Did Barack Obama destroy Rajon Rondo’s jump shot?

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The Fabulous Fungus of Sensationalism

Is there such a thing as “good nature writing”? Mabel Osgood Wright seems to think so in her essay “Life Outdoors and Its Effect Upon Literature”. Mostly, her criteria for good nature writing is based upon the idea of practical – the Life outdoors is for the “the betterment of health and mental energy” (157), genderless – “nature is one and indivisible, the eternal male and female” (156), and factual writing – “a public appeal… for information… must take a permanent rank as literature” (157).

She dismisses those who do not approach nature writing in this practical yet still, in her mind, lovely way. Wright reminds me of a skeptic who can’t stand gossip magazines at the grocery stores – she demands an even-keeled, non-discriminatory, yet still artistic way of presenting “truth”. She writes, “There are originators and there are imitators. There are discoverers and there are guessers, there are seers and there are braggarts. That a distinct line should be drawn between these classes is of the greatest importance to those who wish ‘to know’” (158). Her dismissal of a more subjective approach to nature makes me wonder what DOES it mean “to know”? Is there any precise and absolute thing about nature that I absolutely need to know? If it means reading inventories such as the journals of Lewis and Clark or the exhaustive observations of Susan Fenimore Cooper, then I must personally object. To me, that kind of writing is as uninteresting as reading a textbook. Trying to confine nature writing to the clean and clear takes away the messiness and beauty of art.

Of course, Wright calls that messiness and beauty something else: “Sensationalism is a fungus of the early morning that appears in the generously fertilized flower-beds of all branches of literature and is generally dispelled by the sun long before noon” (159). In her essay, I sense that she wants to be that sun to dispel this fungus of sensationalism. She is the voice of reason, she is the call to arms. I can almost imagine her wrinkling her nose at such imaginative “fungus” literature!

And I wrinkle my nose at Wright. After all, sure we decry gossip magazines, but one must admit that they’re intriguing. Let’s put it bluntly: there’s an imitator, guesser, and braggart in all of us. And I would dare say that maybe there’s a part of Wright that wishes she could let that side show. At the end of her essay, Wright describes the merits and demerits of several animal stories and says at last: “Aside from the controversial side as to whether these eight stories are to be classified as natural history or fiction, these tales of the northern trails are dull and lifeless… For some reason, we care very little bout the animals portrayed… insistence upon truth and verbosity of detail and palpable word painting are not creative qualities, and nowhere is there a single breath of… genius” (162).

Come on Wright, maybe that “genius” is sensationalism.

 

Animals and objectivity in the “Nature Faker” controversy

Although I found arguments on each side of the “Nature Faker” debate compelling, I must ultimately side with Long. Burroughs and Roosevelt shared a narrow-minded Cartesian conception of non-human animals, wherein all animals “were assumed to be creatures of instinct and habit. They were described in classes, under the assumption that all animals of the same class are alike”. (Long 123) But as Long countered and study in the field of ecology since this controversy transpired helps to confirm, every sentient being experiences life from a unique perspective and therefore is endowed with some level of individuality and personality. Burroughs’ insistence upon strict adherence to some undefined standard of objectivity in nature writing was only justified in a world where humans are capable of making unbiased observations, a world that, in light of the notion that no two beings can share precisely the same viewpoint, seems not to exist.

“[T]he study of Nature is a vastly different thing from the study of Science,” claims Long. “Above and beyond the world of facts and law, with which alone Science concerns itself, is an immense and almost unknown world of suggestion and freedom and inspiration, in which the individual…must struggle against fact and law to develop or keep his own individuality” (122). Long seems to have recognized the existence of objective fact—something I personally would dispute—and yet deemed the human imagination as having an undeniable influence on an individual’s portrayal of reality. His depiction of, for example, a mother duck giving her babies their first introduction to water Burroughs dismisses because Long chooses words like “teaching” and “lesson” to describe the event, which Burroughs considers to be anthropomorphic to a fault. However Burroughs plainly subscribes to the Emersonian idea that the lives of non-human animals can act as narrative reflections of humanity. It appears at times merely a semantic issue that so virulently divides the authors in this controversy, with those in Burrough’s camp discrediting Long and his fellows over nature stories that seem too interesting to be true-to-life retellings.

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

Wright “good nature writing” suggestions.

What criteria does Mabel Osgood Wright propose for “good nature writing?” Do you agree with her criteria? What would you add to her list? In other words, how would you define “good nature writing?”

Mabel Osgood Wright describes a historical transition from a view of that “Nature and depravity were interchangeable terms,” (Wright 156) bases primarily on a Puritanical New England mindset to literature suggesting that man lead a life outdoors, to” meet Nature upon the higher plane of the desire or perfect mental and physical understanding. (Wright 157) Her first suggestion is that nature needs to be portrayed from its own point of view instead of viewing it as “economic humanity” which vaguely advocated a preservation of nature so future generations can utilize and enjoy.

Her second suggestion is that nature no longer be gendered. She insists on nature as a sexless, indivisible. Wright suggests by feminizing nature it characterized it as incomplete or lacking. As nature has all sorts of male and feminie smpeices and qualities, placing one gender on nature stops one from upholding her next suggestion. That nature be seen “pure and simple.” Wright speaks lowly of writers who conjure up elaborate humanizations of animal live that are ill formed or outright unrealistic. She suggests that “braggarts,” people who write about nature without actually experiencing it firsthand, are counter what Nature Study writing is about. Using the discretion of “wiser men, [and] firsthand and accurate observers” (Wright 162) robs the text of authenticity, as writing about nature has as much to do with the individual and his/her observations as the subject itself. If the last suggestion were to be summed up it would be authenticity in expression and experience. I find this the most important criteria for evaluating nature texts and would even consider a journal kept at the time of composing the work be included as a preface to publication.

