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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 435-437
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In the roughly ten years since ecocriticism first gained academic notoriety, practitioners of ecologically centered literary scholarship have confronted suspicions that the field lacks both theoretical rigor and a commitment to texts and people beyond those created and described by the acknowledged masters of the nature essay. Although there is little truth to the charge, the perception remains that ecocriticism is too squishy and too white—a refuge for backpackers in the classroom. But in his supple and engaging new book, Writing for an Endangered World, Lawrence Buell should once and for all put such concerns to rest. With his characteristic impressive learning and graceful prose, Buell ranges across the intellectual and literary map to consider environments and acts of environmental imagination occurring in places that few would describe as serene. Without question, the book should become essential reading for anyone intrigued by the recent turn toward environmentally informed literary study.
Buell does far more than address hitherto ignored terrains, however. Drawing on canonical writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville, as well as on contemporary authors such as John Edgar Wideman and Linda Hogan, he locates moments and spaces that bring the "environmental unconscious" to the fore. Conceived as an "enabling ground condition" for creative opportunity, Buell credits this pierced unconscious with unleashing both the products of environmental imagination (poems, novels, nature essays) and the political energies required to address and correct patterns of neglect (22). In the opening chapter on toxic threats, for example, he considers Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, and the statements of Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs to present the threat of chemical poisoning as the modern world's most insidious leveler—no one escapes the toxic reach. The discourse on toxicity simultaneously points in two directions. On the one hand, a world awash in chemicals suggests a world of "betrayed Edens" (37); on the other hand, this conventional trope fueled Gibbs's transformation from environmentally unaware citizen to politically astute opponent of corporate greed. Such discourse frames itself politically. It "recognizes both the rhetorical appeal and the benefit to human and planetary welfare of the ideal of a [End Page 435] purified physical environment as an end in itself." At the same time, it underscores the "physical environment's nonreducibility to ideological artifact or socioeconomic counter" (45). No mere linguistic contrivance, discourse on toxicity emerges as perhaps the preeminent example of a "cultural construction regulated by engagement, whether experiential or vicarious, with actual environments" (31).
Subsequent chapters place green and brown landscapes "in conversation with one another" (7). Such an approach yields intriguing juxtapositions that undermine dichotomies such as those that divide urban from rural concerns or that pit environmental justice activists against advocates for species and habitat protection. Thus, in chapter 4 Buell pairs Chicago's Gwendolyn Brooks with Kentucky's Wendell Berry to map the pleasures and pitfalls of writing about a place one knows through a lifetime of residence. Similarly, Jane Addams and John Muir present an unlikely urban wilderness diptych: "Both were self-transplanted outsiders, who then sought to be credible spokespersons and advocates for their chosen places" (14). Elsewhere, Buell reads William Carlos Williams's Paterson as an urban bioregional epic that draws on Whitman and Joyce while also pointing toward such city-centered poems as Joy Harjo's "Anchorage." More than any other work, Buell suggests, Paterson reimagines the urban flaneur; it transforms this stock detached observer of city tableaus into a student of metropolitan ecological and linguistic complexities. After Williams, literary walkers through the city must "be even more conscious than otherwise of the wishful and ad hoc nature of literary attempts to formulate holistic urban visions." (120). Whereas some critics might argue that the inability to capture Paterson linguistically underscores the limitations of language, Buell...