Ecocriticism and Nineteenth-Century Literature
Ecocriticism and Nineteenth-Century Literature
Ecocriticism is the study of representations of nature in literary works and of the relationship between literature and the environment.
Ecocriticism as an academic discipline began in earnest in the 1990s, although its roots go back to the late 1970s. Because it is a new area of study, scholars are still engaged in defining the scope and aims of the subject. Cheryll Glotfelty, one of the pioneers in the field, has defined ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,” and Laurence Buell says that this study must be “conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis.” David Mazel declares it is the analysis of literature “as though nature mattered.” This study, it is argued, cannot be performed without a keen understanding of the environmental crises of modern times and thus must inform personal and political actions; it is, in a sense, a form of activism. Many critics also emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the enquiry, which is informed by ecological science, politics, ethics, women's studies, Native American studies, and history, among other academic fields. The term “ecocriticism” was coined in 1978 by William Rueckert in his essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” Interest in the study of nature writing and with reading literature with a focus on “green” issues grew through the 1980s, and by the early 1990s ecocriticism had emerged as a recognizable discipline within literature departments of American universities.
While ecocritics study literature written throughout history and analyze its relationship to the environment, most scholarship has focused on American and British literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nineteenth century especially saw a number of developments in literature that ecocritics view as significant. American and British Romantic writers took a particular interest in nature as a subject; Victorian realists wrote about industrialization, which was changing the natural landscape; explorers and natural historians began to write about newly encountered places and wildlife; and pioneers and other travelers wrote of their experiences with an emphasis on setting. Probably the defining work of nature writing, and the ecologically oriented work that has been the subject of most literary analysis, is Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854). This classic of American literature is a poetic narrative describing the two months the author lived in a small cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachusetts. In his work, Thoreau observes all around him with a keen eye and a philosophical spirit, describing the ordinary but remarkable creatures and happenings he encounters in the natural world and discussing the meaning of living in harmony with nature and one's soul. Some critics have argued that the American tradition of nature writing stems from Thoreau's masterpiece. Another landmark American nonfiction work about nature was Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836). This essay is the writer's statement on the principles of the philosophy of Transcendentalism, which he describes as “a hypothesis to account for nature by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry.” In this work, Emerson talks about the mystical unity of nature and urges his readers to enjoy a relationship with the environment. Other American writers of the period whose work has been seen as important by ecocritics include William Cullen Bryant, James Kirke Paulding, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and a number of minor writers who wrote stories about the Wild West. Some scholars have pointed out that much of the focus of ecocriticism has been nature writing by white men. They note that the response toward the landscape is far different in works by African-Americans (such as Frederick Douglass), Native Americans, and women. A related but distinct field of literary study, ecofeminist literary criticism, examines the representations of nature by women and reveals how they often overturn dominant male images and attitudes toward the environment.
Nineteenth‐century American naturalists and explorers are often credited by ecocritics as having initiated the conservation movement. These writers differ from “literary” authors because their work focuses more on scientific descriptions and speculations about nature. However, as many critics have shown, their writings are imbued with a poetic spirit that makes their ideas accessible to lay readers. The two great nineteenth‐century American naturalists, most critics agree, are John Burroughs and John Muir. Burroughs's early work was influenced by Whitman, particularly the essays collected in Wake‐Robin (1871) and Birds and Poets. (1877). After reading Charles Darwin and John Fiske, Burroughs turned to scientific speculation about nature and then later in life took a more spiritual view. Muir, a native of Scotland, traveled extensively around the United States and documented his observations in hundreds of articles and ten major books. He also worked to prevent the destruction of the environment, and he is credited with being primarily responsible for preserving the Yosemite Valley in California, which became the second national park in the United States.
