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James C. McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology

Monday, September 30, 2002 - 10:58
James C. McKusick, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2000. x + 261pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-23448-1).

Reviewed by
Kevin Hutchings
University of Northern British Columbia

James C. McKusick is one of the pioneers of Green Romanticism, an emerging critical movement investigating Romantic literature in relation to the histories of ecological thought and environmental activism. His most recent book, entitled Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology, is among the important contributions McKusick has made to literary scholarship as an author of ecocritical articles, a guest editor of special periodical issues on Romanticism and Ecology, and co-editor of a significant new anthology of nature writing.1 What sets McKusick's work apart from that of Jonathan Bate and Karl Kroeber, the earliest and most widely cited advocates of English Green Romanticism, is its avoidance of an overtly polemical basis for the establishment of ecological literary criticism.2 This difference in critical approach is a crucial one, for Bate's and Kroeber's heated dismissals of New Historicist and poststructuralist critical perspectives have arguably done as much to impede the cause of Romantic ecocriticism as to encourage its advancement. By rejecting the ground-breaking insights of Alan Liu, Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, and other socially minded Romantic scholars, Bate and Kroeber have not only helped to consolidate the view that contemporary literary theory and ecocriticism are dichotomously opposed and irreconcilable; whether deservedly or not, they have helped to perpetuate the stereotype that environmental studies scholars are reactionary anti-intellectuals whose work is idealistically naive and dangerously misanthropic (because somehow disengaged from fundamental issues of social justice). In an era wherein the editorial board of a mainstream journal no less important than PMLA has by its own admission unfairly characterized environmental criticism as critically "soft" "hug-the-tree stuff,"3 Green Romanticism needs more advocates like McKusick, whose arguments are persuasive without being needlessly polemical, succeeding not by virtue of a negatively reasoned attack upon the established views of others, but on the solid constructive basis of their own intellectual rigor and critical merit.

In a nutshell, Green Writing traces the effaced history of American environmentalism by questioning the "dismissive appraisal of English literature" (3) that often informs early American writing. In particular, by examining ecological concepts in the English Romantic writings of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Clare, Blake, and Mary Shelley, McKusick's book helpfully contextualizes the natural philosophies of such early American environmentalists as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and Austin. Important differences notwithstanding, these English and American Romantics shared the common desire to change "the historical trajectory of human culture" by criticizing "modern technological hubris" and by affirming the ecological interdependence of all living creatures, whether human or non-human (227). By deploying an interdisciplinary approach combining traditional literary methods of close reading with insights garnered from the history of science and environmental thought, McKusick's book articulates a refreshingly new and critically incisive understanding of the authors and primary texts under study.

Provocatively, Green Writing challenges the common view, first articulated by Karl Kroeber, that the English Romantics were "proto-ecological" thinkers,4 arguing instead that these authors were in fact "the first full-fledged ecological writers in the Western literary tradition" (19). McKusick thus rejects the thesis that Romantic naturalism was ultimately frustrated by an insufficiency of scientific knowledge (its historical lack, in particular, of a Darwinian--and thus genuinely ecological--understanding of natural process). For McKusick, on the contrary, the English Romantics were themselves the genuine progenitors of modern-day ecological thought. According to Green Writing, for example, Wordsworth is an early pioneer of "human ecology" (70); Clare becomes "the first 'deep' ecological writer in the English literary tradition" (78); Shelley and Austen are early advocates of ecofeminism (109-10, 213-16); Emerson invents the field of ecolinguistics (124); and Thoreau takes his place as "America's first Deep Ecologist" (147). While this incomplete summary oversimplifies the finely nuanced and carefully dialectical arguments of Green Writing, it should help to suggest the important role Romantic literature plays in McKusick's literary history of environmentalism. If McKusick's basic claims are correct, his concluding admonition, that modern-day ecological scientists "would be well advised to reconsider the various conceptual frameworks afforded" by English and American Romantic writers (228), is by no means as audacious as it might at first seem. On the contrary, this advice conveys a much-needed call for further interdisciplinary dialogue between the arts and the sciences.

One of my favorite sections of Green Writing is its brief but illuminating analysis of various works by William Blake (works ranging from The Songs of Experience to Jerusalem). While Green Romanticists and other ecological critics often invoke Blake's famous poetic critique of Albion's "dark Satanic Mills," they have rarely examined Blake's writings in detail.5 McKusick's inclusion of Blake is important; for unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Clare, Blake was no overt champion of nature; indeed, his tendency to focus on social rather than strictly natural concerns might be regarded as a criticism of the polemical arguments offered by ecological critics who advocate a movement in literary criticism away from social or "red" concerns toward ecological or "green" ones.6 McKusick's reading of Blake emphasizes the poet's response to London's contemporary industrialization, including the ways in which industrial capitalism adversely effected both the natural environment and the working-class population. This implicit combination of "green" and "red" perspectives succinctly demonstrates Green Writing's admirable tendency to account for both environmental and social realities. One can say the same thing about McKusick's interpretations of John Clare's poetry: his analysis of Clare's ecological sensibility is as remarkable for its attention to the poet's unique literary naturalism as it is for its concern to elucidate the important implications of Clare's status as a member of the contemporary peasantry. Pointing out that Clare belonged to a social class whose members were often regarded as human "vermin" (94), McKusick draws a telling parallel between anti-ecological and social modes of exclusion and "othering."

