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.