In Britain, in the nineteenth century, the Romantic poets reacted strongly against the eighteenth‐century emphasis on reason and sought new ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings. William Wordsworth, considered by many to be the spokesman of the movement, celebrates the beauty and mystery of nature in some of his most famous lyrics, including “Michael” (1800), which portrays a simple shepherd who is deeply attached to the natural world around him. Wordsworth's autobiographical poem The Prelude (1850) records the poet's evolving understanding of nature, and The Excursion (1814) is a long philosophical reflection on the relationship of humanity and nature. The poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley also includes emotional descriptions of the natural world and features some of the best-known nature verse in English. Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind,” to cite one example, has been called the most inspired lyrical poem describing nature in the English language. The Romantic interest in nature is particularly significant to ecocritics because these poets were revolutionary in their politics, and the preservation of the natural world was one element of their radical thinking. A Romantic poet who used his understanding of nature to protest against the new capitalist machinery was John Clare, who, unlike the others, was himself a laborer and worked on the land. Later nineteenth‐century English writers of note include Thomas Hardy, in whose novels the sense of place always takes center stage, and Matthew Arnold, whose love poem “Dover Beach” (1867) is said to offer one of the finest descriptions of place in English poetry. Victorian essayists who wrote about nature include John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom lamented the destruction of the environment due to industrialization.
While ecocriticism had its official beginnings as a discipline in the 1990s, important critical essays that fall into the ecocritical mold appeared as early as the 1800s, many of them responding to works by writers such as Thoreau and Emerson. Two important books of criticism from the mid‐twentieth century include Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964). The latter work examines the tension between the “pastoral” and “progressive” ideals that characterized early nineteenth‐century American culture and is considered a classic text in American studies. Such pioneering works show that ecologically oriented criticism is not a new phenomenon but, like the literature it analyzes, is a response to the urgent issues of the day. As critics have pointed out, one of the reasons that ecocriticism continues to grow as a discipline is the continued global environmental crisis. Ecocriticism aims to show how the work of writers concerned about the environment can play some part in solving real and pressing ecological concerns.
John James Audubon
Ornithological Biography (nonfiction) 1831‐40
“Dover Beach” (poetry) 1867
Travels (journal) 1791
William Cullen Bryant
“Thanatopsis” (poem) 1817
“A Forest Hymn” (poem) 1825
“The Prairies” (poem) 1833
Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and a Person (criticism) 1867
Wake‐Robin (essays) 1871
Birds and Poets (essays) 1877
George Gordon, Lord Byron
“Byron to Lord Holland, 25 Feb. 1812” (poetry) 1812
Letters and Notes on the North American Indian (nonfiction) 1841
Reminiscences of My Irish Journey in 1849 (reminiscences) 1882
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (poetry) 1820
The Village Mistrel (poetry) 1821
The Shepherd's Calendar (poetry) 1827
The Rural Muse (poetry) 1835
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Kubla Khan” (poem) 1797
“Frost at Midnight” (poem) 1798
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (poem) 1798
James Fenimore Cooper
The Pioneers (novel) 1823
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave...
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SOURCE: Kroeber, Karl. “Feminism and the Historicity of Science.” In Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind, pp. 22‐36. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Kroeber stresses the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to an ecologically oriented literary criticism, noting especially the need for an understanding of scientific ecology.]
In calling for an ecologically oriented criticism I appeal to intensified awareness of the historicity of all our intellectual disciplines. It would seem banal so to appeal, but that Cold War critics, even new historicists, have paid minimal attention to the evolution of our understanding of the natural world, despite their fondness for the truism that conceptions of nature are cultural constructs. An ecological criticism must be historically more self‐conscious, if only because ecology is a relative newcomer in the world of science. Such self‐consciousness, moreover, is a requisite for any kind of useful interaction between scientific and humanistic studies. It is the dangers of metaphysical universalizing (some of whose disguised self‐mystifyings recent feminist critiques have exposed) from which ecologically oriented criticism principally offers to liberate literary studies.
To understand better how this might come about, we need to understand how ecology came into being....
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SOURCE: Sanders, Scott Russell. “Speaking a Word for Nature.” In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, pp. 182‐95. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Sanders laments that recent American fiction does not turn outward to acknowledge nature.]
Why is so much recent American fiction so barren? Putting the question more honestly, why do I find myself reading fewer contemporary novels and stories each year, and why do I so often feel that the work most celebrated by literary mavens (both avant‐garde and establishment) is the shallowest? What is missing? Clearly there is no lack of verbal skill, nor of ingenuity in the use of forms. And there is no shortage of writers: if you pause in the checkout line at the supermarket the clerk is likely to drag his manuscript from under the counter and ask your opinion. It is as though we had an ever‐growing corps of wizards concocting weaker and weaker spells.
