Original in conception, James C. McKusick’s Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology relates the environmentalism and ecological perspectives of canonical British Romantic writers—suggestively explored, for instance, by Jonathan Bate’s version of Wordsworth in Romantic Ecology (1991)—to recent scholarly investigations into the legacies of Romanticism in America. McKusick’s study traces lines of Romantic influence that extend from William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare, William Blake and Mary Shelley to nature’s representation in the American literary tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Mary Austin. Through an examination of variously conflicting critical conceptions of nature proffered by David Abram, Karl Kroeber, Clifford Geertz, and Alan Liu, McKusick places these debates concerned with the ecological beliefs of Romanticism at the centre of a stand-off between New Historicism and ecocriticism in Romantic studies. McKusick’s negotiates this intellectual impasse with an ecologically orientated history of literary criticism in the United States over the last sixty years, spanning from formalism to post-structuralism, to illustrate how New Criticism’s investment in the literary object as a sacred organic icon and New Historicism’s foregrounding of the socio-political context that affected a text’s inception are, ultimately, reductive accounts. At opposite ends of the spectrum, New Criticism wrests Romantic organicism from its environmental context and New Historicism conceives of the environment and nature as ideological constructs denied their own space. These antagonistic theoretical positions, in McKusick’s view, require a more expansive and less mutually exclusive definition that conceives of “nature” as both socially constructed and biologically inseparable from being itself (15). This all-inclusive sense of nature permits an ecocriticism that attends to the inherent organic formal properties of literary works as well as the environmental context and natural surroundings in which such texts were written.
McKusick discovers in early Coleridgean ideas on the inter-related economy of nature and his “mature theory of aesthetic organicism” a template for his own eco-critical methodology (42). Coleridge’s later meditations on self-regulating artistic form begin, for McKusick, to crystallize an “understanding of the various ways that human artefacts can work in harmony with their natural surroundings” (43). Through such a delicately poised ecocritical approach, Wordsworth as poet and man is read by McKusick as an advocate of a homespun “human ecology” (70) alert to the complexities of the interaction between denizens of Grasmere and the natural environs of the Lake District. In this context, Wordsworth’s “The Female Vagrant” is centrally preoccupied with a lifestyle reliant on “multiple modes of subsistence” and exemplifies the poet’s “fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the best way of life in a rural community” (65, 62). What emerges is the valorization of a carefully managed symbiosis between the domesticated cultivation of a garden or smallholding and the unfettered wilderness beyond those defined boundaries. Wordsworth, McKusick contends, is a self-elected spokesman for all those creatures who exist “beyond the pale, outside the conventional boundaries of human civilization” without home, comfort, or commodity (65).
These restorative powers of uncontained nature are essential to the human drama played out by protagonist of Wordsworth’s moonlit forest adventure in “The Idiot Boy,” where, mediated by “Johnny’s encounter with the wild, the entire village finds itself healed of its sickness, purged of its indifference to others, and transformed into a more integral and caring human community” (66). This emphasis on the co-existence of these cultivated and uncultivated ecosystems is, for McKusick, the key to understanding Wordsworth’s depiction of the “pastoral farms” (Tintern Abbey, 17) as recommending a harmonious existence “with the wild habitat that surrounds them” (67). Wordsworth’s ecological commitment to the preservation of the rural landscape and traditional farming methods is considered in relation to mounting economic pressure in the 1790s, exacerbated by Britain’s increased involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, for a modernization of agricultural methods of production. When Wordsworth’s own beloved Lake District was threatened by the proposed Kendal to Windermere Railway, his vehement objections to this ever-increasing mechanization and urbanization of rural life were vigorously voiced in his poetry and prose. Wordsworth’s opposition to the railway on the grounds that the Lake District would be accessible to the sprawling urban working class, McKusick argues, is offset by a genuine concern for his impoverished rural neighbours. In spite of this evident stereotyping of urbanized labourers as aesthetically insensitive, Wordsworth’s social liberalism is redeemable, McKusick suggests, because his prescient ecology envisions our present circumstances, in which urbanization has proven to be the “ruin of the rural landscape for everyone” regardless of their economic status (76).
