Tales of thrills and oil spills

The Green Studies Reader
June 1, 2001

Some 30 years after environmentalism became a force to be reckoned with in politics, it is finally making inroads into literary criticism. Urged on by the ever-growing threat to the planet - or indeed by the sheer love of nature - green theorists and critics are busy putting the physical environment centre stage, often with a view to effecting political change. Laurence Coupe's Green Studies Reader provides an excellent overview of achievements to date in this emerging field, which has developed in the United States over the past decade and is gradually gaining a foothold in Britain.

Coupe's reader has the air of a pioneering publication. It is only the second - and by far the most comprehensive - collection of its kind to be published in Britain, although it has American predecessors, notably Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader (1996). It is also a nicely tentative selection, gathered at least partly with the aim of opening research possibilities. As one contributor, Scott Slovic, puts it, "ecocritical theory ... is being re-defined daily by the actual practice of thousands of literary scholars around the world". This work of definition is apparent in many of the extracts - in arguments conducted and in a preoccupation with aims and methods. But the featured ecocritics are still united in their desire to find constructive ways of speaking of and for the natural world, and are keen to bring it out of the obscurity to which it has been consigned by the emphasis on cultural construction and linguistic play in much recent literary theory.

However, the anthology is not confined to contemporary debates. Beginning with Romanticism, it takes a longer perspective on literature and the environment. It is possible to go back further still (as some of the contributors do, notably to Shakespeare), but the Romantics' decisive turn to nature is a good starting point. The first of the collection's three sections, "Green tradition", is devoted largely to 19th and early 20th-century texts. Brief extracts from works by William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Thomas and D. H. Lawrence provide a good way in, grounding the ecocritical project in the mainstream of the canon. Coupe also neatly uncovers the roots of green literary criticism in Britain, tracing a line that runs from Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads , to John Ruskin's notion of pathetic fallacy, William Morris's ecological socialism, F. R. Leavis's ideas about organic community, and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City .

The next two sections, "Green theory" and "Green reading", move to ecocriticism. True to the state of the field, US contributions outnumber British, although there is balance in the reader as a whole, with a sprinkling of continental theory. There are many gems. The scholarship of Robert Pogue Harrison and Lawrence Buell is outstanding. Like Jonathan Bate, whose Romantic Ecology inaugurated contemporary ecocriticism in Britain in the early 1990s, they connect real landscapes, environmental threats and literary texts without simplifying the issues and while emphasising how much literature can do to bring us in touch with the earth.

Much of the best criticism shares this ability to move effortlessly between texts, landscapes and political issues. For poet and critic Terry Gifford, no representation of nature can ever be politically innocent, but his staunch green politics are complemented by a fine appreciation of the natural world. Richard Kerridge writes very well about ecothrillers, comparing their scenarios of environmental threats with the BSE scare and the Chernobyl disaster. Less successful ecocritical models are Patrick D. Murphy's overly theoretical approach, which draws on Bakhtinian dialogics, and the more dogmatic ecofeminist criticism, which tends to ride roughshod over the text at hand, as Louise Westling does with Thoreau's Walden.

So what is missing? The absence of Annette Kolodny's seminal ecofeminist work, The Lay of the Land , seems curious, as does that of Donald Worster's pioneering history of ecological ideas, Nature's Economy . Buell is well represented, but his checklist of criteria for environmental literature would have been worth including, as would an extract from the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose emphasis on our bonds with the environment is particularly relevant.

But Coupe's anthology is a good introduction to a thriving branch of literary study. It is designed for ease of use. The extracts are brief, well chosen and whet your appetite for more. With courses in ecocriticism beginning to appear in British universities, it should make a very good textbook indeed.

Madeleine Minson is tutor in English, University College London.

The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. First Edition

Editor - Laurence Coupe
ISBN - 0 415 20406 2 and 20407 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 315

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