To suggest what is missing, I begin with a passage from D. H. Lawrence's essay about Thomas Hardy. Lawrence argued that the controlling element in The Return of the Native is not the human action, but the setting where that action takes place, the wasteland of Egdon Heath: “What is the real stuff of tragedy in the book? It is the Heath. It is the primitive, primal earth, where the...
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SOURCE: Mazel, David. Introduction to A Century of Early Ecocriticism, edited by David Mazel, pp. 1‐17. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, Mazel traces the history of ecocriticism, discussing twentieth‐century critics' unearthing of environmental concerns in literature and focusing especially on their reading of nineteenth‐century American writing.]
That which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge,—a new weapon in the magazine of power.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Ecocriticism—the study of literature as if the environment mattered—has only recently come to recognize itself as a distinct critical enterprise. The term itself apparently dates no further back than 1978, when it was coined by William Rueckert.1 Of course, in such a rapidly changing field as literary studies, 1978 can seem like a long time ago, and a twenty‐year history can confer a quite respectable pedigree. This is the sense I got when Cheryll Glotfelty wrote, in The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), that “individual literary and cultural scholars have been developing ecologically informed criticism and theory since the seventies” and that therefore the “origin of ecocriticism … predates its recent consolidation by more...
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Criticism: American Literature: Romantics And Realists
SOURCE: Lowell, James Russell. “James Russell Lowell on Henry David Thoreau.” In A Century of Early Ecocriticism, edited by David Mazel, pp. 26‐32. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in The North American Review in 1865, Lowell presents a generally negative appraisal of Henry David Thoreau's character, powers of observation, abilities as a naturalist, and romantic view of nature.]
Among the pistillate plants kindled to fruitage by the Emersonian pollen, Thoreau is thus far the most remarkable; and it is something eminently fitting that his posthumous works should be offered us by Emerson, for they are strawberries from his own garden. A singular mixture of varieties, indeed, there is;—alpine, some of them, with the flavor of rare mountain air; others wood, tasting of sunny roadside banks or shy openings in the forest; and not a few seedlings swollen hugely by culture, but lacking the fine natural aroma of the more modest kinds. Strange books these are of his, and interesting in many ways,—instructive chiefly as showing how considerable a crop may be raised on a comparatively narrow close of mind, and how much a man may make of his life if he will assiduously follow it, though perhaps never truly finding it at last.
I have just been renewing my recollection of Mr. Thoreau's writings, and have read through his six...
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SOURCE: Eckstorm, Fannie. “Fannie Eckstorm on Thoreau's The Maine Woods.” In A Century of Early Ecocriticism, edited by David Mazel, pp. 163‐72. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1908, Eckstorm assesses Henry David Thoreau's treatment of the Maine wilderness, noting his lack of adeptness as a woodsman but praising his poetic understanding of nature and his ability to reveal the value of natural objects.]
It is more than half a century since Henry D. Thoreau made his last visit to Maine. And now the forest which he came to see has all but vanished, and in its place stands a new forest with new customs. No one should expect to find here precisely what Thoreau found; therefore, before all recollection of the old days has passed away, it is fitting that some one who knew their traditions should bear witness to Thoreau's interpretation of the Maine woods.
We hardly appreciate how great are the changes of the last fifty years; how the steamboat, the motor‐boat, the locomotive, and even the automobile, have invaded regions which twenty years ago could be reached only by the lumberman's batteau and the hunter's canoe; how cities have arisen, and more are being projected, on the same ground where Thoreau says that “the best shod travel for the most part with wet feet,” and that...
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SOURCE: Mumford, Lewis. “Lewis Mumford on Thoreau, Nature, and Society.” In A Century of Early Ecocriticism, edited by David Mazel, pp. 249‐56. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1926 as “The Dawn,” Mumford critiques Henry David Thoreau's writing and values, discussing the writer's views about consumerism, his ideas about the relationship between science and nature, and his interest in nature as a means for improving individuals and society.]
The pioneer who broke the trail westward left scarcely a trace of his adventure in the mind: what remains are the tags of pioneer customs, and mere souvenirs of the past, like the Pittsburg stogy, which is our living connection to‐day with the Conestoga wagon, whose drivers used to roll cigars as the first covered wagons plodded over the Alleghenies.
