- Transatlantic Literary Ecologies: Nature and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Atlantic World ed. by Kevin Hutchings and John Miller
It is telling that in Transatlantic Literary Ecologies: Nature and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Atlantic World, a new volume of transatlantic ecocritical essays focused on the ostensibly Romantic nineteenth century, the Romantic myth of the Ecological Indian remains conspicuously intact. Victorian-era writers from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir to Isabella Bird are occasionally chided for their sentimentalization of indigenous peoples or for their susceptibility to the genocidal rhetoric of an allegedly unpopulated American wilderness, but the question of the pre-Columbian human footprint in North America is left politely to one side. To do otherwise would be to upset the liberal environmentalist narrative of a millennia-long indigenous presence in the United States that magically involved no biophysical imprint.
As Kevin Hutchings, one of the editors of the volume, alludes to in his chapter on extinction, the First Americans came with their dogs across the Bering Land Bridge some fourteen thousand years ago. Within a few hundred years, they had hunted multiple species of megafauna to extinction, and they used wildfires to clear forests for growing crops from the Southwest to the Atlantic seaboard. Entire agricultural civilizations rose and then fell victim to drought and deforestation. Up to one hundred non-native plants were introduced to North America in the centuries before the Columbian exchange. In the words of one environmental historian, "the wilderness that Europeans 'discovered' was largely a human construct" (Erin Steward Mauldin, "The United States in Global Environmental History," in A Companion to Global Environmental History, edited by J. R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin [Wiley Blackwell, 2015], 133). [End Page 115]
To pass over this rich and complex history is to expel the Indian from American territories all over again, and to erase an epic indigenous (and environmental) history. The American Anthropocene did not begin with the European industrialization of New England in the nineteenth century, nor with the belief in manifest destiny, but instead millennia earlier. Transatlantic scholars across disciplines, nevertheless, remain committed to a colonialist origin story within foreshortened timeframes. It is symptomatic of what Amitav Ghosh has identified as "the one feature of Western modernity that is truly distinctive: its enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its own singularity" (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable [The University of Chicago Press, 2016], 103). The Romantic American wilderness, and the Ecological Indian, are among eurocentrism's deepest ideological roots, difficult to hack away at because they are nourished by the attractive new-growth forest of conservation aesthetics and the plentiful oxygen of liberal guilt. Given this, the contributors to this volume might be excused for not swinging the axe.
The contributors to Transatlantic Literary Ecologies assemble a varied and entertaining cast of Victorian-era characters who have one slip of mind in common: they universally mistake the historical belatedness of their encounter with the American biodome for the transcendent rush of novelty. Fascinating essays on the travel writer, Isabella Bird, in the Rocky Mountains and The Boy's Own Paper (1879–1967) author, R. M. Ballantyne, self-consciously blazing a trail on Hudson's Bay add usefully to our stock of transatlantic author-pioneers who gave new life to old tropes and found lucrative niches in the Anglophone book market.
In other cases, the literal and literary journeys are inextricably interwoven, as in Muir's close but embattled readings of John Ruskin, painter Thomas Cole's of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, or New England readers' delighted encounter with Thomas Hardy's Wessex (a deeply anthropogenic and rhetorical wilderness that supplied a deficit in their own New World land-escapism). Other chapters emphasize the reverse cultural circulation that has always defined transatlantic studies: American naturalist William Bartram inspires the Lake Poets, radical poet Joel Barlow consorts with the London Jacobins in the 1790s, and Nathaniel Hawthorne submits himself...