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Green Writing is its emphasis upon the importance of language in English and American literary representations of the natural environment. This emphasis is an important one, for it implicitly foregrounds literature's status as a linguistic and discursive activity, suggesting that the ecological awareness green writing attempts to inspire in its readers is ineluctably implicated in social conventions and traditions. Nevertheless, in his discussions of Emerson's theory of linguistic origins, McKusick sympathetically investigates Emerson's thesis that human language developed historically in response to environmental stimuli. Emerson's ecolinguistic approach to language may seem untenable to modern-day literary scholars, who generally accept Ferdinand de Saussure's position that signifiers refer not to things but to concepts; but Emerson's argument that human concepts are themselves "originally derived from human experience in the natural world" (126) may provide a way for ecological critics to theorize possible connections between language and the natural world, and thus to question the abstract and sometimes insufficiently contextualized character of structural linguisitics.

Earlier in Green Writing, in contrast to Emerson's naturalistic theory of linguistic origins, McKusick deploys the concept of ecotone (a term used to signify the liminal or transitional spaces where diverse ecosystems meet, mingle, and differentiate themselves) to clarify Coleridge's related ecological and linguistic concerns in "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere." McKusick's discussions of various ecotonal spaces in this poem--for example, the boundary areas between ship and sea, forest and sea, and sea and air--set the stage for an ecolinguistic analysis in which human experience in nature is understood as the product of a dialogical encounter between humanity and non-human otherness, an encounter occurring in a dynamic ecotonal space of productive linguistic uncertainty.7 This concept of language is useful not only because it helps us to understand the Mariner's ultimate transformation in "Rime"; it also serves to remind us that, despite our best intentions and efforts, humans can never access an "unmediated, unalienated relationship with nature."8 At the same time, however, an ecotonal concept of linguistic activity provocatively suggests that human interaction with the non-human world need not be conceived entirely in terms of an imperialist and anthropocentric exercise of human power over nature (as is evident in the Mariner's cruel mistreatment of the Albatross). On the contrary, the notion that human experiences in nature occur in "a language contact zone (or linguistic ecotone)" (50) optimistically suggests that nature itself may exert some significant influence upon humans, exercising a degree of agency in the encounter between humanity and nature (despite the most concerted human efforts to objectify, instrumentalize, and subjugate the non-human world).

Another interesting moment in Green Writing's analysis of language occurs in McKusick's treatment of Thoreauvian naturalism. In this chapter, McKusick balances his discussion of Thoreau's comparatively self-assured pastoral and georgic writings on Walden Pond by undertaking an examination of Thoreau's extreme discomfort in the wilder regions of the Maine Woods, where the poet-philosopher's "largely literary ideas about landscape" no longer suffice (163). In this wild encounter with external otherness, Thoreau discovers his own internal wildness, the frightening otherness at the core of his own being. McKusick's examination of this aspect of Thoreau's self-representation suggests his basic agreement with ecophilosopher Thomas Birch, who deploys a Foucauldian critical framework to argue that wildness--in both its human and non-human manifestations--indeed has the ability to destabilize complacently anthropocentric conceptions of selfhood.9 But McKusick takes this idea much further than Birch's Foucauldian discourse theory will allow, going so far as to suggest that Thoreau may ultimately have transcended his own socially constructed sense of self, finding in the encounter with wildness "a genuinely external perspective upon the prevailing and largely unexamined values of his own society" (169). Given the overall sophistication of McKusick's discourse on nature, language, and human interaction with nature, readers of Green Writing will certainly want to examine this section of the book's argument most carefully.

Green Writing is a splendid and provocative work of socially engaged ecological criticism, offering readers much food for thought. Because it so helpfully clarifies the Romantic origins of contemporary ecology, I wholeheartedly recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in environmental history, Romantic nature writing, or ecological literary criticism. As McKusick states in passing--and as his book convincingly demonstrates--a properly informed Green Romantic criticism can and must go "beyond the trite observation that much Romantic writing celebrates the beauty of nature" (110). With its concerns for the social, economic, and linguistic aspects of Romantic ecology, Green Writing goes far beyond such trite observations. By considering some of the complex relationships existing among what Félix Guattari has called "the three ecologies"--those of "the environment, the socius, and the psyche"10-- McKusick's fine book demonstrates how ecological literary criticism may help us to account for "the total material context of literary production" (15).

1. McKusick has edited special Green Romantic issues of The Wordsworth Circle (28.3, 1997) and the Romantic Circles Praxis Series (on-line at <>). His anthology, co-edited with Bridget Keegan, is entitled Literature and Nature: Four Centuries of Nature Writing (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001). (Back)

2. See Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991) and Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (New York: Columbia UP, 1994). (Back)

3. Explaining their recent decision not to publish a special issue devoted to literature and ecology, the editors of PMLA offered the following rationale: "However unfair this may be, a general perception is that environmental studies is 'soft.' As several board members put it ..., it is characterized as 'hug-the-tree stuff'" (qtd. in Scott Slovic, "Ecocriticism: Containing Multitudes, Practicing Doctrine," ASLE News 11.1 [1999]: 5-6), 6. (Back)

4. See Karl Kroeber, 5. (Back)

5. A notable exception is Mark S. Lussier's Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2000), which includes detailed analyses of Blake's major works. (Back)

6. See, Bate, 8-9. (Back)

7. McKusick attributes the concept of linguistic ecotone to Romand Coles, "Ecotones and Environmental Ethics: Adorno and Lopez," in In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics, and the Environment, ed. Jane Bennett and William Chaloupka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 243. (Back)

8. I borrow this phrase from Bate, 29. (Back)

9. See Thomas H. Birch, "The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness Areas as Prisons," in Postmodern Environmental Ethics, ed. Max Oelschlaeger (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, 137-61), especially 151-52. (Back)

10. See Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995), 20. (Back)