What the pioneer felt, if he felt anything, in the midst of these new solitudes; what he dreamt, if he dreamt anything; all these things we must surmise from a few snatches of song, from the commonplace reports issued as the trail was nearing its end, by the generation of Mark Twain and Hamlin Garland, or by the reflections of their sons and daughters, romantically eager, like John G. Neihardt's, critically reflective, like Susan Glaspell's, or wistfully sordid, like Edgar Lee Masters' Anthology. Those who really faced the...
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SOURCE: Smith, Henry Nash. “The Innocence and Wildness of Nature: Charles W. Webber and Others.” In Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, pp. 71‐80. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.
[In the following excerpt, Smith examines the interpretation of the American West by Charles Webber and other writers.]
The Wild Western hunter and scout descended from [James Fenimore Cooper's character] Leatherstocking could reach full status as a literary hero only at the cost of losing contact with nature. …
Leatherstocking's own debt to nature was of course very great. “I have been a solitary man much of my time,” he exclaimed in his old age, “if he can be called solitary, who has lived for seventy years in the very bosom of natur', and where he could at any instant open his heart to God without having to strip it of the cares and wickednesses of the settlements. …”1 The two principal ideas implicit in this statement—the negative doctrine that civilization is wicked and the positive doctrine that untouched nature is a source of strength, truth, and virtue—occur sporadically in writing about the Wild West far into the nineteenth century. Thomas J. Farnham, for example, on his way out to Oregon in 1839, records an interview with a remarkable and perhaps largely fictitious Indian whom he says he met on the Arkansas River west of Fort Bent. The Indian...
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SOURCE: Miller, Perry. “Perry Miller on Nature and American Nationalism.” In A Century of Early Ecocriticism, edited by David Mazel, pp. 314‐28. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a speech at Yale University in 1953 and published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1955, Miller explores the importance of the Romantic movement in America's cultural and intellectual development, arguing that one of the consequences of Romanticism was the birth of environmentalism.]
On May 8, 1847, The Literary World—the newly founded vehicle in New York City for the program of “nativist” literature—reviewed an exhibition at the National Academy. The magazine had just undergone an editorial revolution and the new management was endeavoring to tone down the strident nationalism of the first few issues; still, the exuberant patriotism of the reviewer could not be restrained, for he had just beheld two exciting landscapes of Staten Island painted by J. F. Cropsey.
This artist, said the reviewer, must be ranked along with the acknowledged masters, Thomas Cole and Asher Durand—and this was high praise in 1847. And as do these masters, young Cropsey illustrates and vindicates the high and sacred mission of the American painter:
The axe of civilization is busy with our old...
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SOURCE: Marx, Leo. “Two Kingdoms of Force.” In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, pp. 227‐353. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.
[In the following excerpt, Marx argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas about nature are informed by American pastoralism and philosophic idealism.]
Three months before the episode in Sleepy Hollow, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “The Young American,” a version of an address originally delivered in Boston on February 7, 1844. Here Emerson speaks in his public voice as prophet of the American idyll. Combining a vivid, Jeffersonian sense of the land as an economic and political force with a transcendental theory of mind, he expounds what may be called the philosophy of romantic American pastoralism. No major writer has come closer to expressing the popular conception of man's relation to nature in nineteenth‐century America.
By the time he composed Nature (1836), his first published work of importance, Emerson had adapted the rhetoric of the technological sublime to his own purposes. There, in explaining the use of the outer world, or nature, as commodity, Emerson says that man
no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Æolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he...
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SOURCE: Clough, Wilson O. “A Native Metaphor Is Born.” In The Necessary Earth: Nature and Solitude in American Literature, pp. 77‐87. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964.
[In the following excerpt, Clough examines the western frontier of the United States as a metaphor that has been assimilated into the American psyche and has influenced American literature.]
The title of this section, “Frontiers of Thought,” was no haphazard choice. It was suggested, indeed, by one of many available passages from the writings of Henry Thoreau, in this case his A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, begun around 1839 and published a decade later. Thoreau wrote:
The frontiers are not east or west, north or south; but wherever a man fronts a fact … there is an unsettled wilderness … between him and the setting sun, or farther still, between him and it. Let him build himself a loghouse with the bark on where he is, fronting IT, and wage there an old French War for seven or seventy years, with Indians and Rangers, or whatever else may come between him and the reality, and save his scalp if he can.1
Thoreau was a great insister on reality and the original self‐experience, which alone legitimately demands expression, and the italics are his. Here, with typical Thorovian emphasis and imagery, drawn...
