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The Ecocriticism Reader

Landmarks in Literary Ecology

by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (editors)

415 pages, paperback, University of Georgia Press, 1996

The essays in The Ecocriticism Reader explore the ways that writing reflects and influences our interactions with the natural world.

Praise for The Ecocriticism Reader

"A powerfully conceived, intelligently constructed collection of essays. I can imagine few critical anthologies that would have such wide appeal. It comes at just the right moment and will find a substantial and appreciative audience."--John Elder, Professor of English and Environmental Studies, Middlebury College

"The The Ecocriticism Reader is an introduction to the field as well as a source book. It defines ecological literary discourse, sketches its development over the past quarter- century, and provides generally appealing and lucidly written examples of the range of ecological approaches to literature."-- from the cover

Quotes from The Ecocriticism Reader

"What then is ecocriticism? Simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Just as feminist criticism examines language and literature from a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies.

"Ecocritics and theorists ask questions like the following: How is nature represented in this sonnet? What role does the physical setting play in the plot of this novel? Are the values expressed in this play consistent with ecological wisdom? How do our metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it? How can we characterize nature writing as a genre? In addition to race, class, and gender, should place become a new critical category? Do men write about nature differently than women do? In what ways has literacy itself affected humankind's relationship to the natural world? How has the concept of wilderness changed over time? In what ways and to what effect is the environmental crisis seeping into contemporary literature and popular culture? What view of nature informs U.S. Government reports, corporate advertising, and televised nature documentaries, and to what rhetorical effect? What bearing might the science of ecology have on literary studies? How is science itself open to literary analysis?" -- Cheryll Glotfelty, from the Introduction

. . .

"Why is so much recent American fiction so barren? Putting the question more honestly, why do I find myself reading fewer contemporary novels and stories each year, and why do I so often feel that the work most celebrated by literary mavens (both avant-garde and establishment) is the shallowest? What is missing? Clearly there is no lack of verbal skill, nor of ingenuity in the use of forms. And there is no shortage of writers: . . . It is as though we had an ever-growing corps of wizards concocting weaker and weaker spells.

"To suggest what is missing, I begin with a passage from D. H. Lawrence's essay about Thomas Hardy. Lawrence argued that the controlling element in The Return of the Native is not the human action, but the setting where that action takes place, the wasteland of Egdon Heath: 'What is the real stuff of tragedy in the book? It is the Heath. It is the primitive, primal earth, where the instinctive life heaves up. . . . Here is the deep, black source from whence all these little contents of lives are drawn.' Lawrence went on to generalize:

This is a constant revelation in Hardy's novels: that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it. Against the background of dark, passionate Egdon, of the leafy, sappy passion and sentiment of the woodlands, of the unfathomed stars, is drawn the lesser scheme of lives. . . . the vast, unexplored morality of life itself, what we call the immorality of nature, surrounds us in its eternal incomprehensibility, and in its midst goes on the little human morality play, . . . seriously, portentously, til some one of the protagonists chances to look out of the charmed circle . . . into the wilderness raging around.' "
--Scott Russell Sanders, from Speaking a Word for Nature
. . .

"I recently had occasion to publish two essays describing the traumatic effects which polluted air has had upon my wife and me during the past six years, one of my major points being that we are not 'cardiac and respiratory patients' but normally healthy people whose lives have been radically altered by industrial emissions since we came to live in the Chicago area. One of these essays, a brief account of our experiences that appeared in the New York Times and was subsequently reprinted in other newspapers, brought me a number of interesting and varied responses from readers. A letter than particularly struck me read as follows:

Dear Sir:
Since all of the environmentalists who worry about pollution are also consumers of the products of these belching plants (the automobile for instance by which you reach your farm), what IS the answer. Do we cut off our nose to spite our faces? Do we destroy our economy: eliminate many necessities of life; go back to living in tents for the sake of clean air? The answers are complex.

"This was a profoundly disturbing letter. The writer was by no means insensitive to the problems of our time; she saw that a complex dilemma is involved; and she was obviously very concerned about the entire affair. Yet her expression 'for the sake of clean air' is a familiar one and reveals that the heart of the problem has not been grasped. For when she asks, 'Do we eliminate many of the necessities of life for the sake of clean air?' one wants to know: what are the necessities of life in comparison with which clean air cannot be regarded as a necessity?"

"When the writer refers to the 'necessities of life' one must ask what it is that she means by life, and I am proposing that by 'life' she means her desires and her will; by the 'economy' and 'necessities' she means those things which support her mind's conception of itself. There is not a body in sight. She sees steps taken to preserve the environment as actions 'for the sake of' clean air. She does not see them as 'for the sake of' her own biological existence. Somehow, she is alive: she eats food, drinks water, breathes air, but she does not see these actions as grounds of life; rather, they are acts that coincide with her life, her life being her thoughts and wishes. The purity of the elements that make her life possible is not seen as a condition of existence. Instead, the economy, the 'necessities' and not 'living in tents' are what matter. That is life. Her existence on earth somehow takes care of itself and if it does take care of itself, then why sacrifice the 'necessities' of life 'for the sake of' the superfluities, like 'clean air'?

