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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 219-220

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Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature. By Patrick D. Murphy. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia. 2000. xviii, 254 pp. Cloth, $55.00; paper, $18.50.

In his new book, Patrick Murphy takes American ecocritics to task for limiting their focus to nonfiction prose essays on nature in the manner of Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez. Murphy argues that ecocritics have ignored other forms of “nature-oriented literature,” like the novel, that are more fictional or poetic than nature writing in the realist tradition yet equally viable. These other forms refuse to honor the overly drastic distinction between [End Page 219] nature and culture on which realist nature writing is premised. Their broader purview makes them more congenial to multicultural—especially indigenous and ecofeminist—writers, and they resist the American and masculine biases that make some ecocritical work in the realist tradition seem unduly celebratory, culturally blinkered, and prescriptive. As opening gambits in what may be a second phase of development in ecocritical practice, and a first phase in the development of ecocritical theory worthy of the name, Murphy’s comments in the early chapters of Farther Afield are welcome.

However, readers may be disappointed by the book’s second half, in which Murphy offers readings of work by Native American, Chicano/a, and other writers who are “visibly” different from the writers most ecocritics celebrate. These readings seem sketchy and overly deferential. Murphy insists that many of the writers he discusses work out of “oral” as opposed to “literate” traditions and thus require a more trusting critical approach. But this approach reintroduces a version, albeit a watery one, of the realism he rejects earlier in the book, as does his argument on behalf of a more sensuous “sensibility.” Murphy’s readings also tend to focus on issues, particularly in regard to gender, that seem much more “cultural” than “natural,” despite his impatience with the distinction. Clearly, it still makes a difference.

The biggest shortcoming of Murphy’s book is his entirely metaphorical use of the term “ecology.” For him, ecology means “an awareness of existence as interanimation, interdependency, and systemic processes, which is always multifaceted and multivariable.” This definition indicates only a certain predisposition of mind, and it lacks any reference to distinctly biological phenomena and to the science of ecology (whose theories have moved well beyond the cybernetic emphasis on “systemic processes” of forty years ago). Although he insists on the importance of “environmental” perspectives informed by “inhabitation” and broadly conversant with natural history, Murphy spends most of his time discussing affirmative attitudes toward nature couched in vague generalities about place. He says he is hostile to science, objectivity, and the Enlightenment, yet his arguments depend for their force on the validity of scientific warnings about global environmental crisis and loss of biological diversity: an oversight as typical of ecocriticism as is its reheated realism, which is solely of the literary variety. That Murphy commits this oversight suggests that he may not have moved that much “farther afield in the study of nature-oriented literature” after all.

Dana Phillips
Brown University



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pp. 219-220
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Archived 2005
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