- Green Modernism: Nature and the English Novel, 1900 to 1930 by Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy
Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy's Green Modernism: Nature and the English Novel, 1900 to 1930 is a work of ecocriticism, although McCarthy does not often use the term. The book is ecocritical in two senses. First, it articulates the importance of nature in selected modernist novels as well as the implications of this importance to literary scholarship. Second, Green Modernism is concerned with the importance and timeliness of ecological thought, which Timothy Morton also considers in his work The Ecological Thought. Beginning with discussions of the current states of modernist studies and the environmental humanities and then moving into readings of texts by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, and the lesser-known Mary Butts, McCarthy argues for the centrality of nature to English modernist fiction. While McCarthy's book has much to recommend it—useful contextualizations, a resonant thesis, admirably clear prose—its shortcomings are of the most consequence.
At the book's close, McCarthy sums up his thesis: "nature is important to modernism, nature is a discursive force in modernist social negotiations, and nature's material presence has been swept under the carpet of consciousness" (199). The first claim argues that scholars need to liberate modernist scholarship from its reliance on what Simmel called the metropolis and mental life. That is, interpretations of modernist texts pass over nature and the natural world, focusing instead on chronicling the crush of modernity and individual consciousness. McCarthy works through this intervention in his impressive first chapter. Offering a compelling and well-argued overview of both modernist scholarship and recent trends in the environmental humanities while firmly grounding McCarthy's project and readings, this chapter is the book's highlight. In short, his argument is that while modernist literature is of course preoccupied with the discontents of urban modernity, it also concerns itself with nature. According to McCarthy, green modernist texts present nature as an agential and discursive force that simultaneously critiques European modernity, idealized Romantic nature, and reactionary, even fascistic, ruralist nativism. In order to develop this argument, he draws on what he and others, such as Steven Shaviro and Jane Bennett, call the "new materialism" (5).
New materialism is an umbrella term for the approaches stemming from the recent "material turn" in the environmental humanities (5). New materialist approaches go by the names of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology and philosophy, actor-network theory, [End Page 766] thing theory, and so forth. The promise of these approaches is a deanthropocized thinking that focuses on the materiality of objects, both natural and otherwise, as they exist and persist more or less independently of human thought. Formerly a fairly marginal movement, new materialist methods have gone mainstream over the past few years, resulting in something of a renaissance in ecocriticism. Green Modernism is a direct product of that renaissance. But as it achieves wider purchase, the new materialism is subject to objections and critiques. Such critical responses are beginning to proliferate (see, for example, essays by Andrew Cole and David Golumbia), indicating that the shine may be wearing off new materialist approaches.
Green Modernism's second chapter puts new materialist theory into practice by addressing Conrad's Heart of Darkness. McCarthy argues that Conrad's novella shows us the discursive and agential power of nonhuman wilderness/wildness in its figuration of the Congolese jungle. Kurtz does not so much go native in this reading as he goes wild, and that wildness—figured as entirely nonhuman—comes to mark or infect modern European society when Marlow returns to Brussels, thereby undermining Eurocentric accounts of civilization and savagery. In his discussion of Under Western Eyes in chapter 3, McCarthy turns his attention to the role of weather, arguing that it is metonymic of the text's "distinct image of a natural world contiguous with humanity but unavailable as a direct remedy for any corrupt society" (77). Here again, the natural world is said to exist alongside humanity as a discursive force that allows for...