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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 433-435

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American Literary Environmentalism. By David Mazel. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press. 2000. xxv, 198 pp. $40.00.

David Mazel has opened up the ecocritical conversation with American Literary Environmentalism. His inspiration derives less from Thoreau and John Muir and more from Judith Butler and poststructuralist theory; an ambitious and provocative study results. At the core of his argument, Mazel contends that "the environment is itself a myth, a ‘grand fable,' a complex fiction, a widely shared, occasionally contested, and literally ubiquitous narrative. More precisely, this study treats the environment as a discursive construction, something whose ‘reality' derives from the ways we write, speak, and think about it" (xii). This mythic construction has functioned to obscure historical relationships between culture and environment that privilege the dominant culture, but, as Mazel claims, through his critique "environmentalism will instead be democratized and enriched" (xv).

Mazel's first test case is the National Park Service. Citing its refusal to place Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in the bookstore at Little Bighorn National Monument (the site of Custer's defeat), Mazel links Park Service politics to the culture wars of the eighties and nineties. Through this alignment, we begin to see how the environment itself has been racialized.

Literary environmentalism, as it is described in this study, "is a process of rendering natural landscape into disciplinary text that can help ground a stable American identity" (167). Predictably, this stable identity is in the service of white capitalist patriarchy. Mazel examines this process through John Underhill's reports and drawings from the Pequot War and Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative. While Underhill is often subverbal—Mazel claims [End Page 433] Underhill's map of a Pequot village suggests "the vagina dentata motif" (45)—Mazel more convincingly argues that Rowlandson's text enlists "the physical landscape in a legitimating master narrative" (52), although it also retains a trace of disorientation that faintly resists the master narrative. Mazel continues with a long, solid reading of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which he approaches through a quick glance at Audubon in a section titled "Shooting as Writing." Natty Bumpo speaks with his gun, and whereas "in Mary Rowlandson's narrative it is the Bible whose circulation inaugurates and stabilizes the wilderness's textuality, in The Last of the Mohicans it is the phallic rifle, la longue carabine, that tropes this fundamental literary-environmental activity" (73). Because Natty is illiterate, his prowess with a gun, not written text, entitles him to a place on the land, although Cooper mobilizes the tracking skills of woodsman and Indian alike to demand a text to uncover in the wilderness. That the native text is the one that must always undergo erasure is consistent with both Mazel's argument and the historical erasure and subsequent reinscription of native presence in the American landscape.

One of the most famous sites of this erasure and reinscription is Yosemite National Park. Although it is time to investigate representations of Yosemite other than John Muir's, Mazel's dismissal of Muir for failing to break from capitalist and class structures may speak more to the strength of the structures than to Muir's complicity. That said, Mazel's treatment of Lafayette Brunnell, Frederick Law Olmstead, Clarence King, and Therese Yelverton and their writings about Yosemite is incisive, especially his view of Yelverton as a proto-ecofeminist. Mazell's recuperation of the history of Yosemite, including the people who were banished under pressure from mining, grazing, and government interests, is important cultural work. It is here, in his advocacy of a national park, that Muir's complicity is evident.

At times, Mazel's arguments are weakened by absolute dismissals of problematic figures. Also, his call for "an alternative tradition of environmentalism in which the appearance of the woman environmentalist need not wait until the sudden and seemingly anomalous arrival of Rachel Carson" (138) ignores the work of scholars such as Vera Norwood who have traced women's historical relationships to the land and environmental issues.

Mazel closes with a consideration...


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