- The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States by Mark Fiege
The Republic of Nature is going to improve the teaching of and the study of American history for years to come. Although he did not attempt to craft a complete synthesis, having mastered the synthetic nature of environmental history, [End Page 816] Mark Fiege demonstrates that the workings of the biophysical world were essential to the nation’s development. The book is appropriate for virtually any one-term survey course because it spans four centuries, because it integrates insights from numerous fields, and, perhaps especially, because it establishes connections that his students, and probably many others, have struggled to perceive. The Republic of Nature ties the conventional themes of environmental history to the history of the United States as traditionally communicated. Fiege makes matters of interest to and findings of environmental historians pertinent to historians of diverse specializations.
Acknowledging his reliance on the expertise of fellow historians, Fiege mines classic and recent studies of class, culture, economics, environment, ethnicity, family, gender, labor, medicine, memory, politics, race, religion, science, technology, and war to retell the stories of and examine nine major textbook subjects: witchcraft in colonial New England; American Independence; cotton production in the South; Abraham Lincoln; the Civil War; the transcontinental railroad; atomic bombs; Brown v. Board of Education; and the 1973–1974 oil crisis. The remarkably versatile author provides clear discussions of: the manitou of Algonquian peoples; natural law; the shoes on, or missing from, the feet of soldiers who fought at Gettysburg; the psychological research on child development used in civil rights lawsuits; and many more topics during this journey through the past.
However, The Republic of Nature is more than a narrative masterpiece. It is a history of nature that elucidates the nature of history. Fiege contends that historians’ tendencies to exclude nature from analyses weaken otherwise strong writings. For example, while excellent works on economic conditions, religious dissent, and class and gender dynamics have informed ongoing historical investigation into as well as have demystified the supernatural dimensions of colonial era social strife, to some extent, historians remain uninformed because of their neglect of the ecological stresses created by animal and human populations. In contrast to scholars who dismiss arguments about diseases in these episodes as reductionist, Fiege recognizes that discounting biophysical circumstances misrepresents how little colonial people knew about their environments—a state of affairs, unfortunately, that may exist in all places at all times. Fiege’s emphasis on formulating more powerful historical explanations with the charges carried by organic and inorganic elements and things raises the perennial question of whether more is to be learned from recovering the past as it was said to be experienced or from figuring out, to the best of our abilities, what actually happened.
Tempered by the Sage of Monticello’s view of how human theories interfere with observation, Fiege concedes that even with an encompassing outlook, a willingness to dig deep, and an appreciation of the microscopic and the colossal, some things will go unnoticed, or, more relevantly, in the case of this book, will be unexplored. Fiege, for example, could have accorded more space to what transpired beyond the nation’s borders. Trumping Thomas Bender’s views about the transnational nature of national histories with the card of big history seems like overkill and seems unlikely to persuade many historians that a transnational perspective cannot bring important qualities of a nation into better focus. Nevertheless, pragmatic professional decisions and pragmatic publication decisions, not a denial of the significance of the Old World for the New World, were probably why the adventure-ready, boundary-crossing author decided not to send readers abroad for an extended period. Given its lack of density, that irony hardly [End Page 817] dents Fiege’s fabulous reconstructions that clarify the evolution of the United States.
While some social and cultural historians may reject Fiege’s embrace of scientific materialism—as evidence of our universal human nature, he notes we all...