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SOURCE: Nash, Roderick. “The American Wilderness.” In Wilderness and the American Mind, 1967. Reprint, revised, pp. 67‐83. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1967 and then reprinted in a revised 1973 edition, Nash assesses the importance of the idea of wilderness to American culture and letters, discussing how nineteenth‐century writers such as William Cullen Bryant, James Kirke Paulding, and James Fenimore Cooper responded to the unique landscape of America.]
Though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still it has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe … the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.
Thomas Cole, 1836
While Romanticism was creating a climate of opinion in the new American nation in which wilderness could be appreciated, the fact of independence gave rise to a second major source of enthusiasm. It was widely assumed that America's primary task was the justification of its newly won freedom. This entailed more than building a flourishing economy or even a stable government. Creation of a distinctive culture was thought to be the mark of true nationhood. Americans sought something uniquely “American,” yet valuable enough...
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SOURCE: Daniel, Janice B. “‘Apples of the Thoughts and Fancies’: Nature as Narrator in The Scarlet Letter.” ATQ: Nineteenth‐Century American Literature and Culture n.s. 7, no. 4 (December 1993): 307‐18.
[In the following essay, Daniel examines Nathaniel Hawthorne's personification of nature in The Scarlet Letter as a rhetorical device.]
Even the most casual reader of Nathaniel Hawthorne cannot fail to notice his conspicuous and consistent focus on nature. Through his description of natural surroundings as well as his use of figurative language, he works into his fiction a place of special importance for nature. As a Romanticist who gives abundant literary attention to nature, as an individual writer who attempts to remain true to the vision of his own art, and as a human being who treasures the importance of nature in his own life experiences, Hawthorne gives distinct attention in his works to the natural environment. One of the first in the literary field to notice this propensity was his contemporary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his comments on the Twice‐told Tales:
But it is one of the high attributes of the poetic mind, to feel a universal sympathy with Nature, both in the material world and in the soul of man. It identifies itself likewise with every object of its sympathy, giving it new sensation and poetic life, whatever...
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SOURCE: Philippon, Daniel J. “‘I only seek to put you in rapport’: Message and Method in Walt Whitman's Specimen Days.” In Reading the Earth: New Directions on the Study of Literature and Environment, edited by Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic, pp. 179‐89. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Philippon examines the notes on nature in Walt Whitman's Specimen Days, claiming that Whitman turned to nature for therapy and arguing that the author aimed to represent nature to his readers despite thinking that it could not be expressed or interpreted.]
Perhaps “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” Walt Whitman's Specimen Days (1882) consists of three parts: a short, autobiographical essay, written by Whitman for a friend in 1882; memoranda from Whitman's Civil War notebooks, written in and around Washington, D.C., from 1862 through 1865; and a combination of Whitman's nature notes and diary entries, written from 1876 through 1881, to which have been added miscellaneous essays and articles, including travel sketches, reminiscences, and discussions of prominent artists and writers.1 Never the subject of much critical attention, the nature notes in Specimen Days have suffered doubly from the general disregard of the book as a whole and from the greater attention...
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SOURCE: Bennett, Michael. “Anti‐Pastoralism, Frederick Douglass, and the Nature of Slavery.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, pp. 195‐209. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
[In the following essay, Bennett offers an ecocritical reading of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, arguing that the boundaries of the ecological must be expanded and that the dominant culture must take into account the perceptions of landscape by African‐Americans and not just by white writers who have tended to romanticize the wilderness.]
If we separate the term “ecocriticism” into its two components, its parameters seem clear: “criticism,” engaging in analytical reading practices, and “ecological,” focusing these practices on environmental concerns. In theory, then, ecocriticism could be applied to any cultural artifact since every cultural text issues from, and envisions, a particular relationship with its environment. In practice, however, ecocriticism has tended to focus on the genre of nature writing, a designation usually reserved for essays about the two environments most removed from human habitation: the pastoral and the wild. This narrowed focus of most ecocritics is reflected in Glen A. Love's summary of ecocriticism as a “new pastoralism” (210).
