National Geographic : 2013 Apr
delaware park 77 cornfields. They look almost like natural out- croppings of rock, cut from the same stone—ash gray gneiss and granite, tinged here and there with rusty orange—as the Brandywine gorge itself. History and landscape blend. It is this uncanny confluence that has pow- ered another of the river’s outsize contributions: the movement in American art often known as the Brandywine school of painting, over which the Wyeth family has held sway for more than a century. The clan’s exuberant patriarch, N. C. Wyeth, came here as a 20-year-old art stu- dent in 1902 and eventually made it his home, entranced as he was by the peculiar eloquence of his surroundings. “ The tawny hills all around us speak volumes,” he wrote his parents back in Massachusetts. In Wyeth’s famous illustrations for the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and other authors, the Brandywine Valley’s woods were transmuted into the forests of England, its meadows into the highland heaths of Scotland. Today a Con- tinental Army greatcoat hangs from a peg in the painter’s studio, alongside costumes from other eras that helped make historical ghosts visible. N. C.’s equally famous son, Andrew, spent much of his long life in an ancient stone house on a corner of the Brandywine Battlefield. Here, in 1777, British troops under General William Howe trounced George Washington’s army in one of the largest land battles of the Revolution. Andrew Wyeth’s paintings—meticulous water- colors and temperas of time-weathered barns or the windburned faces of neighboring farmers— seem to hover in some indeterminate moment between the 18th century and the 20th. Though it is often called the First State—a reference to its primacy in ratifying the U.S. Constitution—Delaware is the last one of all 50 states to have a unit of the National Park System established on its soil. The proposed First State National Historical Monument would attempt to make up for this by including not only the Woodlawn property but also a string of smaller historical sites throughout the state. One of these, a 1740 plantation house that once belonged to the Revolutionary-era patriot John Dickinson, stands 50 miles south of the du Ponts’ and Wyeths’ domains, on a knoll overlooking flat marshes and misty fields. It feels far more distant. If the Brandywine Valley often seems tinged with New England hues, the middle and lower parts of the state resemble the tidewater South. On Dickinson’s plantation some five dozen slaves once harvested corn and wheat. Their mas- ter, one of the first and most eloquent advocates of American resistance to British tyranny, wrestled with the contradictions of espousing liberty while owning human beings as property. Unlike most of the new nation’s founders, he moved to address this cruel paradox while the ink was practically still wet on the Declaration of Independence. In 1777 he drew up a deed of gradual manumission—and then, nine years later, freed all his remaining slaves immediately and unconditionally. Among the other potential sites in the na- tional monument is a 17th-century Swedish co- lonial church and fort, an early settler’s house, and—perhaps most resonant of these—the Dover Green, a grassy quadrangle at the heart of Dover, Delaware’s small capital. It was here that, in December 1787, delegates from across the state gathered to endorse the new federal Constitution recently signed in Philadelphia. They put their state the very first in line. There may be poetic symmetry if the National Park Service finally brings Delaware into its fold, this time as the last of all. j The Brandywine Valley was to automation what Silicon Valley would later be to microprocessing.