"The pattern of thought which this letter reflects becomes clearer if we make some substitutions: 'Do we eliminate necessities of life for the sake of clean air?' could equally well be presented as 'Do we give up smoking for the sake of avoiding lung cancer?' since smoking occupies the role (for those who feel they must smoke) of a necessity of life and 'avoiding lung cancer' occupies the position of 'for the sake of clean air.' However, 'avoiding lung cancer' can be more clearly stated as 'remaining alive,' which would then yield the question: 'Do we give up smoking for the sake of remaining alive?' and in a final transformation we may obtain: 'Do we give up the necessities of life for the sake of remaining alive?' " -- Harold Fromm, from From Transcendence to Obsolescence

. . .

"What I see as a new 'toxic consciousness' in fiction reflects a fundamental shift in historical consciousness; for at some point during the Reagan-Bush decade, something happened, some boundary was crossed beyond which Americans perceived themselves differently in their relation to the natural world and the ecosystems of the American Empire. What happened, I believe, is that we came to perceive, perhaps inchoately, our own complicity in postindustrial ecosystems, both personal and national, which are predicated on pollution and waste. My premise is that during the 1980s we began to perceive ourselves as inhabitants of a culture defined by its waste, and that a number of American novels written during this period reflect this ontological transformation. I shall illustrate my point here chiefly through two novels, Dom DeLillo's White Noise and John Updike's Rabbit at Rest."--Cynthia Deitering, from The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s

. . .

"Although Bartram discovered and described a variety of species that were new to science, his book's greater contribution is the narrative itself--the thoughtful and enthusiastic account of a person fully immersed in the experience of American wilderness. Indeed, Bartram's descriptions are so spontaneous and sincere, so precise in the depictions, so reflective of nature's wonders and of a sensibility capable of appreciating the, so free of the influence of European literary models, that Travels stands as a landmark accomplishment in American literature. . . . Bartram's book also helped establish the American genre of the nature essay that from Thoreau to Barry Lopez, has been an important vehicle for American literary aspirations. And like his friend Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Bartram's Travels had considerable influence upon the literary as well as the scientific minds of Europe. . . . Bartram's influence appears in the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth and, to a lesser extent, Shelley, Carlyle, and Blake as well."

"Beyond this sensitivity to interconnectedness, there is in Bartram a strain of radical nonanthropocentrism which clearly distinguishes him from his contemporaries. The ecophilosophical metaphysic that informs the Travels is made even more explicit in one of Bartram's unpublished manuscripts:

I cannot be so impious; nay my soul revolts, is destroyed by such conjectures as to desire or imagine that man who is guilty of more mischief and wickedness than all the other animals together in this world, should be exclusively endowed with the knowledge of the Creator . . . . There is something so aristocratic if a philosopher use the expression or the epithet of the Dignity of Human Nature. Because a man is viewed in the chain of animal beings according to the common notions of philosophers, acts the part of an absolute tyrant. His actions and movements must, I think, impress such an idea on the minds of all animals, or intelligent beings."
--Michael Branch, from Indexing American Possibilities: The Natural History Writing of Bartram, Wilson, and Audubon

Table of Contents of The Ecocriticism Reader

  1. Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis--Cheryll Glotfelty
  2. The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis --Lynn White, Jr.
  3. Nature and Silence --Christopher Manes
  4. From Transcendence to Obsolescence: A Route Map --Harold Fromm
  5. Cultivating the American Garden--Frederick Turner
  6. The Uses of Landscape: The Picturesque Aesthetic and the National Park System--Alison Byerly
  7. Some Principles of Ecocriticism--William Howarth
  8. Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy-- Neil Evernden
  9. Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism--William Rueckert
  10. The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet--SueEllen Campbell
  11. American Literary Environmentalism as Domestic Orientalism--David Mazel
  12. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction--Ursula K. Le Guin
  13. The Comic Mode--Joseph W. Meeker
  14. Unearthing Herstory: An Introduction--Annette Kolodny
  15. Speaking a Word for Nature--Scott Russell Sanders
  16. The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s--Cynthia Deitering
  17. Is Nature Necessary?--Dana Phillips
  18. Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism--Glen A. Love
  19. The Scared Hoop: A Contemporary Perspective--Paul Gunn Allen
  20. Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination--Leslie Marmon Silko
  21. A Taxonomy of Nature Writing--Thomas J. Lyon
  22. Indexing American Possibilities: The Natural History Writing of Bartram, Wilson, and Audubon--Michael Branch
  23. Desert Solitaire: Counter-Friction to the Machine in the Garden--Don Scheese
  24. Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape--Vera L. Norwood
  25. Nature Writing and Environmental Psychology: The Interiority of Outdoor Experience--Scott Slovic
  26. The Bakhtinian Road to Ecological Insight--Michael J. McDowell

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