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Criticism: American Explorers And Naturalists
SOURCE: Brooks, Paul. “‘The Two Johns’: Burroughs and Muir.” In Speaking for Nature: How Literary Naturalists from Henry Thoreau to Rachel Carson Have Shaped America, pp. 3‐32. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Brooks explores the lives and writings of the naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs, claiming that the two men made Americans recognize the natural world as part of their culture by revealing poetic truth behind scientific facts.]
Vernal Equinox, 1911. Theodore Roosevelt, two years out of the White House, is in California delivering a lecture under the auspices of a scientific institute. Before reaching his main theme—his recent African adventures—he brings up a subject that has remained close to his heart throughout all the turmoil of politics and the presidency. What the world needs, he says, is more men with scientific imagination—men who can take the facts of science and write of them with fidelity, yet with such an interpretative and poetic spirit as to make them into literature: “I mean such men and such writers as John Muir and John Burroughs.”
Both men were in the audience that evening, Burroughs on one of his rare trips away from his beloved Catskills, Muir on his home ground. Aged seventy‐four and seventy‐three respectively, with temperaments as different as the tame Catskills and the wild Sierra Nevada, they...
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SOURCE: Branch, Michael. “Indexing American Possibilities: The Natural History Writing of Bartram, Wilson, and Audubon.” In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, pp. 282‐97. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Branch surveys the evolution of ideas about nature before the nineteenth century and goes on to discuss the contributions by three important nineteenth‐century American naturalists whose thematic concerns became central to subsequent environmental literature.]
During the half‐century between the publication of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836), American natural history was a flourishing discipline that helped nurture the emergence of a culture distinctively contingent upon the land.1 This period, which I identify as “early romantic,” has received little attention from ecocritics, who more often focus upon Henry Thoreau and his literary descendants—a distinguished lineage that includes figures such as John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey. We too often forget that Thoreau is the descendant of a literary tradition as certainly as he is the progenitor of one, and that nature writing from Walden on is prefigured and indirectly influenced by a rich tradition of...
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SOURCE: Beyers, Chris. “The Ornithological Autobiography of John James Audubon.” In Reading the Earth: New Directions on the Study of Literature and Environment, edited by Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic, pp. 119‐28. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Beyers claims that John James Audubon's Ornithological Biography, which includes prose descriptions of the birds he illustrated, also offers a complex portrait of the artist himself.]
From 1827 to 1840 John James Audubon published The Birds of America, an audacious series of volumes that attempted to depict every bird native to the United States life‐size. Less well known is Audubon's five‐volume companion work, Ornithological Biography (1831‐40), prose descriptions of all the birds illustrated in The Birds of America. Though his popular reputation rests upon his accomplishments as a visual artist, the naturalist wrote a great deal of impressive prose besides Ornithological Biography. Audubon's literary output includes a substantial collection of descriptions of animals, anecdotes of frontier life, journals, memoirs, and miscellaneous articles. Audubon's writing is especially valuable because it offers something generally absent in his illustrations: a portrait of the naturalist himself.
Unfortunately, many of...
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SOURCE: Mazel, David. “Four Views of Yosemite.” In American Literary Environmentalism, pp. 93‐156. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Mazel examines Clarence King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada in order to explore the connections between early environmentalism, literary realism, and corporate capitalism.]
Clarence King, geologist and writer, founder of the United States Geological Survey and author of the best‐seller Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), arrived in California in 1863, the same year as Frederick Law Olmsted. King had gone west to join the newly formed California Geological Survey, which he felt would offer him field experience to supplement the classroom training he had just completed at Yale's new Sheffield Scientific School. He and Olmsted had been friends back east, and when Olmsted took over the management of the old Mariposa estate, he asked King to help inventory the property's mineral resources. With the geological survey in hiatus, King agreed.
The Mariposa needed the attention of someone like King. The huge, gold‐rich estate had been owned since 1847 by the explorer John Frémont, the fomenter of the Bear Flag Revolt that wrested California from Mexico. In spite of Frémont's haphazard management, the Mariposa's mining operations had at first been profitable enough. But by the time Olmsted...
