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  • Wonderland to Wasteland:Toward Historicizing Environmental Activism in Children's Literature
  • Carolyn Sigler (bio)

Over the last twenty years ecologically aware books for children have flourished. Beginning in 1971 when Dr. Seuss's irascible Lorax first spoke "for the trees," publishers have been "greening" children's literature at an extraordinary rate. Although the recent proliferation of ecological children's books certainly reflects contemporary global issues, concern for the nonhuman environment and a questioning of humanity's place within that environment can be traced back to the literary and cultural transformations that accompany the development of children's literature in the eighteenth century. Environmental awareness, or biocentrism, exemplifies children's literature's long tradition of nurturing ideologies and issues that the prevailing literary culture regards as subversive or insignificant—terms that, in an often trivialized genre, can ironically come to mean much the same thing. This essay uses the emerging methodologies of ecocriticism to describe and evaluate representations of what we now call "the environment"—that is, nonhuman nature—within the traditionally pastoral ethos of children's literature. I will concentrate on examples of two dialogical pastoral traditions in children's literature, which I distinguish as "anthropocentric" and "biocentric," in order to trace the development of what William Empson would call "some versions" of pastoral and environmental literature for children.1

Ecocriticism is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that has developed over the past twenty years in response to growing academic concern about the responses of literature and literary theory to the global crisis of environmental degradation. Both ethically and practically, ecocriticism decenters humanity's importance in nonhuman nature and nature writing (thus rejecting anthropocentric views) and instead explores the complex interrelationships between the human and the nonhuman (a biocentric view). Despite this deemphasis on humanity's place within the world, ecocriticism does not ignore ethical or practical concerns for human readers. Analogous to the decentering of patriarchal assumptions and values enacted by feminist theory and practice, ecocriticism's biocentrism instead allows writers and critics to explore the interconnectedness of all nature, human and nonhuman, rather than merely looking at nonhuman nature as setting and/or metaphor for the human condition. As Cheryll Burgess-Glotfelty explains, "ecocritics ask questions like 'How does literature function within the ecosystem?' or 'How does a given textual representation affect the way we treat actual nature?'" (2).

Traditional anthropocentric definitions and uses of pastoral often sentimentalize nature as an idealized Arcadia that at its best enables a kind of reconciliation of conflicting ideas and that at its worst turns the environment into a metaphor for "the humanistic assumptions of the writer and his audience," merely existing to provide "a temporary and ephemeral release from the urban world" (Love, "Revaluing" 207). Indeed, much traditional pastoral writing has depicted the natural world as little more than what critic Lawrence Buell describes as "an ideological theater for acting out desires that have very little to do with any bonding to nature as such" (3). Some modern American literary critics (such as Buell, Leo Marx, and Annette Kolodny) and ecocritics (such as Burgess-Glotfelty, Joseph Meeker, Greta Gaard, and Glen Love) argue for a reexamination and redefinition of the pastoral tradition in light of contemporary reevaluations of the relationship between literature and the world to consider not just the social world but "the entire ecosphere" (Burgess-Glotfelty 1).

In a recent article on the pastoral, Love argues that pastoralism, "rightly understood, has always been a criticism of life" ("Arcadia" 198). He suggests that while the pastoral originated as a mediating form, reconciling tensions between "the extremist values of primitivism and urbanism," it has also served as "a form of dissent from an urbanizing social mainstream" (202, 199). Under the influence of current ecocritical thought, the pastoral is being increasingly radicalized, enabling it to function as a literary "antidote to the presumption of human dominance and control . . . [as well as to] the unquestioned and unquestioning anthropocentrism" of much literary discourse (203). This radicalized pastoral is not merely a product of contemporary ecological thinking, however, but is also a phenomenon evident in the treatment of nature by many earlier writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper, John Muir, Jean Ingelow...


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