Literature, Media, and Weather

“Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” This saying, often attributed to Mark Twain (incorrectly, as it happens) may no longer hold in a historical moment in which human activity is radically changing the atmosphere. The ways we talk, and what we do, about weather have changed radically in the past two centuries, and even more recently with the rising awareness of potentially irreversible climate change. The sky is once again, as it was anciently, a screen for reading human destiny, especially in an age in which we call online data-centers by the name “the cloud.”

Despite its reputation as boring and mundane, which is probably a modern invention, weather has been a source of enduring fascination for humans, a topic of endless richness for sketching mood and narrative, and a phenomenon that has invited rich scientific and technical exploration. This class builds on the idea that weather is an elemental medium of human life and that studies of such media should be interdisciplinary across domains of imaginative endeavor, including literature and science, philosophy and religion, painting and popular culture. This class will be an interdisciplinary adventure in atmospheric thinking and an effort to come to terms with the stories we tell about, and with, the temperamental and nebulous materials of weather. An open mind and eager imagination are requirements for studying the diversity of meanings that the weather can hold.

We will start with a quick look at the long history of how weather has figured as a medium for dramatic comment on the human condition in the Bible, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Shakespeare, and then focus more closely on the past two centuries, which have seen radical changes in the ways that human beings craft the weather, both materially and imaginatively. One challenge for this class is that the selection of potential materials is endlessly rich. In some ways, weather seems one of the primary, if not the primary, topic of literature. The Bible, The Canterbury Tales, The Tempest, and The Waste Land—to pick a few highpoints at random—all start with meteorological phenomena. Indeed, the problem of abundance will nag at us, since almost every form of imaginative writing deals with atmospheric phenomena in one way or the other. One task for the class will be to compile relevant examples and to figure out how to sort out the vast archive of weather-friendly writing. The readings on the syllabus are often chosen as highlights or useful examples, not as comprehensive or necessarily canonical. We will focus largely on England and North America but range elsewhere at times as well. Our materials will be plays, poems, paintings, stories, songs, essays, and scholarly research. One obvious gap will be the novel. Dickens’ Bleak House, Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Cather’s Prairie Trilogy (to make another incomplete list) all use weather as theme and accent, and so do a number of more recent novels, some of them examples of “cli-fi” (climate fiction) such as Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Eggers’ Zeitoun, Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, or McEwan’s Solar. Another obvious gap is film (think of The Wizard of Oz, The Fog, or Groundhog Day). In their research papers, students can certainly take up such texts. Such novels and films join a recent outpouring of exciting writing on the cultural, technical, and scientific history of weather and its varied disciplines. At the end of the class clouds, rain, and sky should never look the same again.

Also FILM 020.

Prerequisite: Enrollment limited to freshmen. Preregistration required; see under Freshman Seminar Program.
Students who wish to enroll in a section of this seminar should participate in online Freshman Seminar preregistration, which opens at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 12, 2016 and closes promptly at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 12, 2017.
Principal Readings


Aristophanes, The Clouds (translation TBA)

Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (2015)

Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (2015)

Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds (2007)

Shaw, The Drama of Weather (1941)—other editions acceptable (many available online)

Other readings include:

Bible: brief selections from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Job, Jonah, Matthew, Acts

Brief selections possible from Aristotle, Homer, Lucretius, Pliny

Shakespeare: selections from Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest (at least).

Several short poems such as:

Baudelaire, “The Stranger”

French original: “L’étranger”

Bierce, “Weather” (1906)

Dickinson, “A Cloud withdrew from the Sky” (895), “The Sky is low” (1075)

Emerson, “The Snowstorm” (compare McClatchy “A Winter Without Snow”)

Goethe, “In Honor of Howard,” “Atmosphere,” related poems

German originals:

Richardson, “Essay on Clouds” (2015)

Shelley, “The Cloud” (1820)

Wordsworth, “I Wandered as Lonely as a Cloud”

Short works of prose such as:

Benjamin, selections from the Arcades Project, Folder D

Howard, Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803)

Ruskin, “Present State of Meteorological Science” (1839), Works of John Ruskin (London: G. Allen, 1903), vol. 1, 206-210, available online as ebook.

Ruskin, “Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884)

Scholarly articles such as:

Katherine Anderson, “Looking at the Sky: The Visual Context of Victorian Meteorology,” British Journal for the History of Science 36 (2003): 301-332

Connor, “Obnubilation” (2009)

Connor, “An Air that Kills: A Familiar History of Poison Gas” (2003)

Daston, “Cloud Physiognomy” (2016)

Edwards, “Meteorology as Infrastructural Globalism”

Jacobus, “Cloud Studies: The Visible Invisible,” Journal of the Imaginary and the Fantastic 1:3 (2009)

Kelsey, “Reverse Shot: Blue Marble and Earthrise in the American Imagination”

Krauss, “Stieglitz/Equivalents” (1979)

Russill, “Forecast Earth: Hole, Index, Alert,” Canadian J of Communication 38 (2013): 421–42.

Serres, “The Case of Turner” (1997)

Sturken, “Desiring the Weather: El Niño, the Media, and California Identity,” Public Culture 13, no. 2 (2001)

Works of Art:

Paintings by Constable and Turner, including visit to Yale Center for British Art

Stieglitz, “Equivalents” (sky photographs from the 1920s)

Possible discussion of recent artists such as Baldessari, Chivers, Nakaya, Pétillon, Saraceno, Smilde

Undergraduate Course #: 
MW 9.00am-10.15am
Hu, WR, pending approval