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SOURCE: Van Noy, Rick. “Surveying the Sublime: Literary Cartographers and the Spirit of Place.” In The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment, edited by Steven Rosendale, pp. 181‐204. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Van Noy presents the work of three mappers—Henry David Thoreau, Clarence King, and John Wesley Powell—as representing various nineteenth‐century responses to the spirit of the western landscape.]
One of the curiosities of the literature of American surveying and mapping is its reliance on the sublime. Since the sublime is concerned with an aesthetic and emotional response and surveying with a scientific one, the two would seem to be in conflict. The sublime deals with measureless emotion, while surveying precisely measures. The sublime implies something beneath the threshold of experience, what can't be mapped or limned. Yet when surveyors Henry David Thoreau and the first two directors of the U.S. Geological Survey, Clarence King and John Wesley Powell, went exploring and mapping the terra incognita, they repeatedly relied on the aesthetic of the sublime to communicate awe and reverence. How did the sublime and the map come together in an American literary cartography, and what are the consequences of the sublime as the dominant aesthetic that informed their American sense of place?1
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Criticism: English Literature: Romantics And Victorians
SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. “A Language That Is Ever Green.” In Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, pp. 12‐35. New York: Routledge, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Bate examines William Wordsworth's use of the pastoral, arguing that there is a continuity between the poet's love of nature and his revolutionary politics. Bate also discusses the critical response to Wordsworth's ecological writing.]
During his highly productive residence at Racedown in Dorset and then at Alfoxden in Somerset, Wordsworth worked on ‘The Ruined Cottage’, a poem which Coleridge took to be one of the most beautiful in the language. Over the last twenty years this poem has come to look absolutely central to Wordsworth's achievement and its narrative is now highly familiar to students: owing to failed harvests and high prices, Margaret's husband enlists as a paid recruit; he does not return, Margaret and her family decline and die, nature re‐encroaches upon her cottage plot until all that is left is an overgrown ruin. For the poet and the character—originally called the Pedlar, later the Wanderer—who narrates Margaret's tragedy, the ruined cottage provides an image of consolation. Wordsworth tells of how he
traced with milder interest That secret spirit of humanity Which, 'mid the calm oblivious tendencies Of nature, 'mid her plants,...
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SOURCE: Harrison, Robert Pogue. “London Versus Epping Forest.” In Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, pp. 211‐20. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Harrison describes the social protest verse of the poet‐laborer John Clare and illuminates his concern about how the private ownership of property was resulting in environmental changes and the loss of freedom in his native English countryside.]
Forests cannot be owned, they can only be wasted by the right to ownership. Forests belong to place—to the placehood of place—and place, in turn, belongs to no one in particular. It is free. Of course nothing can guarantee that a place's freedom, like its forests, will not be violated or disregarded, even devastated. On the contrary, this natural freedom of placehood is the most vulnerable element of all in the domestic relation we have been calling logos.
On certain rare occasions this inconspicuous freedom of placehood finds a voice, for example in the poetry of John Clare, whose name we mentioned in connection with Constable. Let us take the time here to listen to it. The need to offer a brief biography of Clare before doing so springs not only from a scandalous undervaluation of this great poet by the English literary canon (one cannot assume any prior knowledge of Clare) but also from the deep roots of Clare's poetry in the place of...
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SOURCE: Kroeber, Karl. “Discovering Nature's Voice.” In Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind, pp. 67‐81. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Kroeber describes the beginnings of ecologically inspired poetry in the work of the English Romantics.]
In the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 the first poem by Wordsworth is burdened with his longest title, “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew‐Tree, which Stands near the Lake of Esthewaite, on a Desolate Part of the Shore, yet Commanding a Beautiful Prospect.” This is followed immediately by his co‐author's “The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem.” The sequence is especially appropriate if, as some think, parts of the last lines of Wordsworth's poem were written by Coleridge. Be that as it may, the subtitle of Coleridge's poem identifies it as a new kind of lyric, a “conversation” poem, which in theme and metrical form parallels the new kind of inscription poem embodied in “Lines Left upon a Seat.”
This conjunction is interesting because very soon Coleridge was to turn against what he came to call Wordsworth's pantheism and to give up writing “conversation” poems. Coleridge went on to devote major energies of his long intellectual career to defending a transcendental vision of divinity hostile to romantic proto‐ecological nature poetry...
