 600 feet above sea level. Only later, to the west, living in places like Bowling Green, Montpelier and Bellevue, did I get some idea what people meant when they complained about Midwestern, glacier-scraped flatness. Of course, that made the region attractive for agriculture. My university, previously an ag school, was partially surrounded by corn and soybean fields. The highest elevations in a nearby town were mountains of sugar beets. Turn south and that imperceptibly changes to modest hills. The highest elevation in Ohio is Campbell Hill, at 1,550 feet, in the West Central part of the state.
Houston is so flat – roughly fifty feet above sea level – it’s perennially prone to flooding.
The sentence at the top is from the title essay in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Across the Plains (1892), which he subtitles “Leaves from the Notebook of an Emigrant Between New York and San Francisco.” Stevenson rides a westbound train and probably passed close to Cleveland:
“[M]orning found us far into Ohio. This had early been a favourite home of my imagination; I have played at being in Ohio by the week, and enjoyed some capital sport there with a dummy gun, my person being still unbreeched.”
It’s easy to forget how wildly Europeans in the nineteenth century romanticized the United States, even the Midwest. Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. His prose has started to interest me. He continues:
“My preference was founded on a work which appeared in Cassell’s Family Paper [1853-1867], and was read aloud to me by my nurse. It narrated the doings of one Custaloga, an Indian brave, who, in the last chapter, very obligingly washed the paint off his face and became Sir Reginald Somebody-or-other; a trick I never forgave him. The idea of a man being an Indian brave, and then giving that up to be a baronet, was one which my mind rejected. It offended verisimilitude, like the pretended anxiety of Robinson Crusoe and others to escape from uninhabited islands.”
No longer a boy, Stevenson finds a new sort of wonder in the vast, flat Midwest:
“But Ohio was not at all as I had pictured it. We were now on those great plains which stretch unbroken to the Rocky Mountains. The country was flat like Holland, but far from being dull. All through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, or for as much as I saw of them from the train and in my waking moments, it was rich and various, and breathed an elegance peculiar to itself. The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long, aërial vistas; and the clean, bright, gardened townships spoke of country fare and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop. It was a sort of flat paradise; but, I am afraid, not unfrequented by the devil.”