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earth echoes: naming our criticism

December 16, 2008

What is a name for what we are doing in this course? Does the name matter? Perhaps. Traditionally, one would think of the matter of this course, evidenced by many of the readings, as a course in nature writing–a familiar shorthand. I can’t disagree, but do want to stretch our perspectives. Yes, it is writing about nature, writing that is interested and invested in the natural world. But what writing isn’t? Isn’t any text produced thus interested in nature? We see hat rather quickly the definition can quickly become too limiting and cliched: nature writing, a text with lots of trees.

Part of what we will do in this course is to explore the problem of the criticism that we are also going to be engaging in: whatever we name it, environmental literature, ecocrticism, literary ecology, green writing, geocentric, biotic–we will need to think about what we mean. And to do so by considering what others have taken these terms to mean. And more to the point: what others and what we can do as readers and writers of/in/from/for/by environmental or ecological perspectives.

Some historical perspective on ecocrticism from Wikipedia.

An Ecocriticism Page that offers some perspective on the various names for the discipline, a history, and a bibliography.

Some critical perspective on the difference between environmental and ecological criticism

In her history of the emergence of ecocriticism as a critical movement, Glotfelty contrasts the prefixes “eco-” and “enviro-”: in its connotations, enviro- is anthropocentric and dualistic, implying that we humans are at the center, surrounded by everything that is not us, the environment. Eco-, in contrast, implies interdependent communities, integrated systems, and strong connections among constituent parts. (xx)

“Enviro-” encourages the distinction between nature and culture, sometimes even to the extent of making them mutually exclusive so that nature, strictly speaking, exists only when it stands in magisterial independence of human fingerprints of any kind (the premise of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature); whereas “eco-” encourages seeing both nature and culture as interconnected parts contained by the Earth’s ecology. In taking Rueckert’s term instead of inventing a new term “envirocriticism,” this movement seems to side with “eco-” but it also sides with “enviro-” in the names, mentioned above, of its journal and organization. Perhaps early ecocriticism’s focus on nature writing, which fits readily into the “enviro-” model, has something to do with this terminological ambivalence. [Ecocriticism and Kenneth Burke]

One of the leading names in the study of environmental literature, or ‘literary naturism’ (yet another title) as he also calls it, is Lawrence Buell. Buell’s first book on the subject was the pathbreaking The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995). This book, in effect, introduces the critical study of nature writing: critical in the sense of turning toward a more ‘ecocentric’ way of thinking about literature and the literary imagination in ways that had not been done before. One of the challenges in this book for literary critics–even for those who might consider themselves fans of nature writing and of a familiar author like Thoreau: can we imagine a way of reading and writing that does not have man at the center, is not ‘anthropocentric’?  Interestingly, in a more recent work, Writing For an Endangered World (2001), Buell seems to move away from the more radical view of eco back toward the environmental; not the quaintness of early studies and appreciation of nature writing, but an environment in which man (and in the case of this particular book, man’s impact on his evnironment and the physical environment’s impact in his world) seems to be back at the center. 

Check out this book site, Eco Books, for a range of the kinds of texts and fields that ‘eco’ has come to echo (as it were); you might also note the ‘Literature and Criticism’ section has an extensive bibliography of mainly 20th century and contemporary works in literary ecology (should we go with that name?). One  goal I have for you in the course is to begin to explore this range of writing by browsing these lists, then (with the further reading component of your final project) going further with a text/author somewhere in this field that we haven’t read together. One question we might want to consider, as critics informed in some way by an ecological perspective: Must the field of environmental literature  be as diverse in principle or in practice as the ecology it claims to represent or embody? Or, for the sake of critical strength and precision, does ecocriticism need to be more of a niche, with less diversity of opinion and approach (and therefore conflict) but greater in strength and number?

I wonder about your perspectives–where you are coming from not only in your studies (English, environmental studies, American studies) but in your lives. Are you an environmentalist, ecologist, naturalist? What is your sense at this point about how any of these perspectives matter in writing and for reading? A key objective of this course (to reiterate a point from the syllabus) is to conclude not with an answer to these questions (they may not be answerable) but rather, a better grasp of their implications for our reading and writing in this subject–environmental writing (for lack of a better name).

One final thought from today, the first class and the day we set out on this earnest exploration of American environmental writing. I have taught Thoreau and Walden for many years (I think the first time was back in 1992 when I taught American literature to tenth graders in New Jersey). Driving in to campus today, noticing the frost on the branches, I thought of Thoreau’s statement that one reason he went to live at Walden pond was to watch spring come in–more deliberately than he had done before, despite living near it. Perhaps in this course, teaching and reading Walden yet again, yet from a slightly different perspective, I also want to give more attention to the coming of spring–knowing that it matters to the literary accomplishment of Walden as well as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But I also know that I can pay more attention to how spring’s arrival matters in my neighborhood; and such attention might also matter for my understanding of these and other works of environmental writing.

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