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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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on November 30, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    It’s really interesting that all these writers recognize a very present becoming of the American literary canon, and in so, the American Identity begins its last stages of development, its final break from Europe. There definitely seems to be a cautionary sentiment, or wariness of the cult of ‘nature worshipers’. I think because the literary canon began to flex its muscle, rumblings and whispers of Darwin entering the classroom would make any orthodox Christian quiver. Mysticism too seems to be in opposition to this sentiment. I agree that Muir, albeit his nature conservancy are problematic too, but they will always be. Nothing is perfect. Conservation is no exception. He excluded Indians, certain animals, and potentially turned Mountain people into eco-destroyers, stigmatized their way of life into inbred, non-existant know-nothings, in order to establish a national park. But, conservation is important and sometimes the right thing can be done with dubious intentions. I’m aware that I’m walking on egg shells here but it is what it is. However, Whitcomb was worried about what anthropologist call “armchair” anthropology. He wanted a nature that was not a derivative of imagination, a nature written in a musty, cloistered library where it grew from text books, but based in reality. He heralds William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis for being composed in ‘actual’ wilderness. Which is a whole other debate. Oddly enough Thanatos was the Greek personification of death, what does this say about the American nature tradition? Either way, pulping mass-produced nature writings that create a mythos intentionally or unintentionally sets up an inculcation of children regardless. There is no way around it, children and adults will come away with an impression. The thing to avoid with mass-produced nature myths is creating what I would venture to say, could be considered a literary nature zoo. Finally, when readers go to the “wild”, it’s nothing of what they’ve read. It doesn’t behave dramatically or Romantically, its neither nobel or inhabiting the hyperbole required to make nature sell in books. They’d rather go back and read ‘real’ nature. The predicament is similar to John Berger’s idea of animals recession because of its replacement, which coincidentally coincided with the rise of colonial Nationalism.
    That said, I totally agree that nature writing can serve an informative purpose that is extremely valuable and enable people to appreciate nature. It’s a difficult equilibrium to attain.

  2. I thought Seldon Whitcomb’s progression of nature writing in early American literature seemed narrow,but fairly accurate. He starts with explorers attempting to “enlighten the world” by describing nature in an objective way (like Lewis and Clark’s journals), but that this style or writing was marred by exaggeration and the desire for territorial gain. Then as the colonies developed in New England nature writing turned to more agricultural descriptions (like georgics),but was generally dry because of farmer’s professional relationship with nature. And finally, nature writing developed into artistic and poetic descriptions of nature, which he calls nature-mystics (like Thoreau). Though this progression he has describes falls in line with our readings from class and makes logical sense when considering the development of America, I feel that the progression of nature writing was not as cut and dry as Whitcomb describes it. For example, there are elements of poetry in Crevecouer’s “Letters of an American Farmer” that seem poetic and sublime, although by Whitcomb’s description wouldn’t have these elements.

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