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  • Greening Darwin's Century:Humboldt, Thoreau, and the Politics of Hope
  • Laura Dassow Walls (bio)

Charles Darwin loomed large over the intellectual landscape during 2009, the bicentennial of his birth. He looms over the entire nineteenth century as well: how one assesses his meaning and legacy becomes pivotal to how one assesses the century as a whole. Insofar as "Darwin" becomes synonymous with "Darwinism," his shadow is long: the name of Victorian England's most important and most famous naturalist becomes cultural shorthand for a nature "red in tooth and claw." This expression, however, actually comes from Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850), published nine years before On the Origin of Species (1859). Similarly, Darwinism's most notorious phrase, "survival of the fittest," was actually coined by Herbert Spencer in 1864 (1:444). Yet, somehow, these historical facts do not change the impression conjured up by the name "Darwin": a kind of pocket providence that explains at a stroke the nineteenth century's turn to a savage nature that, according to the cruel dictates of science, destroyed humanity's hopes for spiritual transcendence and social progress. Through this lens, the hopeful reformism and nascent environmentalism of texts written before 1859—by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry David Thoreau, or Harriet Beecher Stowe—seem shadowed by the darkness to come. Gestures towards nature written after 1859 can be read only in the context of that Darwinian darkness, a darkness increased in the United States by civil war. Thus, in American literature after 1859, "nature" devolves either into the nostalgic haze that softens the bitter realism of Mark Twain or into the bleak naturalism of Stephen Crane and Jack London, in whose writings nature's indifference to human suffering seems key to the human condition. In such texts, to see nature as morally benign or interesting in itself, apart from human symbolic structures, indicates, at best, naive escapism and, at worst, complicity in the cruellest impulses of imperial capitalism.

The problem is that both these accusations close off the critical space that environmental criticism seeks to reopen. Can we open a green space by returning to American Transcendentalism, that utopian moment in prewar, pre-Darwinian America? Not without qualification, as a glance at Ralph Waldo Emerson will show. Emerson famously initiated the modern debate over nature in his manifesto, Nature (1836), which he opened by proclaiming that "all science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature" (8). Here [End Page 92] he meant "nature" not as the lived green world but as the theoretical foundation for world-making, both human and divine: his "theory," as outlined in this manifesto and developed over the rest of his career, offered nature and humanity as the twin avatars of God. Nature's end (in the sense of both purpose and termination) would be realized when the physical green world had been wholly absorbed by human power, which, using the tools of science and technology, was already fast converting nature's physical limitations into a springboard for human freedom. As a young man, Emerson looked joyfully ahead to the future when external nature would disappear, "when its whole sense hath been comprehended and engraved forever in the eternal thoughts of the human mind" ("Uses" 26). Throughout his long career, he often expressed delight with the rapid advance of modern science and the industrial revolution, for they seemed to be fulfilling his youthful dream: nature was indeed disappearing. His era was making his own theory of nature manifest in the destiny of the nation.

For both Darwin and Emerson, then, "nature" was the era's keyword. In one, it was the problem; in the other, the solution. But both seemed to make green nature partner in a Darwinian conspiracy, complicit with the power structures we have learned to deplore. No wonder that when we render our own assessments of the nineteenth century's master plot, rather than putting the green world at its heart, we tend to regard everything green with suspicion: Darwinism in effect accomplished the "browning" of literature, and critical interest in the green world withered and died. This bifurcation between the "greens" and the "browns" is registered in a linguistic confusion...


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pp. 92-103
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