American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature

American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature

American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature

American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature

Synopsis

In classical terms the georgic celebrates the working landscape, cultivated to become fruitful and prosperous, in contrast to the idealized or fanciful landscapes of the pastoral. Arguing that economic considerations must become central to any understanding of the human community's engagement with the natural environment, Timothy Sweet identifies a distinct literary mode he calls the American georgic. Offering a fresh approach to ecocritical and environmentally-oriented literary studies, Sweet traces the history of the American georgic from its origins in late sixteenth-century English literature promoting the colonization of the Americas through the mid-nineteenth century, ending with George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature (1864), the foundational text in the conservationist movement.

Excerpt

“The earth … has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue (call it either) which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labor and stir we keep about it, to sustain us.” So writes Henry David Thoreau in the “Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, quoting the seventeenthcentury English agricultural writer John Evelyn. That logic—the magnetism that draws labor from us as we draw sustenance from the earth—is the subject of this book. It is, as Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond indicated, at once simple and complex, according to one’s field of vision.

To make his living, Thoreau labored in his bean field. But he did not eat the beans he grew; rather he exchanged them for rice, corn meal, rye meal, and other commodities. Whether, as he says, he wanted to follow the Pythagorean dietary maxim or whether he thought it “fit that [he] should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India,” in his simple acts of satisfying his ascetic taste he depended on the labor of others (61). the “$8[.]74, all told” that he confesses he ate during one eight-month period came to him already planted, cultivated, harvested, threshed, transported from distant environments, milled, and stored (59). All this labor and more remains largely invisible in Walden, reduced to the transactions recorded in Thoreau’s ledger sheets. We might not notice its absence at all, but that the very terms of Thoreau’s experiment call it forth. Seeing him work his beans—seeing too that he deliberately worked them badly, by his neighbors’ standards—we think about the nature of labor. Knowing that he exchanged the beans for the products of others’ labor, we come to realize the ways in which acts of production and consumption can connect us to complex and far-reaching social, economic, and environmental networks.

Discerning the traces of these networks in Walden, we begin to reflect on the social and economic aspects of our own, often indirect, engagements with the physical environment. Yet because such reflections may seem incompatible with Thoreau’s lived experience of self-sufficiency and his apparently pastoral relation to nature, they may trouble us. They had already troubled Thoreau’s sometime mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.