Class Notes for Environmental Literature, Week One

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

From Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap P of Harvard U P, 1995.


Buell argues that “nature” is a crucial ingredient in creating the American national ego and that this “motif” appears in many forms in American literature.  He breaks down the “pastoral Ideology” into five parts or “sub-genres:


1.      The first theme of nature in American letters is “escape from civilization.”  This theme appears in Moby Dick, “Rip Van Winkle,” and even in the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  This conflict of society versus the country is discussed by D.H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler, two major critics in American literature.  Fiedler talks about the importance of the wilderness in “male bonding” which we see in Huck Finn.  Recent feminist scholars claim that because the wilderness was represented as female, that this conflict is oftentimes a flight of the male from female oppression and adult responsibility.  Re-read “Rip Van Winkle” with this thought in mind.  You will read this theme in Into the Wild.  There are obvious exceptions to this “escape” theme—the black slaves saw the northern city as a site of safety, and of course the Native Americans never saw the wilderness as an escape from civilization.  We will also read Deliverance by James Dickey which illustrates how this theme can backfire!

2.      The second theme that Buell discusses is “nature as the ideal.”  This comes from Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian vision of democracy hard at work on the land.  Jefferson, in 1787, says “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.  It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”  This is why so many presidential candidates begin their campaign in America’s heartland!  Supposedly the heartland is still the symbol of middle class values.  In opposition to this agrarian ideal is technology.  In Jefferson’s time it was the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  Probably the best piece of American literature to represent this theme is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

3.      Buell includes feminist criticism as the third theme in American literature that plays upon the “nature” motif.  If you are interested in feminist criticism, you should read Annette Kolodny who claims that if the women had been in charge of defining the vision of the frontier, things would have been significantly different for the settlers, the Natives, and the landscape.  Other important critics are Nina Baym and Rosemary Radford Ruether who is an ecofeminist.  Actually, women have long been interested in preserving nature.  One-half of the nature essays in the Atlantic Monthly in the late 19th century were written by women.  Women readers tended to praise Thoreau more than men readers.  The first Thoreau Society was founded by women in 1891.  The first doctoral dissertation on Thoreau was by a woman in 1899.  Botany was considered a “safe” pursuit of study for women in the 19th century because it didn’t upset their delicate nervous system.  You may want to read Mary Austin, a feminist writer, who asserts that women’s rights are intimately tied to human dependence upon the earth as Mother.  Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams is the text that deals with this theme.

4.      Buell also talks about nature being portrayed as an instrument of imperial conquest (also an outlet for violent impulses).  Even though we tend to romanticize the wilderness, we simultaneously use it for profit.  Jefferson, for example, was the President who divided the land into sections.  This demonstrates a desire to (1) control unsettled regions, (2) objectify nature, and (3) define “place as a boundary.  Human boundaries tend to violate subjective reality and certainly human boundaries of the wilderness violate the natural geography.  Why, for example, are there any straight lines to divide states?  Even those men that we revere for their love of nature often engaged in wasteful plantation traditions.  Merriweather Lewis owned 2000 acres.  George Washington owned 73,000 acres, and even Thomas Jefferson owned 16,000 acres.  The thought was that once one acre was used up, the owner could always go to the next acre.  I suppose today the modern equivalents would by Hollywood types who buy up huge sections of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

5.      The final theme that Buell discusses is “Environmental Holocaust.”  Of course this is relatively recent because it is only within the last half century that we have realized that we now have the human capacity to destroy the environment through nuclear warfare (or waste), chemicals, destruction of the rain forests which may contribute to the greenhouse effect, the ozone layer depletion, acid rain, increased population, or unending “progress.”   We see this theme represented in Rachel Carson’s important work, Silent Spring.  We will read Into the Forest which deals with a society altered by man.  The myth that is exposed in this type of literature is that the wilderness is an inexhaustible resource.  We do not want to limit our use or curtail our taste for abundance.  We want to super size everything!  When you read Stuff, think of this theme!