Posts Tagged ‘#naturewriting’

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