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SOURCE: Kerridge, Richard. “Ecological Hardy.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, pp. 126‐41. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
[In the following essay, Kerridge maintains that if Thomas Hardy were seen as an important author in the canon of environmental literature, ecocriticism would become more concerned with individuals and society and less with withdrawing into the wilderness.]
Thomas Hardy is an obvious candidate for the ecocritical canon. The best known of English rural novelists, he is intensely responsive to the natural world and human relations with that world. Some of the most exciting passages of English nature writing are in his novels, integrated with a complexity of cultural, political, economic, and emotional life. I suggest that the ecocritical canonization of Hardy would help to produce an ecocriticism (and a nature writing) less preoccupied with deep withdrawal from society. Hardy is concerned with the multiplicity of uses—material, cultural, and emotional—that human beings have for the natural environment. He writes of nature as seen, variously, by the agricultural laborer, urban visitor, Romantic poet, lover, naturalist, young country‐dweller longing for city glamour, ambitious entrepreneur, prosperous or struggling farmer, and many others. If we are searching for...
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SOURCE: Pite, Ralph. “‘Founded on the Affections’: A Romantic Ecology.” In The Environmental Tradition in English Literature, edited by John Parham, pp. 144‐55. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.
[In the following essay, Pite argues that British Romantic writers, far from being concerned only with solitary experiences, were social writers whose affinity for nature established links between humanity and the environment.]
It is hard to give a single, satisfactory definition of Romanticism and equally difficult to say what unites all the different accounts of ecology. Viewed as a science, ecology is a recognized and established discipline; as a politics or a system of values, it is highly contested. Environmentalists, conservationists, ecologists, and green activists all differ, often passionately, about what should be done and why it should be done—about how people should treat the world they live in and how they should conceive of their place within it. Similarly, literary critics argue about what defines Romantic poetry—its sublimity, its simplicity, the high value it places on imagination, or its mode of engagement with political, often revolutionary events. However, because Romanticism and ecology can both be understood in several ways, very different points of contact may be found between them.
To give some examples, Jonathan Bate has aligned John Clare...
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SOURCE: Parham, John. “Was There a Victorian Ecology?” In The Environmental Tradition in English Literature, edited by John Parham, pp. 156‐71. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002.
[In the following essay, Parham outlines the environmental concerns of Victorian authors and goes on to discuss, from an ecocritical point of view, works of several writers of the period, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin.]
Despite its attempts to re‐write the canon, ecocriticism, to some extent, has only succeeded in creating a canon of its own. The centrality, in the US, of Lawrence Buell's The Environmental Imagination, which establishes Thoreauvian Romantic nature writing as the origin of ‘ecocentric’ thought, and the dominance in the UK of Jonathan Bate's book on Wordsworth, Romantic Ecology, has installed ‘Romanticism’ as pivotal within this ecocritical canon. Yet even its most literal statement, Bate's, is somewhat paradoxical. Bate argues that it is ‘valuable and important to make claims for the historical continuity of a tradition of environmental consciousness.’ Yet, parts of the book are less about Wordsworth and more about a Victorian tradition. For instance, his third chapter ends by stating (the italics are mine):
Wordsworthian faith in the moral of landscape remained the foundation....
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Applewhite, James. Seas and Inland Journeys: Landscape and Consciousness from Wordsworth to Roethke. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985, 236 p.
Attempts to evaluate the relationship between nineteenth‐century Romantic texts and important literary works of the twentieth century, focusing on the subjective experience of landscape.
Ard, Patricia M. “Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope: Victorian Kindred Spirits in the American Wilderness.” Nineteenth‐Century American Literature and Culture n.s. 7, no. 4 (December 1993): 293‐306.
Discusses the writings of Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope after their travels to America, considering why the writers found the American wilderness so unattractive and forboding.
Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1991, 131 p.
Offers a reading of Wordsworth that finds him to be the founder of “Romantic ecology.”
———. “Living with the Weather.” Studies in Romanticism 35, no. 3 (fall 1996): 357‐74.
Discusses several Romantic poems about the weather, focusing on Byron's “Darkness” and Keats's “Ode to Autumn.”
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the...
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