Themes in Literature

Literary Nature

Literary Nature

Nature, taken broadly as the earth’s physical phenomena, is omnipresent, in literature as in life. Just as we do not live and function in a vacuum, literary events cannot transpire without some type of space, some sort of environment, however basic or unconventional it might be. But other than this initial stipulation that nature pervades all literature, further universals are difficult to defend. Perhaps the only other truth ascribable to the role of nature in literature is that it has demonstrated near-constant fluidity, from the dawn of English letters to the contemporary era. Many early texts utilize nature to describe origin. North American Indian tribes such as the Iroquois and the Pima told nature-focused creation stories. Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil in The Aeneid, and the early English poet Caedmon explain how a people came to inhabit the specific landscape they do. Beowulf (Anonymous) dramatizes the defense of one’s turf. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales lend further to the trope of journey as tale, tale as journey, thereby paralleling nature and the act of storytelling itself. John Milton’s Paradise Lost even details heaven and hell as determinants of human consciousness, thereby deeming the eternal and ethereal as influential spaces as well. But throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Restoration, nature was, for the most part, allocated the role of backdrop—a mere canvas upon which the acts of humans were transposed. Occasional personification aside, nature was rarely afforded the power of agency. The romantic period (1785–1830) saw nature utilized as more of a primary subject matter than previously.

William Shakespeare’s comparisons of women to summer’s days yielded to the direct treatment of seasonal splendor by William Blake (Songs of Innocence and of Experience), William Wordsworth (“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”), and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who celebrated nature as an inspiration and thereby ascribed it the role of muse, a position previously allocated to the divine. But while nature certainly plays a part in writings of the “Old World,” it was truly the genesis and flourishing of American literature that eventually repositioned it as a central, rather than merely a peripheral, thematic element, replete even with agency. As opposed to the letters produced in the well-known, exhaustively mapped countryside of Great Britain and Europe, those of the Western Hemisphere were recorded by pioneers in the throes of attempting to explore—both physically and intellectually— the immensity of an unforgiving foreign wilderness.

These prenational, or colonial, writings are most recognizable by the strong and overt religious sentiment they propound. Tracts drafted by Puritans emigrating from Europe to New England promulgated strict Calvinism, by which humankind was placed on a pedestal above the natural world due to the favor shown it in the Bible, particularly in the creation of man as the pinnacle of God’s work. This anthropocentric worldview traveled across the Atlantic with emigrants who sought to civilize the “savage” wild into which they were moving: The wilderness was seen as being in need of the doctrine they promulgated, as salvation was to be found not in the forests but in civilization, a divergent absolute from the “trickster” tales of the Winnebago, Sioux, Navajo, and other Native American tribes, in which natural elements and creatures display, paradoxically, a certain consistent unpredictability when interacting with people. The Puritans frowned on this subjectivity, maintaining instead that wilderness was the realm of beasts, of evil—this was the scene of Christ’s temptation, after all, the post-Fall wasteland. The key, they believed, was to carve out their own space and to introduce the word of God to the deprived landscape that lay before them. If paradise could be regained, it was not in the trees themselves but in their felling. Churches were needed to subordinate the wickedness of the uncouth wilderness to Providence, illustrated efficiently by the shining “city upon a hill” envisioned by John Winthrop in his sermon A Model of Christian Charity, delivered as a mission statement of sorts while en route from England in 1630. The concrete physical situation of the suggestion conveys the goal of these refugees: The realm of humans, the organized city, will be, quite literally, constructed above nature. Following independence, a new challenge presented itself to the now “American” authors.

As former British subjects became pioneering patriots, the question of their interaction with their surroundings followed logically—that is, we know how subjects of the Crown treat nature, but what of American citizens? Merely regurgitating the ideology of those against whom they had fought so hard and long for independence lacked ambition at best, and seemed dangerously cyclical at worst. Hence, the initial American literati focused primarily on this new man, this fresh being (whom the 20th-century literary critic R. W. B Lewis would deem “the American Adam” in his work of the same name) reborn on a still largely unknown continent. The French-American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur explored this creature as a product of its space. Washington Irving’s fiction, especially The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, depicted the ever-evolving Dutch settlements of New York. James Fenimore Cooper’s five-volume Leatherstocking Tales follow Natty Bumppo—a European emigrant who consistently becomes more native in his lifestyle and politics—from the East Coast into the wilderness, all the way to the Rocky Mountains. And while all three writers concern themselves with the overarching issue of what it means to be American, they do so by deliberating specifically on the individual’s position within his or her environment. Quite literally, they focus on the situation of the early American. Furthermore, tough questions regarding Puritan fervor began to intensify (as demonstrated, most prominently, in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne), leaving the door open for a new consideration of humankind’s relationship to nature, one which would be provided by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, a Unitarian minister living in Concord, Massachusetts, was notably affected by the romantic movement and desired, for his young country, a literature of its own.