Following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge, John Clare’s distinctly regional poetry first published in the collection Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) is, according to McKusick, “rooted in the bedrock of [Clare’s] lifelong affection for the land and the people of his native village, Helpston” (79). McKusick believes that past critical interpretations by John Barrell, Johanne Clare, and Raymond Williams all too readily subscribe to a received reputation of Clare as a self-educated “peasant-poet” (78) and fail to register fully his work’s decisive contribution to environmental debate as “one of the inaugurating moments of ecological consciousness in English literature” (79). Clare, in McKusick’s reading, is an advocate of environmentalism who opposed the modernizing agricultural practice of enclosure and bitterly lamented the loss of communal fields, marsh, and scrub land, as their demise marked the obliteration of a traditional mode of existence that had regulated itself in accord with the natural rhythms of daily and seasonal change for centuries. It is precisely this intimate knowledge and awareness of natural variation and patterns that Clare’s poetry emulates through its deliberate disruption of narrative expectation, causality, and temporality in its casual, colloquial, and meandering exposition of events. Clare prefers, as McKusick writes, “a synchronic moment that reflects the daily and seasonal patterns of agricultural and biological existence” to the conventional paradigms of chronology, causality and taxonomy (81). By retaining his authentic dialect in verse, which obstinately refuses assimilation into “the technological mainstream” (82), Clare’s poetic diction manages to preserve the harmonious fusion of his particular idiom, which is peculiar to a constructed sense of local place, with the natural conditions of the local environment. This unification of idiom, place, and environment finds its most extreme expression, McKusick argues, when in “The Lament of Swordy Well” Clare revises “the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia” to permit the Earth to speak in “a direct and immediate way” to the poem’s audience (86). Here as elsewhere in his poetry, Clare venerates nature as wild, random, free from the impositions of human intervention and unfettered by the attendant demands of economic productivity. Given Clare’s own marginal social and economic position in the human web of relations, his poetic depiction of nature obviates construing the natural environment as an untamed otherness to cultivation and circumscribes a pastoral (often lamented) idyll of a wilderness that he was proud to celebrate as his rightful and natural dwelling-place.
William Blake’s apocalyptic ecological vision, McKusick observes, is firmly founded in the urbanized city life of London and distinct from the artistic and spiritual nourishment that Clare, Wordsworth, and Coleridge derive from the harmonious goings-on of rural communities, attuned to their surrounding natural environment through an intuitive sympathy. Often showing awareness of the ills of urbanized existence, Blake’s two prophetic books, Milton and Jerusalem, as logical outcomes of Blake’s earlier poetic rejection of “conventional pastoral or georgic imagery,” present the reader with “a utopian vision of urban renewal” (104). These negative effects of pollution, poor sanitation, venereal disease, and an infringement of civil liberties are graphically visible in Blake’s “London” from Songs of Experience and further substantiated by a catalogue of environmental catastrophe (both actual and projected) recorded in Four Zoas, Jerusalem, and Milton. Blake’s mature vision of the City of Art, Golgonooza, is an imaginative representation of what London has the potential to become if “transformed and humanized by the creative energy of Los, who serves as a mythic counterpart to the struggling artist” (104-5). Yet, for Blake, this potentiality resides less in the cityscape itself than in the enormously resourceful and limitless creativity of the human spirit once released from the bondage of those “mind-forg’d manacles” (“London,” 8). In Blake “there is no need to escape from the city to the countryside” (106), McKusick claims, as this liberated human imagination is capable of fashioning at will any environ into an organic and self-regulating order so long as it remains ever vigilant to the serious ramifications of over-reliance on new technologies. In “a less qualified” (110) vision of environmental apocalypse than that watched over by Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” (Milton, Plate 1, 8), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man predicts a cataclysmic “global pandemic” that stems from humanity’s “reckless innovation” in the fields of technology and science (110). In spite of a difference in emphasis, McKusick claims that important lessons can be gleaned from “[a] re-examination of the environmental concerns of the English Romantic period,” as our own “modern set of concerns about environmental pollution” (111, 110) have helped us appreciate the writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Clare, Blake, and Shelley as a testament to their “desperate sense of alienation from the natural world” and how they and ourselves must “endeavour to re-establish a vital, sustainable relationship between humankind and the fragile planet on which we live” (110).
