- American Environmental Fiction, 1782–1847 by Matthew Wynn Sivils
Anyone seeking to open up American environmental literature beyond the tradition of nonfiction “nature writing” will welcome this book. Matthew Wynn Sivils not only deepens the field by extending it through the early national period, but he also widens it by mounting a strong argument for fiction as a more effective environmental genre than nonfiction, pointing to a tradition that reaches (despite a period of dormancy during the reign of the Transcendentalists) from the American Revolution to the present day. Sivils’s valiant defense of environmental fiction breaks important new ground. Why fiction? Because, he argues, early American nature was so unfamiliar that it outran conventional language; early writers had to innovate, turning to novelistic approaches to tell the story of the land. That the rise of fiction itself might owe something to the rise of an environmental consciousness is suggested by Sivils’s opening chapter on Bartram and Crèvecoeur, transitional figures whose hybrid discourses fused concerns about nation and nature to give us “a new breed of ecological narrative” (15). While neither develops a fully environmental consciousness in today’s terms, Bartram’s blending of scientific and pastoral modes invented a new way to write about human and nonhuman communities, while Crèvecoeur’s novelistic approach dramatizes humans as products of their environment—who must therefore take direction from nature for the benefit of humanity.
The most exciting of Sivils’s chapters are problem-based: his chapter on captivity narratives draws on several lesser-known texts to explore a range of ways the land itself becomes a site of gendered captivity and racial violence—shown most vividly in his reading of Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic masterpiece Edgar Huntly (1799). This chapter is full of implications for further work, as is his chapter on juvenile literature: as Sivils points out, these were the very books read by a young Emerson and Thoreau, books which taught the next generation “to either accept or refute the land in which they had been born” (69). Following an environmental reading of the New England Primer, nursery rhymes, natural histories, and fictional walks in the woods, Sivils ends with Samuel Goodrich, whose “Peter Parley” books—so popular that most copies were read to shreds—forged an innovative blend of environmental fiction, natural history, and social critique. Goodrich’s recognition of human-caused environmental harm may seem ho-hum today, but as Sivils points out, in his own day it would have been quite radical; and even while Goodrich normalized his juvenile tales into reassurances of divine design, his sympathetic portrayals of the natural world helped create the readers, writers, and activists of the next generation.
Sivils sees all this coming together in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), “the first fully realized and deliberate work of American environmental fiction” (10). Natty Bumppo is not, however, the hero: his notion “that people should go away, or else he will” is not terribly useful for building an environmental consciousness (117). Sivils reserves that role for the land speculator Marmaduke Temple, whom he reads as the son’s pointed critique of his father, William Cooper. Not only did James Fenimore’s fictional land speculator recognize the destruction wrought by waste and greed, but he also wrestled with the impossible task of creating a community with some degree of environmental integrity—real-world activism, as opposed to Bumppo’s mere escapism. While neither Temple nor his creator knows how to solve the problems unleashed by human’s “wasty ways,” that hardly undercuts the novel’s power: indeed, Cooper wrestles with this dilemma in novel after novel. Sivils takes up The Prairie [End Page 139] (1827) next, arguing that Cooper wrote it to refute Buffon—making it an intervention, via fiction, into a scientific dispute over the meaning of American nature. The Prairie also portrays at least some Indians with “honor and humanity” (138), an obvious lead-in to other, better-known Cooper texts such as Last of the Mohicans. But where Sivils takes us...