Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature

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Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature * Jeffrey Myers * Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005 * ix, 188 pp. * $39.95

Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) includes many passages praising the natural beauty to be found there, such as this description of the Ohio River: "It is the most beautiful river on Earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids ..." (p. 28). But, as Jeffrey Myers argues in this compact treatise, Jefferson was no conservationist, and Notes on the State of Virginia is no Sand County Almanac. On the contrary, Myers argues, "Jefferson uses the pastoral and the picturesque to convey his commercial and imperialist ideas" (p. 34), and that for all its appreciation of nature and its rhetoric of stewardship, Notes on the State of Virginia provides "a philosophical justification for racial oppression and ecological exploitation under the guise of democracy and conservation" (p. 44).

As Myers's title suggests, the problem lies with a twin set of disconnects-bald in Jefferson's case, subtler in Thoreau and later "nature" writers-separating man from nature, and Euroamericans from racial Others. Myers seeks, in five case studies ranging from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth, to expose how "racism and alienation from nature come from the same source" (p. 5), and to show how other writers, starting imperfectly with Thoreau, and continuing more effectively with twentieth-century writers of color, point toward "a position that is socially egalitarian and ecologically sustainable" (p. 141).

The book's 150 pages are divided into six chapters. After a brief introduction to his themes and theoretical framework, Myers presents four studies on Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Chesnutt, and Zitkala-Sa. The essays proceed chronologically, but they also follow a continuum leading ever further from the disconnectivity and racism Myers finds in Jefferson's book, suggesting, incorrectly, that Myers has framed a whiggish analysis of American nature writing. Myers' fairly polemical reading of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia is succeeded by a much more nuanced essay on Henry David Thoreau, which explores the limits of the famous essayist's egalitarianism and ecocentrism. Thoreau's heart was in the right place from the start, but his was the heart of a man firmly situated in nineteenth-century Euroamerican culture. Nevertheless, Thoreau succeeded in transcending his origins, and his thinking moved ever further toward a "disavowal of ecological and racial hegemony" (p. 78).

The remaining chapters consider African American and Native American texts, which, Myers argues, demonstrate a relationship to the land far less exploitative and far more egalitarian than the Euroamericans' commercial and utilitarian world, which distances man from nature and permits the distancing of white from non-white humans. …