James C. McKusick

Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology

Bridget Keegan and James C. McKusick, eds.

Literature and Nature: Four Centuries of Nature Writing

James C. McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000. Pp. x, 262. ISBN 0-312-23448-1.

Bridget Keegan and James C. McKusick, eds. Literature and Nature: Four Centuries of Nature Writing, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001). Pp xxii + 1114. ISBN 0-13-012241-6.

Reviewed by Richard Gravil, in Symbiosis 5.2 (October 2001)

James McKusick’s Green Writing is marked by a conviction that ‘eco-criticism’ now exists, or at least ought to exist, as a critical method comparable to Marxist, feminist, Freudian, or deconstructive criticism. It looks back to a claim made initially in Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991), which announced itself as inaugurating a new school of criticism, to rival and supplant the idealism of Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom and the historicisms of Jerome McGann and Alan Liu. Bate argued in a lengthy introduction to that essay, that Romantic studies had been in thrall for too long to rival schools of idealist and Marxist criticism, which promoted equally untenable cases, such as that Wordsworth’s genius was his enmity to nature, or even that ‘there is no nature’ other than as a political construct aiding the poet’s escape from history. Green criticism would supplant both.

It seemed odd, at the time, that anyone should think it necessary to announce that Romanticism was fundamentally concerned with Nature. William Hazlitt, Walter Pater, and Richard Holt Hutton were all attuned to the broadly ecological nature of the central works of Romantic imagination, as was A. N. Whitehead, who remarked, in Science and the Modern World (1938), that Wordsworth’s theme ‘is nature in solido .... He always grasps the whole of nature as involved in the tonality of the particular instance’. Yet perhaps, after a generation in which idealism and materialism conspired to suppress naturalism, the point that Romantics concerned themselves with the real world did indeed need remaking. Since then, Karl Kroeber’s Ecological Literary Criticism (1994) and Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995) have pursued this case, though without looking specifically at transatlantic continuities. James McKusick’s study seeks to remedy this lack, by bringing together Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake and Mary Shelley, John Clare, Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir and Mary Austin.

One of the most practical transatlantic networks in this volume is that between Wordsworth, who concluded his Guide to the Lakes by claiming that a substantial body of Victorians already ‘deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’, Thoreau, who developed the same concept of ‘property’ in Walden, and called in The Maine Woods for ‘national preserves’ to be maintained ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true re-creation’, and the Scottish emigrant John Muir, the imaginative disciple of Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley and Emerson, who helped to inspire America’s National Park system.

Wordsworth, in poems as diverse as ‘The Tables Turned’, a favourite in Emerson’s Boston circle, ‘Tintern Abbey’ and The Prelude, counsels the cultivation of ‘a heart that watches and receives’, explores an awareness that rivers flow through the mind, and shows rocks as dynamic items in the human psyche. Idealist criticism may choose to focus on poems in which the subject is less nature itself than how imagination transcends nature, but as McKusick shows, both Home at Grasmere, and the Guide are undoubtedly preliminary exercises in human ecology: the Guide reads the early 19th century Cumbrian landscape as the product of generations of human culture, or in this case, polyculture. Both in prose and poetry, as McKusick points out, Wordsworth calls attention to species already lost to that culture or on the point of extinction.

Unlike Bate, McKusick takes Coleridge to be a central figure, but he still pays surprisingly little attention to what might be considered the ecological underpinnings of Coleridge’s thought. In his posthumous Theory of Life (1848), referred to but not cited by McKusick, Coleridge defined man as ‘a revelation of Nature’, in which ‘the centripetal and individualising tendency of all Nature is itself concentrated and individualised’. The more influential essays of The Friend (1818), are recognized by McKusick as a formative influence on Transcendentalism but again not treated directly. Yet Coleridge’s most famous desynonymisation in this work—between Reason and Understanding—might be thought profoundly ecological. Reason, Coleridge claimed, gives us ‘substantial knowledge’, or ‘that intuition of things which arises when we possess ourselves as one with the whole’, whereas what results when ‘we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject’ is the ‘abstract knowledge ... of the mere understanding’. McKusick’s approach to Coleridge is recognizably that of the author of Coleridge’s Philosophy of Language (1986)—in fact language gives rise to some of the most detailed scholarship in the chapters on Clare, Thoreau, Emerson and Muir. There is illuminating treatment of Coleridge’s ‘lexical innovations’ in his Keswick notebooks, showing how neologisms are generated in the interaction between landscape and Coleridge’s sensibility, giving practical effect to the theory of language summarised in Emerson’s Nature. In McKusick’s terms, Coleridge’s language in these notebooks is ‘an uniquely ecological idiom, an ecolect’. The chapter includes a vigorous defence of the archaisms in the 1798 text of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ as effectuating a kind of literary conservationism, aiming ‘to enrich and revitalise contemporary poetic diction through the recovery and preservation of archaic words’.

