Academic journal article Early American Literature

Encountering Early American Environments

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Encountering Early American Environments

Article excerpt

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover


Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013

528 pp.

American Environmental Fiction, 1782-1847


Surrey: Ashgate, 2014

196 pp.

Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature


Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012

320 pp.

Scanning the programs of the most recent conferences of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), (1) the early Americanist might find few panels of immediate relevance to her or his research. Aside from a few sessions on early modern nature, eighteenth-century forms, and the usual suspects of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, and Whitman (these authors perhaps stretching the definition of "early"), ASLE's prominent foci have most recently been squarely, and many would say, rightly, on presentist concerns. These include interrogation of the concept of the anthropocene, exploration of generic and thematic tendencies of CliFi (climate fiction), incorporation of the literatures of environmental justice, and enrichment of the field's theoretical contributions by defining and exploring such concepts as multispecies ethnography, affective approaches, biosemiotics, and global indigeneity. Indeed, in a time of environmental crisis, and during a historical moment when many of us are witnessing the marginalization of the humanities in higher education, such a presentist focus is understandable. Ecocriticism--or, to use its more current and inclusive moniker of "environmental humanities"--proposes methods, subjects, and extrapolations that make the humanities relevant to the wider public and also to our students, who sense, correctly, that new epistemologies and ontologies will be necessary for survival in the broken world they have inherited. Moreover, this relevance has made humanistic studies valuable in instrumental ways as well, appealing to deans; practitioners of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and funding agencies, making our often solitary work more apparently applicable to the challenges of ameliorating the climate crisis.

This presentist focus within ecocriticism has field-specific roots as well: namely, in its internal critical response to the romanticized studies of Anglophone, white male-authored "nature writing" that characterized the field's formal beginnings in the mid-1990s. As Ursula Heise has shown, at the time of its emergence, "ecocriticism focused mostly on British and American literature after 1800, especially British Romantic poetry, the American nature-writing tradition from Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard, and Native American literature" ("Globality" 637). This limited focus was itself a backlash against the denaturalizing emphasis of poststructuralist literary criticism that dominated the field between the late 1960s and early 1990s: responding to the notion that "nature" was socially constructed, ecocritics sought to ground (pun intended) our literary analyses in the "solid earth" and "the actual world" (Heise, "Hitchhiker's Guide" 505). (2) In doing so, they moved their literary analyses to engage more directly with the nonhuman world, whether through phenomenological approaches informed by deep ecology or through scientifically inflected approaches such as bioregionalism (Buell 88-92). These approaches yielded a great deal of work focused on nineteenth-century Anglo-American nature writing and poetry, although this focus was more a matter of "seizing low-hanging fruit" than it was an inherent quality of early ecocriticism itself (Buell 89).

As environmentally inflected literary scholars came of age into an ecocriticism defined in part by its resistance to poststructuralist literary theories, they pushed to expand the boundaries of ecocritical analysis and to theorize their critical projects more deliberately. …

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