Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


November 1996
The Environmental Imagination:

Book Review by Jerome Hughes

The Environmental 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 hours to."

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.


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.