Reviews 2015

American Environmental Fiction, 1782-1847

American Environmental Fiction, 1782-1847. Matthew Wynn Sivils. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. 166 pages. $104.95 (hardback).

Matthew Wynn Sivils’s study of environmental issues in American literature is a celebration of the eco-critical ideas evident in the national literature prior to works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Starting with works published during or shortly after the American Revolutionary War, Sivils links a love of landscape to the struggle for independence and the desire to really "see" the land in its own terms, not through the Imperial eyes of an English man. He also notes that this concern for and interest in the land is not described in the same terms that we would use today. Most notably, the word "environment" does not exist in any of the works from the eighteenth century that he discusses. Instead, words like "landscape" and "land" are used by these early writers to express their views of a distinctively American character shaped by the land itself, as well as expressing concerns that the land may be suffering from human exploitation (yes, already in the eighteenth century, writers were expressing what we would today regard as "eco-critical" worries).

The volume is divided into two sections – Verdant Beginnings and Wild Visions – each comprised of three chapters. The material is roughly chronological, but is more clearly organised around themes. Although most of the works Sivils discusses are intended for an adult reader, he also draws attention to the role of juvenile literature in fostering a way of thinking about nature that was to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century in works such as Emerson’s Nature (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854). The works of James Fennimore Cooper draw a red thread through the second half of the volume, but these discussions are heavily supplemented by references to other works of fiction, ephemeral material, life-writing and paintings.

The earliest works examined are J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and William Bartram’s Travels (1791) are quasi-autobiographical writings which combine musings on the environs with philosophical engagements with the character of mankind. They establish a connection which is nationalist, but also eco-critical. Sivils cites Crevecoeur as saying: "Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow" (in Sivils, 37). The second chapter focuses on the Indian captivity novel, starting with the anonymously authored Panther Captivity novel (1787); a novel which also highlights how the landscape is feminized in this genre. Sivils also draws attention how novels like Ann Eliza Bleeker’s The History of Maria Kittle (1779) carry a subtext of women finding their freedom from patriarchy when they are alone in the wilderness, and in doing so questions their responses to being "rescued" by the white men who bring her back to civilization. In this way, Sivils casts new light on the wilderness as prison motif, noting its particular liberatory importance for the females who have been captured by indigenous Americans.

The third chapter is of most interest to IRSCL members as it focuses on juvenile literature. Here Sivils makes a departure from his emphasis on how literature was both feeding into and being fed by nationalist feelings as America gained independence and sought an identity in relation to the landscape. In the section on children’s literature, Sivils includes British fiction which sold well in the States at this time. This is partly because the section on juvenile fiction is less concerned with the land and its vegetation and more concerned with the humane treatment of animals. Nevertheless, Sivils identifies a strong educational thrust to teach children to recognise "that the nation’s prosperity would rely upon judiciously exploiting its natural resources" (10). The main writer Sivils evaluates is Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who published under the name of Peter Parley, but he also includes illustrated alphabets and nursery rhymes. And the points he highlights are the Christian rhetoric which encourages children to view the natural world as evidence of Godly design and the promotion of the human right to dominate this world, civilising and taming the wilderness by expanding the frontiers.

The second half – Wild Visions – is arranged around three novels by James Fennimore Cooper: The Pioneers (1823), The Prairie (1827) and The Crater (1847). From these novels, Sivils builds a thematic chapter centring on the life of Cooper’s land-speculating father, active rejection of the French author, Comte de Buffon, and Disaster writing respectively. In doing so, he also builds a wider case for the great influence of Cooper on other genres. This includes citing a letter of memorial from Melville to Cooper’s family in which Melville acknowledges his debt to Cooper’s writing in his youth (103). This leads Sivils to draw a direct connection between Cooper’s The Pilot (1821) and Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).

The final chapter, "Envisioning Disaster," ends the study on high note. Formally arranged as contextualisation of Cooper’s The Crater, this chapter incorporates a study of the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole. Cole’s depictions of the landscape are clearly influenced by J. M. W. Turner’s paintings of shipwrecks and fires, but remain decidedly American in character. In this section, Sivils not only unites varied media in his analysis, he also provides a sense of how eco-critical disaster narratives contribute to the act of nation building.

Sivils set out to draw attention to a literature that has been largely overlooked in the formation of the American literary canon. In this he succeeds admirably. As a children’s literature scholar, I am delighted to see works aimed at children incorporated into such a study. Placed as equals alongside the writings of Fennimore Cooper and James Kirke Paulding, Sivils investigation of books for children demonstrates the formative value they had on later writers, but also their literary qualities in their own right. That said, this is a book which is clearly intended for either American literary scholars or eco-critics rather than children’s literature specialists or ideally both. Overall, this is a very welcome study which finds the balance between the general and the particular. I might also add that it is extremely pleasurable to read.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden