Jesse Oak Taylor’s The Sky of Our Manufacture is the latest book in the University of Virginia Press series Under the Sign of Nature, which has been publishing books of ecocriticism since 1998. The series is a fine example of the attempts now being made to make ecocriticism extend its range beyond thematic reading. Ecocriticism is still awaiting the book that can do for it what Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious did for Marxist literary criticism in 1981. Taylor’s is not quite that book, but it is most certainly a step in the right direction. The project it enjoins—to discover the ways that climate penetrates the deep structures or forms of literary fiction—is well-articulated, compelling, and necessary to the evolution of ecocriticism as a practice of literary criticism. The readings of literature it offers are uneven, however: many of them are convincing and elegant, while others strain this reader’s credulity and patience. That said, I admire what Taylor is trying to do in this book, and I would rather have the flawed published attempt before me now than wait until all the problems are solved, since the problems are part of what is interesting and exciting about the enterprise. They are what will drive the field forward in the wake of Taylor’s intervention. Moreover, one must admire the sheer scope of Taylor’s project, unusual for a first scholarly book: from the Victorians to the modernists, with chapters on Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf.
Taylor’s starting point is where literary atmosphere meets literal atmosphere, specifically where Dickens’s Bleak House meets the London Fog. The London Fog was a combination of soot and sulfur dioxide produced largely by the domestic burning of coal for heating and cooking (it is an important and counterintuitive point, emphasized by Taylor, that the London Fog was caused mainly by domestic carbon combustion as opposed to industrial uses, because it complicates an otherwise easy narrative vilifying industrialization for the bulk of environmental degradation). Also sometimes referred to as “pea soup,” “pea souper,” “killer fog,” or “black fog,” Londoners were habituated to it in Dickens’s time, but it persisted as an anthropogenic climatological feature of the city for a hundred years until, for four horrific days in December 1952, it sat malevolently over the city and suffocated it, leaving over four thousand people dead (213). The opening pages of Bleak House—an extended description of the noxious fog published in 1852—and the 1952 smog disaster make an ingenious frame for Taylor’s argument that ecocritics will need to read fictions for their atmosphere the way that literary critics have previously read for character or plot, and that the result of such readings will be a defamiliarization or anamorphosis that reveals climate actively shaping narrative in ways we have not yet properly perceived. As Taylor demonstrates so powerfully over the course of the book, one “of the consequences of an atmospheric reading . . . is the doing away with the notion that setting is by definition passive, a mere container in which events take place, while nominally human characters provide narrative action. Instead, settings, atmospheres, and environments can become agents in their own right” (36).
The best of Taylor’s analyses are driven by productive interdisciplinary pairings of literary texts with historical events, technological advances, or popular discourses. In the chapter on Daniel Deronda, Taylor offers a fascinating account of the historical birth of predictive meteorology alongside one of its technological instruments, the “tempest prognosticator,” and connects that discourse-world to Eliot’s narrative interest in the “mythos of the everyday” (93). A chapter on Sherlock Holmes compares Holmes’s sleuthing to Victorian meteorological methods, from snow sampling to apparatuses for measuring sulfurous acid in the air. In another, on Stevenson’s Strange [End Page 213] Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Taylor connects the monstrosity of Hyde with contemporary representations of the London Fog, notably the photogravure images of William Hyde and the cartoon personifications from Punch and other periodicals, where it is represented arrestingly as a kind of hybrid grim reaper/vampire figure (one of these, an 1880 cartoon from Punch, graces the cover of The Sky of Our Manufacture).
It is such representations that embolden Taylor in the subsequent chapter to reinterpret Stoker’s Dracula as “the first great oil novel, a narrative encapsulation of what has come to be called a petroculture” (130). This is a theory that I would like to believe, and that I think could be convincingly elaborated, but Taylor doesn’t convince here, relying instead on much too general modes of connection between petromodernity and the figure of Dracula. It is a missed opportunity. A declarative sentence like “Dracula seemingly anticipates, and in many respects encapsulates, the switch from coal to oil that made the Great Acceleration of the twentieth century possible” serves poorly as evidence and argument (138). “Seemingly” hedges against account-ability for actually making the argument while at the same time slyly advancing it. And while I at least understand the meaning of “anticipating” here, “encapsulating” remains a mystery. Does it summarize? exemplify? or emblematize? “Encapsulate” is not a technical, helpful, or particularly descriptive term. It serves more to obfuscate the weakness of the argument than to clarify its power. There is very little reading of Dracula here; instead, we find tendentious comparisons between the “pollution” of blood by Dracula’s venom and the “toxic load” of mercury in tuna as opposed to smaller fish lower down in the food chain (135). Another brief non-sequitur manifesto champions the bicycle over the automobile and compares car culture to “undeath” (141). The passages are as out of place in the book as they seem here. They are not arguments related to Dracula; they are sentiments derived from a certain contemporary ideology of environmentalism, sentiments that may have prompted Taylor to write the otherwise interesting scholarly book that he did, but that simply do not belong in it. Passages like these are a problem; they are why some scholars and critics are still skeptical of the scholarly and critical credentials of the ecocritical enterprise. Happily, Taylor takes many more steps forward for ecocriticism than backward, but these are regrettable moments that I—speaking both as a proponent of ecocriticism and as a friend of bicycles—deeply wish had been caught and excised by Taylor or his editors.
Taylor returns to form in his chapter on Conrad, deftly juggling a metaphorics of atmosphere—as in Conrad’s “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention,” or his “glow” that “brings out a haze” in Heart of Darkness—with the material realities of atmosphere as climate (171). In his chapter on Woolf, he introduces the concept of climatic modernism, “a condition in which modernity refigures our relationship to deep time, making any moment at once immediate and radically dispersed on scales that exceed the human memory” (189). In terms of Woolf, this means a literary dwelling—as in ruminating—on historical modes of human dwelling—as in habitating. An epilogue narrates the December 1952 smog disaster and presents it alongside Robert Barr’s 1895 short story “The Doom of London.” Barr’s story might be considered a generic instance of cli-fi avant la lettre; it “imagines the onset of a dense killer fog in London in the middle of the twentieth century” (214). Here, then, in contrast to the argument about Dracula, is a clear and fascinating example of a text uncannily anticipating the future of disastrous anthropogenic climate change.
The Sky of Our Manufacture offers throughout a number of useful new coinages, among them: atmospheric reading, the “abnatural,” and climatic modernism. It offers a new periodizing schema—“the smog era”—based on anthropogenic climate change that bridges and partly reconfigures the Victorian, fin-de-siècle, and modernist literary periods (218). It offers a number of new, insightful, and profound ways to do ecocritical reading. It is an important step in making ecocriticism as central to literary criticism as it deserves to be. [End Page 214]