Book History 4 (2001) 177-204
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Before Nature Writing
Houghton, Mifflin and Company and the Invention of the Outdoor Book, 1800-1900
At the back of my copy of the second edition of Olive Thorne Miller's Bird-Ways (1889; first ed., 1885) appears an advertisement for Houghton, Mifflin and Company's "Out-Door Books." The advertisement does not represent one of the firm's formal libraries or series, such as the American Men of Letters or American Commonwealths. 1 Rather, the books listed are of different sizes and bindings, a patchwork of titles from the past three decades put together to promote the wide range of nature-related works in the firm's catalogue. Literary essays join poetry, natural history, and collections of sketches and short fiction. Thoreau and Burroughs join Whittier, Alexander Agassiz, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Emerson's august Nature joins Maria Pool's Tenting at Stony Beach (1865), which, according to the advertisement, promises readers a full account of "a summer passed in a tent on the seacoast by two ladies; their adventures, experiences, and thoroughly good time." 2 [End Page 177]
I begin with this advertisement because it points to an often overlooked fact of American literary and publishing history: Houghton, Mifflin and Company alone published nearly all of the important and influential American literary naturists writing before World War I. 3 In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the Houghton catalogue contained the works of not only Thoreau, Burroughs, and Emerson, but also Miller, Celia Thaxter, Susan Cooper, Bradford Torrey, Frank Bolles, and Rowland E. Robinson. Over the next two decades, the firm would publish works by John Muir, Mary Austin, Enos Mills, and Dallas Lore Sharp as well. No wonder, then, that during these years the firm consistently named outdoor books as one of their specialties. 4 The "Sketch of the Firm" included in the 1899 Portrait Catalogue notes: "A further interesting field of literature, largely occupied by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, is that which represents the enthusiasm of lovers of nature. The writings of Thoreau belong among the classics of our literature, but candidates for a like position may readily be found in the works of John Burroughs, which occupy ten volumes, Bradford Torrey, Frank Bolles, Olive Thorne Miller, Rowland E. Robinson, and others." 5 The rhetoric of self-promotion should always be read with care. However, in this case we can take the Houghton editors at their word. In the final decades of the nineteenth century--the years just before the term nature writing emerged and came popularly to denote the tradition of literary essays descended from Thoreau 6 --the field of literary naturism was indeed largely occupied by the Houghton firm. 7 No other contemporary literary institution had as profound an influence on this particular field of writing.
Surprisingly, the quality and extent of this influence has not been fully examined. In the past several decades, a number of scholars--many of whom include themselves in the emerging field of ecocriticism--have worked to trace the tradition of literary naturism in the United States and England, exploring both the place that these writers have had in the development of Western ecological and environmentalist thought, and the possible implications and limitations of recognizing an "environmental literature." 8 These scholars, however, have tended to ignore questions regarding naturism's history, and simply to assume that Thoreau and Burroughs had the same conception of their work and its goals as more recent writers such as Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. Surely this tendency derives partly from the ecocritical field's deep commitment to present environmental concerns, and from its need to establish a canon of literary naturism separate from other traditions. 9 I suspect that it also has to do with the conventions of the tradition itself. The naturist authors to whom we most frequently turn make much of their isolation. By dramatizing their own particular removals--from urban settings, from history, from time--and [End Page 178] making these removals the ground condition...