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

Animal Individualism in “The ‘Nature Faker’ Controversy”

I found the argument about animal individualism by William Long to be one of the most compelling. He states that “birds and animals (and even the insects, especially the solitary wasps and spiders) differ greatly among themselves in individual characteristics and habits…Every animal he studies closely is different from every other animal, for nature seems to abhor repetition as she abhors a vacuum. As among men, the differences, which lie deep, are much harder to detect than the resemblances, which are mostly on the surface (Mazel 127).

This argument correlates so much with the way in which people treat zoos, animals in the wild, and even pets. While usual pets like cats and dogs are frequently seen as having their own personalities, many other animals are thought of as being solely a member of whatever species, and not as an individual animal within that species. Particularly smaller animals, as Long mentions, liked wasps and spiders. Generally people are able to see that larger animals (tigers, deer, turkeys, etc.) do in fact have separate personalities if they consider it, but it is harder to imagine individual spiders and wasps having their own desires and goals.

As we discussed last week this applies easily to zoos as well. People visit zoos, moving from exhibit to exhibit, expecting animals to behave a certain way, and then when the animals don’t live up to their expectations they are disappointed. These animals are individual animals, so “[w]hat do you expect? It’s not a dead object you have come to look at, it’s alive. It’s leading it’s own life” (Berger 24). Although he was referring more so to how awful it is to keep animals on display like that, I think it could apply to individualism as well as he does touch on that a bit throughout his text. Those who visit zoos expect all lions. for instance, to act like their preconceived notion of what a lion should act like, and completely disregard that each lion they view is its own being that will not necessarily act like that.

There is a tendency for people to lump nature together as “all nature,” or even down to individual species, but individual beings are frequently overlooked. This absolutely makes it easier for humans to continue to dominate over them if we believe they are all the same and disregard the fact that like us, they are all different and varying and should be treated as such.

 

Berger, John. About Looking. International Ch./Art: Why Look at Animals? P. 3-28. pub. Vintage Sept 1991

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

 

Wright or Wrong: “Good” Nature Writing

Whilst reading “Mabel Osgood Wright on Nature, Gender, Outdoor Life and Fiction,” something that is made very clear for good nature writing is an emphasis on truth.  She values authors to stick specifically to their experiences and refrain from embellishing. Elaborating beyond the truthful experience leads to falsehoods which misleads the reader and cheapens the work and its value. I don’t agree with her notion of what good nature writing it because in class I have been personally affected by more mystical/embellished writing than what Wright would deem of “literary merit.” Wright assesses historical writing on nature were “mere inventories, and the values given were of food and meat, not loveliness” (155). In my opinion, adhering to Wright’s guidelines of “good nature writing” would bolster this notion of viewing nature more as a commodity versus taking it in the sublime sense. The reality of today is that nature is most commonly used as a commodity, and in order to view nature as otherwise, one must think outside the usual realm of reality. In order to achieve this thought process, one must in a a way, be able to dismiss the confines of reality and alter their perception of nature. Once this is accomplished, we are then able to switch our perspectives and admire the “loveliness” afforded by nature rather than the superficial values of “meat and food.” Wright acknowledges the “natural world affords an appropriate vehicle for fiction and that fiction conveys truth of its own” (155). However, she destroys this notion by following it with the “question of literary merit” (155).  To me, the concept of literary merit is a work from which cultural or aesthetic value can be derived. Under these requirements, a work does not have to be purely fact in order to be valuable. Wright claims “throughout all time natural history has been a setting for mythology, overdrawn conclusions and errors of observation” (155). Mythology is works of fiction but they still have great cultural value in that they have morals to the story and are meant to teach a lesson and increase human knowledge. These works would not have survived thousands of years if they did not have some sort of merit to them.  Works of fiction may deviate from the truth but that brings in the philosophical question of “what is truth?” If one person perceives nature in a way which another does not, does that make their claims falsehoods? I feel Wright is focusing too much on small facts and whether or not they are truthful, and as a result, missed the overarching message within works containing nature.

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

Selden Whitcomb’s assessment of the trajectory of nature in American literature

In his essay, “Selden Whitcomb on Nature in Early American Literature,” the author outlines his thesis of the progression of the forms that nature takes in American literature. “The comparatively minute distinction of different emotional and ethical values in the phenomena of nature is the course of true progress,” he writes. “It marks genuine culture as distinguished from a merely haphazard intelligence, and becomes objectionable only at the point where all analysis does–when in the attention to details the larger outlines are obscured, when the means become an end, and the method a cult.”

While I agree with Whitcomb’s warning that the means of any particular philosophy or method of writing should not become and end in themselves (because this would signify that the author is trying to indoctrinate readers in a way), and that the “method” ought not become a cult for the same reasons, I don’t entirely agree with his notion that the interpretation of the ethical and emotional significance found in nature is the greatest signal of progressive nature writing. Although popular authors such as Thoreau and Emerson embody this school of thought, dedicating most of their writings to what amounts to their own subjective, emotional/spiritual interpretations of nature and its importance, I think nature within the context of American literature can serve a broader, more informative function that one of encouraging a vague pseudospiritual bond with an entity so vast and varied.

The writings of 19th century American naturalist John Muir, for example, manage to captivate the reader’s emotional interest in the subject matter while at the same time advocating for a greater purpose, the preservation of the American wilderness. Muir’s writings may have been peppered with what we would now consider to be primitive (if not racist) overtones, but he laid the foundation for modern-day environmentalist writings that aim to do something about the problems that we face with regards to our environment rather than just talk about them–and this aim is one of the principles of ecocriticism.

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art: Excerpts p.91-92. Pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

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