Munro, Geisweidt, and Bruckner, eds. Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching

Jennifer Munro, Edward Geisweidt, and Lynne Bruckner, eds. Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015). xx + 274pp. £58.50 Hb, £19.99 Pb, ePUB, PDF. ISBN 978-1-4724-1675-9

Ecological Approaches to Early Modern English Texts is an ambitious and useful reevaluation of contemporary ecocritical and environmentalist practices in literary studies. Indeed, the term ecocritical is too narrow for the variety of interdisciplinary and critical approaches in the collection, which address the question of how we can counteract inherent binarisms in paradigms such as human and nature, feminine and masculine, and cognition and animal sentience. Instead of speaking from relatively removed critical standpoints, each article in the collection brings the pedagogical and research imperatives of scholars of the environment to the fore. The format of shorter, essayistic chapters lends itself to use as a pedagogic tool—one could easily assign a chapter or two from the collection as a reading assignment in a literature or critical theory course. This also enables a wider diversity of scholars and topics to be heard, ranging from larger theoretical discussions on the state of practice and pedagogy, to readings of individual texts from a range of theoretical perspectives, and finally to an array of chapters on how to introduce nuanced ecological perspectives into our classrooms. As the editors in the introduction argue, the field gains from the “intellectual biodiversity” (7) of the distinct chapters and approaches in the collection.

The work is divided into three sections. “Theoretical Approaches” speaks to broader critical issues in understanding the early modern environment and humans’ relationship to the external world. Watson’s “Tell Inconvenient Truths, But Tell Them Slant” argues that heavy-handed pedagogical approaches towards convincing students of the environmentalist imperative is injurious to the project of environmental awareness. “Reading the Present in Our Environmental Past,” by Hiltner, turns to how presentism in scholarship can occlude historical facts and perceptions. Hiltner employs the example of deforestation and figures in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar as his case study for how to move cautiously in understanding the environmental present by means of the past. Finally, Munroe’s “Is It Really Ecocritical If It Isn’t Feminist?: The Dangers of ‘Speaking For’ in Ecological Studies and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus” takes the stance that ecofeminism should be recognized for its materialist emphases, which help to overturn the reifying of power and gender structures—not to mention anthropocentric outlooks—in contemporary ecocritical studies. As Munroe forcefully articulates, “[w]ithout trying to recuperate the historically contextualized particulars of material practice as well as a theorized, co-agentic materiality, ecocritical scholars risk replicating that which they struggle against: an emphasis on representing, or ‘speaking for,’ rather than letting the Other speak for him-, her-, or itself” (38). Collectively, these three essays raise important questions about how to undertake ecocritical or ecological studies responsibly, attuned at all times to the historical specificity and critical position we take in our scholarship of the early modern environment.

The middle, and bulk, of Ecological Approaches approaches to what we might typically expect from an edited collection. Fascinating pairings occur in this central portion of the monograph, as in recipe books and Shakespeare’s sonnets (Laroche), generative slime and Antony and Cleopatra (Brayton), or practices of material labor in food production and the culinary abundance in Jonson’s “To Penshurt” (Tigner). As Rosenberg’s essay argues specifically, but in a way which can be applied broadly to the essays here, scholars should “read across traditional generic boundaries, especially between literary and non-literary texts” (61). Rosenberg thus brings to light the intraconnective valences of the term “vertue” in art and technical manuals from the period. Botelho turns from fecund verdure to the fluid boundary between human and animal in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Alongside reading moments in texts when humans are labeled as beasts, Botelho suggests, “it is also necessary to read early modern texts for real animals, to come to terms with how these beasts escape from the cages of symbolism and metaphor and how they can slide toward humanity” (73). Moving from animals as companions to acts of consumption, Estok offers a fascinating look at “queer and green as inextricably intertwined” (91) concerning the question of relationships among men and meat in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Noble’s “‘Bare and desolate now’: Cultural Ecology and ‘The Description of Cookham’” reveals Aemilia Lanyer’s country-house poem’s critiques of hierarchical structures. From the country-house to the urban center of London, Geisweidt uncovers the assessment of population growth fears in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Finally, Marcus poses the question of how the Fall of Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost influences the natural world, reading both accounts in the Bible alongside Milton’s vitalist philosophy. For Marcus, identifying an “ecocritical Milton” nonetheless involves recognizing the “distance between our culture and his, between our ways of understanding connections with nature and the tenets of seventeenth-century vitalism” (140).

The third section of the work turns to pedagogical practices and their implications for teaching students not only how to identify ecological themes in texts but how to interrogate them, paying attention to historical specificity and enabling penetrating inquiries into our relationship with the environment. Eklund, who teaches in post-Katrina New Orleans, raises some provocative questions in her classroom about the meaning of ecological devastation in light of Spenser’s Faerie Queene Book II. Her classroom is a space in which students “explore how a heightened sense of place can unlock, for any reader in any place, greater insight, commitment, and even action” (146). Bruckner brings an ecofeminist lens to her discussion of a course unit on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, during which student responses on how the fairies manipulate nature brings about an unexpected and original reading of Titania’s abuse of animal and natural matter. Borlik, interestingly, presents Shakespeare’s Timon as “a rabid Jacobean Thoreau” (170), arguing that a transhistorical analysis enables vigorous discussion and examination in a course titled “Shakespeare’s Greenworld.” Fenton presents the imbrication of the spiritual and the environmental in teaching Milton’s epic. Theis, on the other hand, suggests teachers bring to the fore the political and ecological connections in a reading of Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House.”

Ecological Approaches is timely, thought-provoking, and ultimately incredibly valuable addition to growing scholarship on the early modern environment. Indeed, the collection is an excellent resource for those new to the field seeking an understanding of the variety of approaches in the field, while at the same time offering those who regularly read the ecological or environmental in early modern texts new perspectives and calling for critical introspection into the inquiries we bring to our understanding of the period.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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