As John Clare is given great prominence in Keegan and McKusick’s anthology, Literature and Nature, it is not surprising that ‘the Northamptonshire Peasant’ gives rise to an especially persuasive chapter in Green Writing. Clare’s context is sketched in terms of the ecological stresses endured in the East Midlands in his lifetime. Earlier approaches to Romanticism have tended to marginalize Clare, and he benefits in this study from attention to his ‘acute awareness of the inter-relatedness of all life forms’ and his ‘environmental advocacy’. McKusick’s detailed readings of such poems as ‘The Pewits Nest’ and ‘Sand Martin’ establish Clare’s ability to combine the ‘point of view’ of observer and observed, while respecting their difference. A more surprising success of the book is a brief treatment of William Blake as a poet who should be valued for his environmental observation, especially the ‘comprehensive catalog of environmental damage’ in Milton and Jerusalem. Blake’s depiction of the destruction of ancient Oak Groves south of Lambeth, burning through the night ‘like clinkers of the furnace’ sticks in the memory along with John Muir’s campaign against hydraulic mining methods. The British part of the volume concludes with an appraisal of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, that worthy (and hugely tedious) parable of nature avenging herself on manipulative man by means of global pandemic.

McKusick makes Emerson and Nature the foundation of the second half of the book, contesting those critics, such as Max Oelschlaeger in The Idea of Wilderness (1991), who have seen Emerson as either other-worldly or anthropocentric. As McKusick concedes, however, both Thoreau and Muir distanced themselves from Emerson’s ‘latent’ or ‘residual’ anthropocentrism. Emerson can, of course, be seen as offering an antidote to materialism, and his goal of changing human aspirations is shared by environmentalists. But if authentic Transcendentalism does in fact come to use nature ‘as the sole criterion by which to judge the utility and ethical value of all human activity’ it travels far from Emerson’s Nature, with its concluding vision of nature as a kind of spiritual commodity. As a prophet of an environmentalist sense of the self, Thoreau— whether discovering that ‘it was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans’, or finding in the thawing sands the genesis of human form—is altogether more convincing. Thoreau is presented, in McKusick’s thoughtful treatment of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden and The Maine Woods, as America’s first ‘deep ecologist’, with a peculiar loyalty to our material existence and suspicious of idealism. McKusick does, however, tend to take the playful Thoreau rather too much at face value, crediting, for instance, his tactical dismissal of ‘the entire English literary tradition’ despite the textual presence in Walden of an astonishingly large part of that tradition.

Treatments of two of the great advocates of Californian wilderness conclude the book. The last chapter is devoted to Mary Austin, whose topographical masterpiece was The Land of Little Rain (1903) and does its best to recuperate her Californian novel The Ford (a sentimental treatment of the Owens Valley catastrophe, complete with happy ending and ecofeminist essentialism). But the more satisfying climax is the penultimate chapter on John Muir, author of The Mountains of California (1896) and perhaps the real hero of this book, alongside Clare. McKusick makes exemplary use of the Muir collections at the Huntington and elsewhere to document this eco-warrior’s lifelong engagement with Romantic poetry and, more surprisingly, his detailed annotation of both Emerson and Coleridge. Muir welcomed Emerson to Yosemite in 1871, describing him later as ‘serene as a sequoia, his head in the empyrean’, and tried unsuccessfully to seduce the sage into a spontaneous camping trip in the mountains, teasing him with quotations from his earlier self. (Emerson retaliated, later, by attempting to lure him Eastward from his mountain habitat.) Muir annotated the essays Emerson sent him, objecting to the philosopher’s aloofness from nature and his anthropocentric perspective. This contrast between between Emerson, the hardest Romantic to imagine in shirt-sleeves, and Muir, a genuine naturalist, is unintendedly telling. Muir’s narrative of climbing the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruce, to the very tip, to enjoy their swinging in the mountain breeze— ‘The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed’—brings out his deep affinity to Shelley, whose winds, as sentient as Muir’s tend to be, visit Mont Blanc to hear the music of the pines.

The extended passage from which this quotation is taken is included in Literature and Nature, a major anthology intended to service survey courses on Literature and the Environment, and covering the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like many such anthologies it will frustrate those looking for substantial representations of particular authors (there are only five poems by Ted Hughes, for instance; though it is a mark of the quality of selection that two of those are both fine and hardly ever noticed). Inevitably, the anthology becomes balanced between British and American writing only in its third, nineteenth-century section, and less inevitably, seems imbalanced in the twentieth. The focus on nature writing can lead to rather unadventurous selections (some of Dickinson’s finest nature writing is absent, and Lawrence’s prose responses to Alpine and desert scenery are major omissions) but no other anthology enables a student to travel the nineteenth century via Lewis and Clark, Wordsworth, Audubon, Darwin, Thoreau, Ruskin, Whitman, Rossetti, Muir, and Hardy.

It is observed in The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought that if ecology comes to be used to describe any environmental activity that its user considers desirable, or in Bate’s terms, ‘a respect for the earth and a scepticism as to the orthodoxy that economic growth and material production are the be-all and end-all of human society’, scientists will need another term for scientific description of how organisms interact with their environment. James McKusick quarrels with Karl Kroeber for calling the Romantics ‘proto-ecological’, a term which seems both exact and laudatory. If poetry’s business is to imagine what we know (Shelley) and what we do not yet know (Keats) it performs it, perhaps, by postulating the goals towards which consequitive reasoning, or ecologists with muddy boots, might strive. Inspired by some of the wilder speculations of the Encyclopaedists and some of the more promising discoveries of Enlightenment science, the Romantics made their grasp of nature as a living system into a new kind of a priori. Perhaps to call their vision proto-ecological is to recognise it as the prototype of all such enquiry?


© Symbiosis, 2001