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Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (London: Harvard University Press, 2001/2003, £12.95, 365 pages, ISBN 0-674-01232-1)—Charles Mitchell, Elmira College


In a crude and woefully amateurish way, my academic career has shadowed the work of Lawrence Buell. In graduate school I rooted my tepid efforts to become a scholar of New England literary history in two of Buell’s books: New England Literary Culture (1986) and Literary Transcendentalism (1973). These were big, sprawling books, books whose footnotes demanded as much attention as the main text, books whose combined effect was to convince me that I would never be a scholar of New England literary history. But I still own my copies of those books, and a quick look at my scribbled marginalia recalls nostalgic memories of seminar papers and dissertation chapters.

In 1995, Buell published The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. This was the same year that the recently formed Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment held its first national conference, a conference that earned “ecocriticism” feature coverage in The New York Times Magazine. Coming from a Professor of English at Harvard and published by Harvard University Press, The Environmental Imagination—hefty and footnote-rich—bestowed a weighty credibility on the nascent field of environmental literary studies, a field that had been roughly conceived in the classrooms and offices of land grant universities located west of the Mississippi and east of Palo Alto. As contemporary reviews suggested, Buell’s book both consolidated the field—rooting it firmly in the long history of American literary and cultural studies—and pointed it in new directions. In effect, Buell helped make it respectable to study, write about, and teach “nature writing.” Scholars who had grown weary of the black-turtleneck-wearing, Gauloise-smoking crowd at the MLA could henceforth proudly sport their hiking shoes, flannel and fleece, items previously acceptable only at meetings of the Western Literature Association.

That is to say, The Environmental Imagination helped make me feel as if I had a place in the profession after all. In 1995 I entered my third year as a tenure-track assistant professor of American Studies. My revised dissertation (dealing with twentieth-century responses to Emerson) was on its way to publication, I was exploring new areas for research and writing, and I was eager to reshape the courses I was teaching, courses I had inherited when I took the position. While I had not yet discovered the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, and had not heard of ecocriticism, my interests had already begun to coalesce around nature writing, place-based cultural studies, and environmental history. When I read The Environmental Imagination the year after its publication I felt immediately that I had found a home. Buell conveyed significant status upon writers whom I lacked the confidence to include in my courses, and gave an articulate and richly detailed voice to my tentative musings about the connections between nature and place, on the one hand, and the larger project of American Studies on the other. When I finally proposed a course on Nature and the American Imagination, a skeptical colleague was persuaded to grant it approval because Buell’s stature as a scholar bestowed legitimacy on the subject. Nearly every page of my copy of the book, including the 140 pages of notes, is marked with comments and annotations that, I can see now, effectively outline the bulk of my reading and teaching in the past seven years.

Now Buell has given us Writing for an Endangered World. Where his earlier book provided the field of environmental literary studies with an academic pedigree, rooting it firmly within the main streams of American culture studies, the new book explores the extracurricular claims and counter-claims that have been at the heart of the field since its inception. Ecocriticism has never been shy about wearing its values—its politics—on its sleeve. The major figures in the world of nature writing—Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey—have axes to grind and points to make. Indeed, the muscularity of such writers, the way in which their accounts of woods, desert, and mountains transcend mere field-guide descriptions of flora and fauna, is what makes them attractive to critics. The potential to do some kind of political work has become a pre-requisite for any field of literary or cultural studies, and it is no surprise that ecocriticism has coevolved with environmental politics into a form of anti-modernist critique.

Certainly, my own turn to nature writing was guided in part by my political values. I saw, in the disciplined attention to place that many of these writers urged, in the absence of technological hubris reflected in the “natural” landscape, and in the rejection of consumerism and crass commercialism  that the “experience of nature” both required and enabled, a clear and compelling vision of a better world. Studying and teaching about nature writing was not simply a legitimate end in itself, it was a way to convey a set of values that, to me, seemed self-evidently crucial. Preserving wilderness is good; preventing urban sprawl is good; protecting endangered species is good; a simple life is good; non-motorized recreation is good. And while it would be unfair to characterize the politics of early ecocriticism as quite so simplistic, it is nonetheless true that the most exciting and important work done in the field during the dozen or so years of its formal existence has involved addressing and redressing  the provincialism reflected in those self evident goods.

