American Culture and the Rise of the Environment

This course reexamines the literature of the early US from the context of climate change. As we contemplate what kinds of culture might be more sustainable or resilient in the future, it helps to reexamine the paths by which the present crisis—and our awareness of it—arose. The period from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War makes an especially interesting case: it developed the modern concept of the environment, in ways that still shape our consciousness of climate change; but it was also the period in which industrialization and national expansion dramatically altered the continent and the ways of life sustained on it. Where some saw the pastoral utopia of “Nature’s nation,” others saw violent displacement and an unsustainable future. These changes and struggles were so pervasive that they mark every area of the culture, not just nature writing. The class will involve a brief introduction to some current debates about climate change and the humanities, including the Yale Tanner lectures given in 2015 by Dipesh Chakrabarty. Students will then read some work in US environmental history. The primary focus of the class, however, will be the writers of the time, including both classic works by Jefferson, Cooper, Emerson, Fuller, Melville, Thoreau; writings of and about Native Americans, including the rise of the image of the “ecological Indian”; writing about the Prairies and the West, as well as about the new urban environments. A central aim of the course will be to assess the formation and legacy of key ideas in environmentalism, some of which may now be a hindrance as much as a foundation–for example, the idea of nature or wilderness as a primordial equilibrium from which the human is estranged. The course ends with the disclosure, by George P. Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) that what we describe as nature has already been shaped—often destructively–by human development.

Also AMST 425

Undergraduate Course #: 
W 1:30pm-3:20pm
WR, Hu