These valuable environmental and ecological lessons of British Romanticism are potentially as instructive to us today as they were to the High Romantic tradition in mid-nineteenth-century America, famously initiated by the writings of Emerson and Thoreau about nature. Emerson’s own peculiar, yet loosely defined, brand of Transcendentalism, McKusick illustrates, is indebted to the thinking of “German transcendental philosophers” which disseminated, through “Coleridge and Carlyle,” into the distorted representation of their ideas in his own writings (134). Although Emerson’s essays are, perhaps, the most well-known and often cited of any “American author,” they are, McKusick believes, also the most misunderstood (133). Critical readings of Emerson regard his transcendentalism as upholding a Cartesian anthropocentrism when, in fact, it articulates, in McKusick’s opinion, “a post-humanistic philosophy that makes Nature, rather than the quaint traditions of human culture, the source of all worthwhile knowledge and the repository of all enduring ethical values” (136). Emerson advocates a holistic vision of nature, which exists simultaneously as a venerated ideal and as a dynamic process witnessed in the cyclical changes of the material world and, finally, is derived from an ecological conscience already firmly embedded in “the Romantic tradition” (139).
McKusick comprehensively demonstrates that writings by Thoreau, Emerson’s contemporary, were equally founded upon an extensive knowledge of British Romantics (including amongst others Walter Scott, De Quincey, Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, and Felicia Hemans). Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) diverge from the abstracted metaphysics of Emersonian Transcendentalism and “tawny grammar” (157) to establish an alternative mode of grounded “natural language” (159) that described nature’s operations in temporally specific occurrences unquestionably situated in the material world. Thoreau rigorously interrogates both those remnants of a Cartesian notion of subjectivity which he inherited from his mentor, Emerson, and the philosophical speculations of Coleridge to promote “a more authentic relation to the wild” which, inevitably, involved an immersion of “himself entirely in a world of matter, with his sense of taste and smell attuned to the most subtle of stimuli” and an utter abandonment of his “socially constructed” self (169). In spite of their ecological and philosophical differences, Emerson and Thoreau provide an inescapable backdrop to American ecological writings produced and published at the turn of the century. Even if connections between Emerson and Thoreau and later environmentally orientated authors in the American literary tradition are long established, McKusick notes that an increased alertness to the continuing presence of a Romantic sensibility in those founding works of American Transcendentalism illuminates the post-Romantic negotiations with the natural environment conducted by John Muir and Mary Austin, regardless of whether they affirm or negate this Romanticism’s influences.
Of Scottish birth, John Muir settled as a child in Wisconsin in 1845, and as an adult, in a bid to evade conscription during the American Civil War, spent “several months” solitarily roaming the northern wilderness of Michigan and Canada (171). During his lifetime, Muir also extensively explored the mountainous wilderness of Sierre Nevada and embarked on a thousand mile botanical trek to Florida. His first publication, The Mountains of California (1894), earned Muir a reputation as an “advocate for the preservation of the wilderness” and he emerged as “a tireless defender of the National Park system” through his other publications, including My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), Travels in Alaska (1915) and A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916) (172). Read through the Romanticism of Walter Scott and Robert Burns, Muir’s work is regarded, by McKusick, as a radical extension of Thoreau’s challenge to Cartesian ontology which harshly distinguishes between the superiority of man and the inferiority of beasts, strongly asserting “the fundamental equivalence between wild creatures and human beings” (174). Confirming the apocalyptic prophecies of William Blake and Mary Shelley Muir diagnoses, in McKusick’s words, “the Cartesian disjuncture between humankind and the natural world” as resulting in “the alienation of Western man from the places he inhabits, and his rapacious use of technology to extract raw materials from deep within the bowels of the earth, has inexorably led to environmental destruction” (175).
