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  • Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures in the British-Atlantic World: 1770-1850
  • Onno Oerlemans (bio)
Kevin Hutchings . Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures in the British-Atlantic World: 1770-1850. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2009. 240. $95.00

As its title suggests, Kevin Hutchings's new book covers an extraordinary amount of territory. Its topics include Enlightenment and Romantic theories of nature and race, notions of animality and animal rights, colonialism and its ideologies, the plight of slaves and Aboriginal peoples, and literary representations of these ideas in canonical and non-canonical writing. In vigorous conversation with numerous recent works of eco-criticism, which Hutchings persuasively argues have ignored ideology, as well as with the postcolonial criticism that is this text's main thrust, Hutchings insists upon noticing that 'the privileging of nature can be a double-edged sword: that in its conceptual, rhetorical, and scientific usage, 'natur" can function as a normative or 'anti-liberatory' principle [End Page 349] promoting the political regulation of human behaviour and social practice.'

Romantic Ecologies' greatest strength is the degree to which it recognizes that - while the ideologies that buttressed the practices of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism relied extensively on understandings of the relationship between humans and the natural world (a topic central to Romanticism) - these theories of nature mostly fail to be monolithic. They are rife with contradiction, desire, power, and occasionally compassion and resistance. Thus the various other peoples that Europeans enslaved and oppressed in 'settling' America, for instance, were understood variously as being of different species, as being humans in an earlier stage of development, as being like animals, or distinctly different from them. Finding examples mostly in relatively little-known literary and historical texts, Hutchings shows how these ideas about the natural world lend themselves both to justifying imperial power and to undermining and resisting it, creating 'counter-discourses.' For instance, he notes that European visitors to America frequently insisted that Africans and Native Americans were like animals, which justified their oppression. Yet this linking of people and animals also grounded condemnation of cruelty against both (since both animals and people could suffer, and since cruelty to animals could also lead to cruelty inflicted upon people); and, turning the table, writings by freed slaves and Native Americans often referred to their oppressors as brutes.

A curious strength of this book is that, even as it shows the ways in which geography and specific ideas of the natural world matter, the geographic breadth of its own examples reveals how discourse itself is strikingly mobile and global. Much like Tim Fulford's recent book Romantic Indians (which Hutchings frequently cites), this work shows the degree to which influence criss-crossed the ocean. A welcome aspect of this is Hutchings's inclusion of a number of texts about Upper Canada, by writers such as Sir Francis Bond Head and George Copway. Nuanced readings of these texts highlight the way ideas about the natural world themselves were a crucial part of the practice of colonial power, but also lent themselves to strategies of resistance.

The wide-ranging nature of this relatively short work is perhaps also its weakness. The focus is really on a complex history of ideas, rather than on literary texts. While it is always welcome to learn about forgotten or 'minor' works, there is little sense of their value here except as vehicles for conflicting ideas. Indeed, contradiction is so much at the forefront of discussion of these works that readers coming to them for the first time might easily conclude that they deserve to remain more or less forgotten. A related problem is the deep vagueness of the term Romantic as Hutchings deploys it, denoting both the historical period announced in the title, and more problematically, an implicitly agreed-upon set of [End Page 350] ideas about nature. Hutchings argues on the one hand that these ideas are established by the canonical Romantic authors, and on the other hand that these ideas are themselves always already contested, multiple, at play. So perhaps the strongest unintended effect of Hutchings's argument is for critics, including Hutchings himself, to abandon the term Romantic as anything other than an imprecise...


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pp. 349-351
Launched on MUSE
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