Comparative Literature Studies 39.3 (2002) 253-256
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The Song of the Earth
Romanticism and Ecology
The Song of the Earth. By Jonathan Bate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiv + 335 pp. $29.95
Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. By James C. McKusick. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. x + 261 pp. $45.00
In a roundtable panel at the 1998 MLA convention titled "Ecocriticism: Trajectories in Theory and Practice," the respected ecocritic, Scott Slovic, commented that "ecocriticism has no central, dominant doctrine or theoretical apparatus—rather, ecocritical theory, such as it is, is being re-defined daily by the actual practice of thousands of literary scholars around the world. [. . .] If you're looking for ecocritical theory, look for it in our practice." That being the case, Jonathan Bate's The Song of the Earth and James C. McKusick's Green Writing are really excellent places to look for ecocriticism. Both books cover similar territory, no doubt the result of both these writers being accomplished and respected scholars of Romanticism, primarily of the British variety. But to identify them as such and to name the focus or subjects of McKusick's or Bate's previous work will be of little help to the potential reader of these books in coming to grips with what ecocriticism is and how it is practiced in these studies. Some sense of that might be implicit in the aspects of these books that separate them from criticism or theory that is not primarily concerned with ecology or the environment. Bate, for instance, really makes the relationship of the humanities and environment a core concern of his work, wondering throughout The Song of the Earth about the connections between the two, but always insisting on the profound importance of their linkage. McKusick's study begins with a narrative of a hike in the grizzly country of Montana, some 20 years ago, and the sense of fear and humility that gripped him as he walked in the presumed presence of a predator far more powerful than he. So what possible connection can a literary critic make between real and anticipated encounters with grizzly bears and literature?
Taking as his starting point William Cronon's critique of American environmentalism's Romantic legacy in the influential essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness" (the lead essay in the Cronon-edited 1995 collection of essays, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature), McKusick speculates that Cronon's assault on that legacy is actually part of a history of attempts "to derogate and demonize the 'romantic legacy' as a way of [End Page 253] laying the foundations for a supposedly more sophisticated, more 'modern' way of understanding Nature." So to counter Cronon's and similar criticisms of Romanticism, McKusick holds that what is really wrong with American environmentalism has little to do with a blind acceptance of the Romantic sublime as a paradigm for understanding the natural world, and is instead the product of an "intellectual impoverishment" that has resulted from a failure "to investigate the Romantic origins of American environmentalism." McKusick reasons, "It is only by understanding our history that we may come to know ourselves, and by such knowledge we may learn to abide what the future holds in store." He describes his subject as "the emergence of ecological understanding among the English Romantic poets"—a new holistic paradigm—that in turn had a dramatic influence on a number of important nineteenth-century American writers whose work adapted and transformed that holistic paradigm to the "conceptual and ideological basis for American environmentalism" (11, 12).
To prove his point, McKusick turns to a discussion of a series of ecological readings of the works a group of British writers—Coleridge, Wordsworth, John Clare, and William Blake and Mary Shelley—each of whom contributes to the new holistic paradigm for understanding the natural world. In McKusick's view, these British writers articulated the basic insights of what would come to be known as ecological thought—namely, the adaptation of species to their habitats, the...