It was perhaps inevitable that the study of environmental literature would foreground a set of values and actions that are primarily white, upper-middle-class, and American, something that could be—and has been—said about mainstream environmentalist organizations as well. From the environmental justice movement to multi-layered critiques of the wilderness idea, from the study of urban nature to the defense of working landscapes, critics have highlighted the practical limitations, and in some cases the practical irrelevance, of a narrowly defined field of nature writing as a tool for political change. Saving Walden Woods and preserving more wilderness areas for people like me to seek transformative spiritual experiences was not, after all, going to make the world a better place.

That is where Writing for an Endangered World comes in. Buell makes the stakes of his project clear from the outset, noting that he has written the book “in the conviction that environmental crisis is not merely one of economic resources, public health, and political gridlock;” rather, the “success of all environmentalist efforts finally hinges […] on attitudes, feelings, images, narratives” [1]. This is the work that environmental literature and other “acts of environmental imagination” will, can, and must do: respond to and suggest ways of solving environmental crisis. And they will do so, Buell argues, because they are capable of “register[ing] and energiz[ing] at least four kinds of engagement with the world. They may connect readers vicariously with others’ experience, suffering, pain: that of nonhumans as well as humans. They may reconnect readers with places they have been and send them where they would otherwise never physically go. They may direct thought toward alternative futures. And they may affect one’s caring for the physical world: make it feel more or less precious or endangered or disposable” [2].

Buell’s claims here are, of course, not original to him. The whole project of environmental literary studies is rooted in the conviction that acts of the imagination—art, music, literary fiction and non-fiction, poetry—can create awareness, increase consciousness, and provoke action; readers of Thoreau or Aldo Leopold will surely support reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone and protection of the Yaak valley. What Buell does in this book is push the conversation beyond nature writing’s usual suspects, mixing Jane Addams, Charles Dickens, and Theodore Dreiser in with William Wordsworth, Robinson Jeffers and John Muir, or, as he states it, putting “‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with one another” [7]. In the process he significantly expands the definition of what might qualify as environmental literature. He also focuses attention on a broader conception of the environmental crisis, moving out of the forests, fields, and mountains to consider the problems associated with urban environments, those “brown landscapes” that the green tradition of nature writing seeks to escape. This, he argues, is essential if ecocriticism is to earn its claim to relevance: “Literature and environment studies must reckon more fully with the interdependence between urban and outback landscapes, and the traditions of imagining them, if they are to become something more than a transient fashion” [8].

Buell’s intention, at least in part, is to compensate for The Environmental Imagination’s focus on the green tradition of nature writing. Reflecting on his earlier book, he notes: “I continue to believe that reorientation of human attention and values according to a stronger ethic of care for the nonhuman environment would make the world a better place, for humans as well as for nonhumans. Pressing that argument, however, meant understating the force of such anthropocentric concerns as public health and environmental equity as motivators of environmental imagination and commitment.” [6] This is not simply Buell’s verdict on his own work. Ecocriticism as a whole has undergone a significant reorientation, not so much away from the exurban green landscape as toward a more inclusive consideration of city-scapes, narratives of environmental justice and displacement, and the tension between traditional environmentalist values of preservation and the lived experience of those whose subsistence needs may be at odds with the expansion of nature preserves. This reorientation has been explicitly undertaken in order to shore up the field’s claim to relevance.

