Book Review by Jerome Hughes
Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation
of American Culture
by Lawrence Buell.
Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (1995).
$16.95 pbk. 586 pages
Lawrence Buell, in his remarkable book, The
Environmental Imagination, acknowledges that we are
in the midst of an environmental crisis. He also acknowledges
that literary criticism is not generally considered one of
the tools for abating it. But if anthropocentrism is one
of the chief causes of the current crisis, and it must be
agreed that it is, then searching for and interpreting signs
of ecocentrism or movement towards ecocentrism in works of
great minds and literary criticism (or at least Buell's brand
of it) must be considered a very handy tool indeed.
There is a point early on in The Environmental Imagination where
the author describes a typical opening scene in his literature class
in which he presents an analysis of a work by Wendell Berry, where
the latter describes a hilltop. The notion that a hilltop could be
taken seriously for itself is not yet a part of the lecture. Buell
asks himself: "Must literature always lead us away from the physical
world, never back to it?" He then spends the rest of the book answering
that very question, trying to jolt his readers out of their knee-jerk
hermeneutic responses in order to allow for this idea: that perhaps
when writers write about the environment they are actually writing
about the environment - not the environment as metaphor, or set of
parallel social constructions, or passive and impotent setting devoid
of character in its own right.
Using Henry David Thoreau as a touchstone, Buell ranges over the field
of American literature, focusing mainly on environmental non-fiction,
but not ignoring fiction and poetry. He gathers into his analysis not
only Euro-American males, but also women and Native American writers
(the analysis of Leslie Marmon Silko's Testimony is particularly striking).
Also included are Latino/Latina writers, Jewish writers and African-American
writers. But the book never gets too far away from Thoreau. Comparing
earlier drafts of Walden to the final one, as well as to passages in
his Journal, Buell traces the arc of Thoreau's development from an
egocentric writer to the careful and committed naturalist of "Wild
Apples" and "Succession of Forest Trees."
The path of Thoreau's literary "canonization and recanonization" and
his variegated public perception is one of the most interesting parts
of The Environmental Imagination. Upon his death, and partly through
the office of Emerson's famous eulogy, Thoreau was presented as a good
citizen (it was 1862 and there was a war on!). Consequently, his radical
social ideas were muted, if not completely ignored, and his meticulous
descriptions of nature scenes amplified. In fact, anthology readers
in the late 19th century would have been familiar with the "Sounds" and "Brute
Neighbors" chapters of Walden but not "Economy" or "Where I lived and
What I lived for." His essay on civil disobedience was among his worst-selling
works at the time. Later, of course, all of that changed, and Buell
charts all the swings of Thoreau's pendulum from social critic to nature
writer; from Gandhi's mentor to proto-Deep Ecologist.
Lastly, the nature of Thoreau's sources and influences - an often overlooked
subject - is treated in the appendix. Knowing Thoreau's influences
(and that he did not spring out of nothing) is refreshing to a reader
who is often daunted by the sheer force of Henry David's persona. One
of the joys of The Environmental Imagination is the steady humanizing
of its main subject. Lawrence Buell does not worship Thoreau; he does
something better: he reads carefully and thinks deeply.
Buell also uses language carefully and with purpose, often jolting
his readers into a new way of seeing. For example, in other writings
about the pastoral ideology, the phrase "return to nature" is often
carelessly used by critics. Buell puts the "re" in parenthesis - (re)turn
- in order to suggest that the subject's movement is not simply atavistic,
but in reality a "turn" to a necessarily different relationship with
the "pastoral." It might seem fussy to a reader at first, but in fact
Buell's parentheses are decidedly more eloquent than my explanation.
A word of caution though: this is not a book to bring to the beach.
It is written in a dense, multilayered, academic style. It requires
one's full attention. Although I think it would be possible to have
written The Environmental Imagination in a more "accessible" style,
it would have put the book's equanimity and complexity at risk. Buell
does not hide a lack of ideas behind his dense prose: the ideas justify
his style, and are well worth the effort.
Readers who bristle at the idea of a book about the environment - a
nature book, if you will, that compels its readers to stay inside with
the doors and windows tightly shut - would do well to realize that
in the struggle to gain a more ecocentric perspective we need to use
everything at our disposal, including, believe it or not, our undistracted
brains. Anyone who has attempted to read Walden in an appropriately
bucolic setting (and who hasn't?) knows that it can't be done - at
least not without doing injustice to both Thoreau and the pond. Besides,
it has been my experience that what can be comfortably read on the
beach is often better left unread. In the words of Thoreau himself: "...yet
this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a
luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what
we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful
Jerome Hughes is a writer and composer,
and author of the music-drama St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio,
an ecological reinterpretation of the Francis legend. He lives
in New Jersey.