Question 1: George Perkins Marsh

In George Perkins Marsh’s The Earth as Modified by Human Actions, Marsh uses apocalyptic rhetoric that is, for the most part, comic.  Gerrard describes a comic approach by saying, “Comedy conceives of evil not as guilt, but as error” (Gerrard 87).  He also states that in comic texts, “Human agency is real but flawed within the comic frame, and individual actors are typically morally conflicted and ambiguous” (Gerrard 87).  These descriptions easily fit Marsh’s approach to describing human influence on nature.  Marsh describes humans as harbingers of destruction, stating that “Wherever [man] plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords” (Marsh 34).  Despite the evil Marsh accuses humans of causing, he nevertheless characterizes them as not inherently evil but misguided, thus allowing a comparison with Gerrard’s characterization of “evil as error” with comic rhetoric.  For example, Marsh states “The action of man, indeed, is frequently followed by unforeseen and undesired results, yet it is nevertheless guided by a self-conscious will aiming as often at secondary and remote as immediate objects” (Marsh 41).  In addition, Marsh provides humans with a means to make amends for their misdeeds, stating that man can “restore fertility and salubrity to soils which his follies or his crimes have made barren” (Marsh 49).  Marsh even argues that a desire to fix past wrongdoings is not only morally right but an inherent part of the American spirit, saying that Americans all have an intrinsic “want of fiexedness, not in form only, but in spirit” (Marsh 396).  In providing a way for humans to make everything right, Marsh appears incredibly optimistic, somewhat undermining the strong language used in the beginning of his text.  His talk of human destruction paints a largely negative portrait of humankind as a whole, and he indicates a coming apocalypse in respects to environmental degradation.  Although powerful, when compared to his final arguments, his language at the end comes across as too optimistic, and his apocalyptic predictions lose some of their power.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Marsh, George P. The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Ch./Art: Destructiveness of Man; Instability of AMerican Life p. 33-55, 396-397. pub Arno Press 1970.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I disagree with you that Marsh’s turned optimism must signify that his apocalyptic warnings would be weakened. I believe that maybe Marsh is simply about delivering the facts of destruction (although he is quite charged in doing so) and it’s more of a wake-up call. When he begins to suggests solutions and that humans and even Americans can change, I believe that he simply doesn’t want to indulge in depressing ideas of the end-of-the-world, which is more along the tragic vein of apocalypse. As Garrard says at the end of his Apocalypse chapter, “Only if we imagine that the planet has a future, after all, are we likely to take responsibility for it” (107). I think Marsh is more about a call to action than to spiral too far into fear of the future.

  2. Posted by christys21 on November 2, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    While I can see where you have a point, I still believe Marsh did not have a comical approach. While he may have thrown in a couple side comments, the general idea taken away from this piece is that soceity must be more aware of what they are doing and how it is damaging nature.
    The piece takes a serious look at man’s tendency to destroy and how there is not effort to replenish what has been taken from nature. We see the almost “unattachement” man has to nature in that man does not look at how their actions damage the world around them.
    Marsh’s piece seems more like a heed to action and wake up call to the people who refuse to look at their habits and learn to plan for the future. As he says, “Only if we imagine that the planet has a future, after all, are we likely to take responsibility for it” (107).

    Marsh, George P. The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Ch./Art: Destructiveness of Man; Instability of AMerican Life p. 107. pub Arno Press 1970.

  3. I agree that Marsh does come off with a comical tone but I do not think it diminishes the main argument. I think he did not want to distract the reader with an overly dramatic paranoid prediction that the world as we know it is going to end. He uses humor to lighten up the work and keep the reader from becoming so tense that the message is lost within the hype. I think he blended the proper amount of humor with serious language and the message came across pretty clear. Its evident that humans are neglecting to give back to nature the way we should and our gross overuse of resources is going to lead to the eventual destruction of our earths future. I do not think his language comes across as too optimistic because he acknowledges that we must return what we take. He urges us to give something back even if it is small it counts for something.

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