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  • Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History by Alan Bewell
  • Melissa Sodeman
Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History. By Alan Bewell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii, 393. Cloth, $60.00.

In this field-altering study, Alan Bewell shows how the rich nature writing of the Romantic period was shaped out of experiences with a diverse range of natures, some of which were emerging while others were slipping away. Arguing that there are many natures, each of which is a product of its particular time and place, Bewell recovers the multiple ways that British writers engaged with the fluctuations of material nature at a moment when Europeans carried their biota to colonial environments and in so doing gave rise to newly hybrid natures. Readers of Bewell's book will no longer be able to see nature in the singular, as a kind of static ground against which human activity may be figured. Nor will it be possible to assert that nature was a singularly Romantic discovery, something newly apprehended at the moment it began to be degraded by an incipient industrialism. Rather than M. H. Abrams's necessary precondition [End Page 176] for lyric insight, or the new historicism's escape from history and politics, nature is for Bewell a site of "intense political, social, discursive, and material struggle" (p. 7). Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History is wide-ranging and powerfully argued. It ably shifts the analytical terrain on which studies of Romantic nature have rested. Its interventions are hardly less significant for colonial history, environmental history, and the history of science. This is a book that deserves to be widely read, with an impact that should be felt well beyond literary studies.

At the core of Bewell's book is an acknowledgement that material nature is inseparable from human culture, an insight that threads through each of the book's chapters and is fundamental to its methodology. Putting postcolonial, globalization, and ecocritical theory into productive conversation, Bewell brings their insights to densely contextualized readings that allow various natures to speak. The book's nine chapters span a chronological period stretching from the works of Erasmus Darwin to the evolutionary theory of his more famous grandson. Opening with the elder Darwin's The Botanic Garden, Bewell considers the poem as an expression of "a thoroughly modern" nature, one understood to be "undergoing ceaseless change and transformation and … inescapably bound up with global commerce, industry, and consumption" (p. 54). Chapters 2 and 3, on the West Indies and Australia, trace what Bewell terms "a broader colonial remaking of natures made possible by the managed transfer of plants and animals across a worldwide network of trade that radiated out from Kew Gardens," a network that "transformed diverse local natures by transforming the physical contexts within which they existed and integrating them within a globalized system of trade and knowledge exchange" (p. 137). Chapters 4 and 5 move from the Hampshire parish of Selborne to the frontier of the southeastern United States, showing how in these very different locales conceptions of nature were themselves on the move as traditional notions of natural order gave way to more dynamic formulations able to accommodate competition, struggle, and change. Bewell brilliantly contrasts the thoroughly domesticated English nature readers found in Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne and the contested American landscape that William Bartram saw as inscribed by the history of its human claimants. Bartram's recognition that the frontier nature he describes will itself fall prey to time, eventually surviving only in the pages of his book, anticipates the elegiac natures of William Wordsworth and John Clare, the subjects of Chapters 6 and 7. Reading Wordsworth as both a nativist poet and a historical ecologist avant la lettre, Bewell challenges the view that Wordsworth was committed to a stable and unchanging nature, arguing that his poems seek to preserve the Lake District from modern encroachment while grappling with "what it means to live with a nature that is passing out of existence" (p. 247). Turning to Clare, Bewell examines what it means to outlive a beloved nature, contending that Clare's...


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pp. 176-178
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