The Environment as Literary Theme Analysis

The Issue

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Literature in North America has evolved through various movements, each of which has addressed the theme of environment. In the various genres of essay, fiction, and poetry, writers of these various movements have sought to explore in what ways the environment defines who they are, how society develops in harmony or in discord with its surroundings, and what the human potential for understanding the natural world is.

The Romantic Movement

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Considered to span the time period from 1828 to 1865, the Romantic movement features literature that emphasizes the power of the individual in the pristine landscape of the New World. Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement within the Romantic period, brought forward a literature that focuses on the possibility of a harmonious relationship with the environment in works of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. The poetry and prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson act as a central locus for Transcendentalism, and his work influenced a large number of his contemporaries. Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836) is considered a particularly significant piece, a beginning in North American nature writing. The most important book of the Romantic movement in affecting the tradition of nature writing was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). Thoreau’s writing foreshadowed conflicts that would emerge in later literature, as he extolled the virtues of living in the wild and attacked capitalistic urban society.

In addition to the nonfiction work of writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, the Romantic period produced poetry and fiction that centered on the land and on one’s life in relation to the environment. Walt Whitman, in his many editions of Leaves of Grass (1855), acted as spokesman for the free individual living in concert with natural laws. The expansive themes and style of Whitman’s poetry mirror the American landscape of which he spoke, moving forward from the more stylized nature poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In fiction, the novels of Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper illustrate the challenges and rewards of living close to the environment, in settings far removed from the urbane pleasures of the cities. The Romantic movement characterized the optimism of a people who believed that they could control their surroundings, whether natural or societal, and ultimately rise above the forces that encumbered them.

The Age of Naturalism

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The period from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century produced literature that in many ways redefined the relationship of people and the environment, often mirroring the changes that had been produced by the increasing industrialization of society. In stark opposition to the more positive tone of the literature of the Romantic movement, which generally portrayed nature—including human nature—as beneficent, the naturalistic movement produced fiction that explores the mechanistic forces that appeared to dominate the individual in all environments, whether natural or urban. Naturalism issued from a philosophical interpretation of Darwinian biology. According to such thinkers as Herbert Spencer, people are simply high-order animals whose behavior is a product of heredity and environment. Naturalistic fiction offers characters who survive or die by their individual strengths and fortunes. The characters often show animalistic drives, including sexual desire and greed. The world they inhabit is godless, dangerous, and harsh. The tone of many naturalistic works, whether set in the city or in the wild, is bleak. The intent of the naturalistic writers was to present literature with the detachment and calculation that would match that of scientific investigation.

The most significant North American naturalists include novelists Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, writers who often show the forces of urban life determining the success or failure of characters contending with harsh economic realities. Norris’ The Octopus (1901) and Dreiser’s trilogy, The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947), depict the ruthlessness of urban capitalism and the struggles of the classes. Jack London, through his novels and short stories, presents characters who often encounter the cruel force of nature in the wilderness, where animals had the necessary abilities to survive and where their human counterparts were often weak and inept, and who because of these frailties face annihilation. In poetry and prose, Stephen Crane offers a literature that positions people under the control of their environment. His novel about the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), brought him international acclaim, and his fiction and poetry often vividly illustrate the violence of war in the tone of a detached, objective observer. Typifying Crane’s view of the human relation to the world, in his short poem, “A Man Said to the Universe,” the speaker affirms his existence only to be told by the universe that “the fact has not created in me/ a sense of obligation.”

The Modern Era

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The twentieth century has produced literature that incorporates the optimistic tone established by the Romantic writers without naïvely dismissing the realities addressed by the naturalists. Expressions of the relationship to the environment may also be radically different depending upon which region is described. However, a significant thread binds the best writings of the twentieth century: The particulars of place to a great extent define the lives of the inhabitants.

Outstanding among the fiction writers whose work most poignantly illustrates identity with the environment are Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories show the idyllic surroundings of rural Michigan, where the city and the machine had yet to dominate. In Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River,” his main character is healed through his relationship with nature after suffering through the horror of war. Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942), particularly its legendary story, “The Bear,” expresses the slow degradation of the wild and the spiritual loss that corresponds to that degradation. In addition, the fiction of John Steinbeck, including his novels Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), describes the continuing conflict between the natural world and the economic forces that shape people’s lives and that often desecrate the land.

In the world of poetry, Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, and Theodore Roethke produced poetry that intimately describes the relationship between themselves and the environment. Crane wrote poems that attempt to re-create an American mythology. Jeffers saw people in modern society as being totally separated from the natural world, blindly pursuing a life of material wealth and consumption, a theme that would be further developed by some of the most articulate poets who came after him. Roethke articulated the presences inherent in the living things of the world and showed how identity can depend on the lives of flowers, trees, and the elements.

Postmodern Literature

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Contemporary writing has seen an increase in concerns about the rapidly disappearing natural world and about the loss of humanity associated with that disappearance. Postmodern non-fiction is of high rank, and not since the time of Emerson and Thoreau has so much notable writing occurred within the genre. There has been a flourishing of regional essays and nonfiction books related to place—in Barry Lopez’s works detailing the environment of the Arctic and the Southwest, in the anthropologist Richard Nelson’s work about Alaska, in Peter Matthiessen’s writings about life on the Atlantic coast, in Gretel Ehrlich’s descriptions of the West, in Farley Mowatt’s observations of the lives of wolves in Canada, and in Doug Peacock’s and Rick Bass’s writings on grizzly bears in Montana. These books have described the human place in nature and how nature defines what is sacred. Along with the meditative qualities of the works arises an inquiry into how the actions of modern culture are destroying resources that were once taken for granted as inexhaustible and how the degradation of the environment can destroy what it means to be human. In the essay collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which won the Pulizter Prize in nonfiction, Annie Dillard examines in minute detail the environment around her home in Virginia, drawing on the tradition of close observation begun by Thoreau. Gary Snyder, basing much of his observation on principles of Zen Buddhism, expresses the sacredness of...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Brooks, Paul. Speaking for Nature: How Literary Naturalists from Henry Thoreau to Rachel Carson Have Shaped America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. A critical survey of the most significant nature writers.

Cooley, John, ed. Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary Nature and Environmental Writers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. A collection of critical essays on the foremost nature writers of the twentieth century.

Foerster, Norman. Nature in American Literature: Studies in the Modern View of Nature. New York: Russell & Russell, 1958. A classic text, focusing on the early nature writers of American literature.

Harrison, Jim. “Poetry as Survival.” In Just Before Dark. Livingston, Mont.: Clark City Press, 1991. Surveys the voices, conditions, and themes related to Native American writing.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. A scholarly book concerning the relationship between capitalism and nature.