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G L E N A. L O V E University ofOregon Et in Arcadia Ego: Pastoral Theory Meets Ecocriticism “‘So,’say the parable-makers, ‘is your pastoral life whirled past and away.’ ” In this spirit of elegy, Leo Marx concludes The Machine in the Garden, his landmark 1964 study of pastoralism in American literature and culture (354). But reports of pastoralism’s demise have proven premature, as Marx himself admits in a retrospective 1986 essay, “Pasto­ ralism in America.”Besides Marx, a number of other recent commenta­ tors like Lawrence Buell, Andrew Ettin, and William Howarth join in reasserting pastoral’s continuing relevance.1 “Like the terms tragedy and comedy,” says Ettin, “the term pastoral denotes experiences and ideas that are permanently parts of our thinking and writing” (1). The eighteenth century’s Dr.Johnson held that pastoral wasvulgar and escapist, hence dismissible. His disparagement of the genre, how­ ever, has been countered by generations of subsequent scholarship which continues to explore the idea that pastoral can be a serious and complex criticism of life, concerned not merely with country scenes and incidents, but with the explicit or implicit contrast and commentary between such settings and the lives of an urban and sophisticated audience. Nature, in the pastoral equation, is an embodiment of nobil­ ity, a trusted value against which we are invited to weigh our experiences of culture and society. Evidence of pastoral’s continuing—even increas­ ing—significance is forced upon us constantly by events which have thrust the natural world into the forefront of contemporary public and social life. As Robert Finch and John Elder write in the introduction to the recently-published Norton Book of Nature Writing, “All literature, by illuminating the full nature of human existence, asks a single question: how shall we live? In our age that question has taken its most urgent form in relation to the natural environment” (28). The interconnections between human beings and nature, the 196 Western American Literature concern of pastoral from the times of Theocritus and Virgil to the present, take on heretofore unprecedented significance at a time when the comfortably mythopoeic green world of pastoral is beset by pro­ found threats of pollution, despoliation, and diminishment. From such an earth-centered context in which we now find ourselves, the study of pastoral—doubly important to those of us interested in the literature of the American West, where nature continues to occupy a much larger place than it appears to in the eastern and urban imagination—is thrown open to new interpretation. This ecological-environmental perspective, worldly in the most literal sense, has been called “ecocriticism.” The term has come to summarize the response of literary study and analysis to the ecological consciousness of the last two decades and to the recognition that human culture is inextricably involved with, and ultimately subordinate to, the physical, natural world. The word “ecocriticism”was originally coined in 1978 by William L. Rueckert, in his important essay, “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” As Cheryll Burgess, one of ecocridcism’s foremost young advocates and practitioners, further de­ fines it, “Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnections between the material world and human culture, specifically the cultural artifacts language and literature. . . . Literary theory, in general, examines the relations between writers, texts, and the world. While in most literary theory ‘the world’ is synonymous with society—the social sphere— ecocriticism expands the notion of ‘the world’ to include the entire ecosphere” (1). It has been noted recently by Sean O ’Grady that the term “ecocriticism” shares a theoretical shortcoming with ecology, the disci­ pline upon which it has modeled itself, because of that discipline’s inability to develop a widely-accepted theory to explain the phenomena which its investigations encompass. This has prevented ecocritics, ac­ cording to O’Grady, from themselves developing a precise definition and theory, and has turned them in the direction of metaphor and jeremiad. As a response to this, he calls not for more global theoryspinning but, like his UC Davis colleague Gary Snyder, for more atten­ tion to the immediate and local workings of ecosystems, as a productive and useful way into the discipline for prospective ecocritics. “In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 195-207
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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