Lawrence Buell

The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination

Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Pp.195. Hb ISBN 140512475X, £50.00. Pb ISBN 1405124768, £15.99. 

Reviewed by Graeme Finnie, Dundee University (Online, February 2006)

In a year (2005) that has witnessed some of the most devastating natural disasters, a book concerning itself with the environmental crisis and literary imagination might at first seem a bit incongruous. The environment and the literary have been partners for quite some time-we might turn to the poetry of Wordsworth or the great Nature poets of America to back that up-yet the new book by Lawrence Buell is timely in more than just its pairing of environment and literature. As part of the Blackwell Manifestos series, Buell's book offers a critical engagement with the fast-growing subject of ecocriticism.

Ecocriticism is, as Cheryl Glotfelty has noted, the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment, and Buell is certainly writing from this position. His earlier writings in many ways brought ecocriticism to the fore in the Academy with both The Environmental Imagination and Writing for an Endangered World being key texts for any engagement with ecocriticism, but it is his work on the writings of Emerson and Thoreau that perhaps signals most clearly his own position.

In The Future of Environmental Criticism Buell offers, as he points out in the Preface, an interim statement for the fast-moving inquiry that is ecocriticism. Yet throughout the book the tension apparent in any discussion of environmental literary criticism is never far from the surface. In what can be read as a reply to Dana Phillips's thinly veiled attack on Buell and others writing from an interior landscape perspective, Buell attempts (successfully) to locate ecocriticism within an Academy which might at first seem to marginalise the subject, and (less successfully) to rid ecocriticism of the 'spectre' that it might not boil down to much more than old-fashioned enthusiasms dressed up in new clothes. Buell is himself however part of the very problem he wishes to address and change.

Time and again Buell brings out the 'big guns' (although not in this case Thoreau or Emerson) to advance the case for the growth and importance of ecocriticism. There is much time devoted to Carson, Leopold, Dillard, and Berry-all very important in the realm of literature which engages with the land, but in concentrating on such 'canonical' figures Buell falls prey to the classic trap of ecocriticism. There is much more to be offered than texts that concentrate on literal representation. As Dana Phillips argues in The Truth of Ecology (a book which has very much more to offer as a clarion call and Manifesto for 'ecocriticism'), we really have to cure ecocriticism of this fixation.

To be fair, Buell does engage with more contemporary writers, yet even when doing so it is more of a slight offering than a full engagement. It would be nice to see him extend his discussion of, say, Ursula LeGuin, Barbara Kingsolver, and especially Derek Walcott. Buell's journey into the postmodern world of Karen Yamashita looks equally exciting, but it is all over too soon. Yet Buell does offer more than just a glimmer of hope for environmental literary criticism. There is an especially challenging and important chapter entitled 'Space, Place, and Imagination from Local to Global', and he does stress the importance of environmental justice and eco-feminism in the continuing rise and standing of ecocriticism.

Sadly this is a book that promises much more than it delivers. A book of such length, which emblazons the word 'future' across the cover, should deliver much more than a summary of the background to ecocriticism. This is done with more clarity and ease of interpretation by Greg Garrard in the recent work in the Routledge new idiom series, simply entitled Ecocriticism. But it is not all bad news-at last someone is attempting to challenge the all-encompassing title of 'ecocriticism'. Buell is tentatively attempting to move away from the totalizing rubric of 'ecocriticism', offering in its place 'environmental criticism' or 'literary-environmental studies'. But again he falls short of shouting out the changes, noting that ecocriticism, being a convenient shorthand, is here to stay. Well, that is not good enough-let us be brave enough to state things as they are. The connotations that surround that dreadful 'eco' will continually tear this new criticism away from the centre and keep it in the margins, to say nothing of the dreaded 'studies' appendage. What about environmental literary criticism? There, that is my manifesto call! A Manifesto should offer much more: it should challenge and offer a way forward. Once again ecocriticism is treading water. This book offers a splendid chance to push the new and exciting area of literary study to the forefront of the Academy, but Buell, invoking the Nature Writers' retrospective gaze, avoids the historical background to the literature, resists the political, and anchors environmental literature to a devotion to natural detail.

So, does Buell offer a way forward? His assessment for the future of environmental literary criticism is positive, pointing to four key challenges-organization; professional legitimation; defining distinctive models of critical inquiry; and establishing their significance beyond the Academy. With ASLE-UK now growing and courses on environmental writing beginning to feature in English departments across the UK, the major challenge might revolve around the last two points. However, Buell must make bolder moves in acknowledging there are other texts available for environmental study and make an even bolder step and move away from a stress on the pastoral and nature poetry. Although he points towards the interdisciplinary nature of environmental literary criticism, he should be shouting its presence, not content to have it remaining on the periphery whispering 'excuse me, can I come in please?'

© Symbiosis, 2006