Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond
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The environmental imagination does not stop short at the edge of the woods. Nor should our understanding of it, as Lawrence Buell makes powerfully clear in his new book that aims to reshape the field of literature and environmental studies. Emphasizing the influence of the physical environment on individual and collective perception, his book thus provides the theoretical underpinnings for an ecocriticism now reaching full power, and does so in remarkably clear and concrete ways.
Writing for an Endangered World offers a conception of the physical environment--whether built or natural--as simultaneously found and constructed, and treats imaginative representations of it as acts of both discovery and invention. A number of the chapters develop this idea through parallel studies of figures identified with either "natural" or urban settings: John Muir and Jane Addams; Aldo Leopold and William Faulkner; Robinson Jeffers and Theodore Dreiser; Wendell Berry and Gwendolyn Brooks. Focusing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, but ranging freely across national borders, his book reimagines city and country as a single complex landscape.
certain types of landscapes. Even closer is the “homo geographicus” of another humanistic geographer, Robert Sack, who en- £ £ visions human situatedness as produced by interaction of social construction, territorial physicality, and phenomenology of perception. Some of the advantages of the idea of “environmental unconscious,” as I conceive it, are, ﬁrst, its ductility in marking situatedness as disposition without specifying particular kinds of environment; second,
globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition” that happens to have colonized the rest of the world. Conversely, even though social theory knows better, a specious concreteness in labeling people as belonging to one geographically ﬁnite community or another persists as an ethnological illusion or demographic artifact; and categories like “Texan” or “New Englander” are apt to evoke a much more unitary gestalt than the facts warrant. All the more reason on that account to recognize
indigenous landwise understanding provides an enabling myth or template for the practice of reinhabitation. By the same token, the usual setting envisaged for enactment is exurban. The FLÂNEUR ’ reinhabitor is Wendell Berry, returning to Appalachian Kentucky “through my history’s despite / and ruin” to make “the beginning / of a farm intended to become / my art of being here.” The reinhabitor is John Elder, learning “to pay attention to the stories of the land, and of the
operation of selective, distributive, and competitive forces tending to produce typical results wherever they are at work.” This from Wright’s ﬁrst sociological mentor, Louis Wirth. The premises behind this professorial rarefaction that were commonly invoked to justify the “ecological” analogy were, ﬁrst, the theory of the city as organized spatially in terms of communities deﬁned by/as “natural areas” (referring both to their original physiography and human-constructed gridworks like streets
on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.” So too their sense of its endangerment: in both Berry’s and Brooks’s home bases work has been drying up from lack of local or reachable options, threatening family and culture with chronic demoralization. Berry showed where he stood in the lead poem of his collection A Part by playfully inverting Frost’s invitation at the start of his Collected Poems (“You come too”) to “You stay home too.” When an interviewer asked Brooks if she