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  • Du Bois’s Ambient PoeticsRethinking Environmental Imagination in The Souls of Black Folk

No book has had more enduring an influence on the symbolic geography of African American literature than W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois’s description of the Southern landscape and his trope of the journey south as a process of self-discovery have been as inspiring for African American writers as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) has been for white American nature writers and ecocritics. Souls would sit rather uneasily in a canon of environmental writing defined by writers like Thoreau or John Muir; unlike the writers most often valorized by ecocritics, Du Bois’s main concern is not to foster attention to and concern for nonhuman nature, but to explore “the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century” (Souls 359).1 Yet for Du Bois that project is in some way environmental: offering both a poetics of race and place and a nascent theory of “the Negro’s double environment” (Dusk 681), Souls makes place and environment central to its articulation of the “spiritual world” in which African Americans “live and strive” (Souls 359).

Given its canonical status and its complex treatment of environment, place, and “world,” Souls is an obvious starting point for dialogue between ecocriticism and African American literary studies. Yet despite recent efforts to redress ecocriticism’s marginalization of African American perspectives, surprisingly few critics have examined Souls as environmental writing.2 In her study of African American environmental thought, Kimberly K. Smith treats Du Bois as a key figure in a distinctive black environmental tradition whose main concern is not to protect nature from human interference but to “facilitate responsible and morally beneficial interaction with nature” while contesting racist practices and ideologies that constrain black people’s relations with the land (7). But while she finds an emphasis on natural beauty throughout Du Bois’s work (91), Smith’s reading of Souls focuses less on its representation of environment than on its valorization of rural black people as a “folk” with an organic or primitive connection to nature (98–118, 138–39). Scott Hicks does analyze Souls as nature writing, making suggestive but somewhat contradictory claims about how Du Bois’s treatment of nature compares with that of Booker T. Washington and with the white Romantic tradition. For Hicks, Du Bois challenges dominant white attitudes that Washington uncritically embraces, including both the instrumental view of nature as exploitable resource and the Romantic ideal of nature as an aestheticized retreat from politics and history (206–07, 210). Yet he also attributes to Du Bois some of the same values ecocritics find in white Romantics like Thoreau and Wordsworth, arguing that Du Bois “resists ways of speaking about the land that reduce it to human activities and epistemologies” and celebrates marginal landscapes like the swamp for the aesthetic and [End Page 322] spiritual value they offer when “humans enter them not as despoilers but as prostrated appreciators” (Hicks 209, 210). Such claims risk making Du Bois sound closer than he is to wilderness-loving environmentalists like John Muir,3 but Hicks is right to suggest that part of what makes Souls compelling as an environmental text is its simultaneous resistance to and affinity with the Romantic tradition that informs mainstream American environmentalism. I would add that to do full justice to Du Bois’s contribution to environmental thought requires closer attention to the complexity of the Romantic tradition and to Du Bois’s deployment of particular elements of that tradition.

One reason Souls calls for ecocritical attention is that, for all its differences from Thoreauvian nature writing, Du Bois’s genre-defying book does fit more easily than most literary classics into the category of environmental nonfiction of which Walden is a paradigmatic example. Though not ecological in theme, Souls is strikingly “environmental” in form; like Walden, it combines social critique with what Timothy Morton calls ecomimesis or ambient poetics, a rhetorical mode that aims to “conjur[e] up a sense of a surrounding atmosphere or world” (22). Ecomimesis includes nature writing and other aesthetic...

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