Less trusting of Coleridge’s mature “Christian humanism,” Muir finds himself, especially in his short story Stickeen (1897; revised and expanded 1909), in accord with those aspects of Coleridge’s thought that “affirmed a concept of organic form” and “a holistic treatment of the continuum of animal species,” which celebrates the binding together of all living things in companionship (192). Muir’s commitment moves beyond “the mere aestheticization of nature” on the basis of visual or intellectual “appeal” to a genuine conviction that all creatures—even Burns’s “[w]ee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie” (“To a Mouse,” 1 )—“deserve to exist in and for themselves” (193).
Mary Austin’s early-twentieth-century novel Land of Little Rain (1903) curtails Muir’s exuberant celebration of the American Wilderness by a graphic “depiction of [those] desert creatures that live in a permanent condition of scarcity” (195). Testifying to economic and domestic hardship, Austin’s work, including a second novel The Land of Journeys’ Ending (1924) and her autobiography Earth Horizon (1932), offers an “ecofeminist vision of the natural world” (195). Like Muir’s writing, Austin’s fiction is the product of her first hand experience—only in this case not of the Northern Wilderness, but of eking out a self-sustained agricultural existence in the American West. Such a rugged subsistence leads Austin to question, as does Muir, “the latent anthropocentrism lurking in Emerson’s writings” by portraying the natural topography of the West as hard, obdurate, hostile, and indifferent to the plight of humanity, if not at moments utterly devoid of life (201). Emulating Wordsworth’s concerns over the effect of a growing tourist industry aimed at the masses in the Lake District, Austin is wary of “destructive technologies” and “deplores the blundering presence and the disfiguring traces left by modern American travel[l]ers” in the Western wilderness (204). Her anxieties about “the indiscriminate disposal of solid waste” and its long-term impact on those “natural cycles that sustain and nourish life,” McKusick feels, were “well-founded” and have been borne out by the impending environmental catastrophe of the twenty-first century, for which precisely how to deal with “non-recyclable waste” has become a crucial ecological issue (204). In accordance with other writings in the British Romantic tradition (she had read closely Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, to name but a few), Austin’s work worships the beauty of natural landscapes in the hopeful expectation that this “sympathetic identification” with the wilderness will provide a key to translating the inscrutable hieroglyphics of nature (222). At this point in “the English and American tradition of nature writing,” Austin is identified as unique in “her profound appreciation [of] the harsh beauty of desert places” and evocation of those “austere patterns of desert life” (222-3). At least for Austin, “the human mind” does not find a “companionable form” (Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight,” 19) in the “arid environment” of “the South-western landscape,” but only an enticing and increasingly “unspoken, enigmatic significance” (McKusick, 222).
American and British Romanticism, for McKusick, outline a plethora of possible “roads not taken” by our own twenty-first century “material culture” in the face of a mounting potential natural calamity (228). Reading American environmental literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with careful attention to the ecological anxieties of British Romanticism revitalizes our critical perception of how Romantic figurations of the natural world established positive as well as negative models for the founding works of American Transcendentalism and its literary offspring. By delineating the genealogy of ecologically sympathetic representations of nature in Britain and America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, McKusick’s invaluable study Green Writing contributes to our understanding of the dispersal and critique of German Kantian Idealism, Cartesian notions of subjectivity, and Lamarckian evolutionary theory in the wider cultural phenomena of European and American Romanticism, providing an important addendum to ecocritical interpretations of British Romantic writers and a fascinating new ecological context for remapping the relations between Romanticism and modernity.
- Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Design, ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. Norton: New York, 1979.
- Burns, Robert. Robert Burns:Selected Poetry, eds. Angus Calder and William Donelly. Penguin Poetry Library Ser. Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1991.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Coleridge: Selected Poetry, ed. Richard Holmes. Harper: London, 1996.
- Marvell, Andrew. Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, ed. Elizabeth Donno Story. Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1987.