His consideration of European idealism—thoughts advanced by Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, among others—led to his own brand of American transcendentalism, an ontological inspection in which nature factored centrally. Emerson believed that humankind had strayed from its course, thereby blurring the innate divinity by which all souls relate to each other and to God. The way to recover this lost relationship was present in nature, which, Emerson maintained, functioned as a sort of blueprint through which we could witness the mind of God. His ideas, though initially quite controversial when published in his long essay Nature (1836), gradually became more mainstream, particularly since they were advocated by the stable of talented writers with whom he surrounded himself in Concord. Margaret Fuller augmented her feminist societal critiques with natural observations. Henry David Thoreau lent Emerson’s abstractions practical examples in Walden, his account of two years spent living in the woods. Walt Whitman poeticized Emerson’s promotion of nature in his passionate tome Leaves of Grass. Emerson even sought to take the future outdoorsman and “wild man” John Muir under his wing, but Muir preferred his California home.

But just as the movement that sought to rewrite nature as sacred rather than subordinate began gaining momentum, the Civil War and the resultant economic slump, coupled with urbanization, instead led writers concerned with the natural world in a new, less hospitable direction. And so while nature was portrayed as an enlightening, esteemed realm for much of the mid-1800s, by the turn of the century this favorable depiction was replaced with caustic naturalist depictions that reflected the acerbic times. Literary naturalists refuted the pessimistic and optimistic natural views employed by the Puritans and transcendentalists, respectively, opting instead to allow nature to define itself. Previously popular natural personifications were eschewed in favor of more objective environmental renderings. These purportedly more realistic representations envisioned the outdoors as neither malevolent nor beneficent, but instead indifferent. Jack London’s tales, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, depict an Alaskan interior unforgiving to both man and beast, whereas Stephen Crane’s works illustrate similar themes within the context of a gritty metropolis. Over the last century or so, the growth of the environmental movement has increased—and politicized—the role of nature in literature. John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892.

The First World War inspired T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, an exposé of a once-promising landscape rendered dismal and hopeless at the hands of humankind. The ecologist Aldo Leopold, seeking to heal, at mid-century proposed his “land ethic,” asserting that decisions affecting nature should be considered neither economically nor commercially but morally. The environmentalist Edward Abbey scolded civilization’s convenience-based impingement on the wilderness. The writer and scientist Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, warned against the lasting effects of chemical inundation. Transcending the strictly literary, the Wachowski brothers’ postmodern film The Matrix trilogy implores us to call into question the very validity of our perceived surrounding, and the politician Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth has proved a powerful ecocritical text. Thus, while the precise future of natural literature is uncertain, it seems quite clear that as global warming, overpopulation, and general environmental degradation continue, themes of nature will play increasingly important roles not only in the literature we study but also for the planet on which we live.

See also Atwood, Margaret: Surfacing; Bradbury, Ray: Martian Chronicles, The; Cather, Willa: My Ántonia; O Pioneers!; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The”; Crane, Stephen: Open Boat, The; Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, The; Dickinson, Emily: poems; Dinesen, Isak: Out of Africa; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “Self- Reliance”; Forster, E. M.: Room with a View, A; Frost, Robert: poems; Harte, Bret: “Luck of Roaring Camp, The”; Hemingway, Ernest: Old Man and the Sea, The; Jefferson, Thomas: Notes on the State of Virginia; Keats, John: poems; Kingsolver, Barbara: Bean Trees, The; Lewis, C. S.: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The; McCarthy, Cormac: All the Pretty Horses; Shakespeare, William: Midsumm er Night’s Dream, A; Steinbeck, John: Pearl, The; Red Pony, The; Wilde, Oscar: Picture of Dorian Gray, The.

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