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 (autobiography) 1845
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nature (nonfiction) 1836
“The Young American” (lecture) 1844
Far from the Madding Crowd (novel) 1874
The Return of the Native (novel) 1878
The Mayor of Casterbridge (novel) 1886
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (novel) 1891
Jude the Obscure (novel) 1891
The Scarlet Letter (novel) 1850
The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852
“On First Looking into Chapman's Homer” (poem) 1816
“Ode to Autumn” (poem) 1820
“Ode to a Nightingale” (poem) 1820
Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (nonfiction) 1872
The Mountains of California (nonfiction) 1894
James Kirke Paulding
The Backwoodsman (novel) 1818
Modern Painters (criticism) 1843
The Eagle's Nest: Ten Lectures on Natural Science to Art: Given at Oxford in 1872 (lectures) 1872
The Storm‐Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1884
“Alastor” (poem) 1816
“Mont Blanc” (poem) 1817
“Lines Written among the Euganean Hills” (poem) 1818
“Ode to the West Wind” (poem) 1819
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
In Memoriam (poetry) 1850
Henry David Thoreau
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (nonfiction) 1849
Walden; or, Life in the Woods (nonfiction) 1854
The Maine Woods (nonfiction) 1864
Journals (journals) 1881‐92
Roughing It (novel) 1872
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1885
Natural History of Selborne (nonfiction) 1789
Specimen Days (nonfiction) 1882
American Ornithology; or The Natural History of Birds of the United States. 9 vols. (nonfiction) 1808‐14
Lyrical Ballads (poetry) 1798
The Excursion (poetry) 1814
The Prelude (poetry) 1850
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...
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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...
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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
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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”...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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