It is refreshing to find, in Buell, a critic who will acknowledge—let alone confront—the possibility that his field of study risks being little more than a passing fad. Among the distinguishing characteristics of ecocriticism is the sincerity of its practitioners, the evident passion they have for the material they study and for the values they believe that material advances. It is difficult to imagine scholars in this field writing essays for The Chronicle of Higher Education dismissing their own work as nothing more than the trend they rode to tenure and promotion. Yet this sincerity has, for the most part, resisted the temptation to transform itself into dogmatic posturing. The dominant tone set by the conferences, symposia, and publications the field has produced in the last ten years has been expansive and inclusive. Most important, I believe, has been the effort of ecocritics to establish professional credibility without sacrificing accessibility, a sometimes fierce determination to be both readable and rigorous.

Writing for an Endangered World exemplifies all of these characteristics. Each chapter stands as a largely self-contained reading of a variety of texts, most drawn from the American tradition. “Toxic Discourse” offers a long needed contextualization of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Noting that most environmental literary critics treat Carson’s book as sui generis, focusing on its treatment of a once green landscape turning brown, Buell suggests that Silent Spring might be profitably considered in conjunction with texts of urban decay: Dickens’s Hard Times, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, and A. R. Ammons’s Garbage. In “The Place of Place,” Buell expands on the largely rural tradition of the literature of place to consider John Edgar Wideman’s effort to reclaim the problematic landscape of the Homewood district of Pittsburgh. Other chapters explore the “romantic urbanism” of Walt Whitman and Frederick Law Olmsted, the bioregional vision of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, the complementary rural and urban aesthetics of Wendell Berry and Gwendolyn Brooks, William Faulkner’s environmental ethics, and the relationship between Moby Dick and the Free Willy films. Throughout, Buell’s observations are original and provocative, inviting readers to consider new ways of reading these texts without insisting that they ought only to be read that way.

Some critics may be frustrated that Buell does not wade fully into theoretical debates about the social construction of nature, the distinction between nature and culture, or the relative merits of anthropocentric vs. ecocentric ethical rubrics. In fact, he explicitly avoids such discussion, seeking instead to “get past the polarization” which such debates tend to generate [225]. This is, I think, a wise choice. Many a conversation about environmental literature, ethics, and politics has imploded on debates over how and whether to distinguish between nature and culture, the natural and the human. Thoughtful critics of the wilderness idea like William Cronon have argued that the very dichotomy built into the preservation of wilderness—civilization vs. nature—legitimizes anthropocentric assaults on nature by giving validity to such antagonistic pairs as people vs. nature or jobs vs. the environment. Not quite as thoughtful critics of Cronon have accused him of arguing that there is no difference between a beaver dam and Hoover Dam, while some treatises on the social construction of nature seem to suggest that there is no such thing as nature at all. To be sure, these debates are important but their tendency is to become ends in themselves. Buell acknowledges, sensibly, that the nature-culture distinction is “both a distorting and a necessary lens” through which to view the relationship between human beings and the physical environment, and then focuses his attention on what that lens reveals. [5]

In the end, Buell makes a compelling case for the relevance of an expanded field of ecocriticism. Those readers who treat themselves to both the text and the notes will find a rich source of ideas for course reading lists, seminar papers, and dissertations. Most impressive is the masterful way in which Buell synthesizes the work that has been done by scholars in history, literature, geography and urban studies toward this reorientation of ecocriticism, rooting his own observations in a full and informative consideration of the field’s growth and evolution. It would, perhaps, not be an exaggeration to say that Buell presents the discourse of the environmental imagination—the variety of cultural representations of the environment, and of human beings in their relationship to that environment—as the Ur-text of humanistic study. Of course, those are my words, not his. But once we can see the city as an environment to be inhabited, rather than a deviation from nature, then ecocriticism has moved well beyond the limitations implied in the term “nature writing.”  Buell’s Writing for an Endangered World does not suggest that literature will save the world. It does suggest that literature can change the way we think about and act toward the world we inhabit, and that may be the best hope we have.

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