Kelly Sultzbach, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden

Kelly Sultzbach, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016) 250 pp. £80.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107161412

In Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination, Kelly Sultzbach seeks to trace and elucidate the development of a modernist environmental consciousness. The author begins by attempting to answer a problem posed through the ending of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: what is Marlow unable to tell Kurtz’s beloved? Sultzbach concedes that Conrad is certainly making a point about national motives, and the hiding of human brutality, but also singles out the presence of the Congo in this moment. Marlow’s newfound consciousness of nature’s presence unsettles him, engendering a series of questions surrounding human and nonhuman identity, which, Sultzbach argues, pervade modern literature. Through this introduction, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination begins to challenge the notion that modernism is, as traditionally held, an art of cities, opening the door to – and perhaps reinterpreting the boundaries of – ecocritical readings.

As the title suggests, Sultzbach’s work analyses canonical and lesser-known texts by E M Forster, Virginia Woolf, and W H Auden, exploring the ways in which these writers represent nature’s agency, and the manner in which this becomes a narrative element integral to interpreting themes related to empire and gender, as well as experiments with language and creativity. It is noted that ‘these modernists do not always present us with ethical relationships to nature or the nonhuman that are necessarily positive models’ (6). Indeed, Sultzbach’s aim is not to ‘provide a glossy patina of celebratory green’ over the works addressed through this study, or to ‘obfuscate the very conflicted reaction to environmental relationships and human responsibility that make’ them so ‘productively messy’(6).  This approach is refined and developed as Sultzbach compellingly argues that these ‘[m]oments of crisis and fragmentation may present the best opportunity to become aware of new forms and alternative solutions’ (24).

Chapter One, ‘Passage from Pastoral: E M Forster’, begins by establishing Forster’s position as a liberal humanist (and also by noting the manner in which this has been contested by various critics). ‘Yet’, Sultzbach points out, ‘this perspective doesn’t account for the centrality of the environment to Forster’s canon. Although Forster’s work undoubtedly reflects what might now be deemed a naïve belief that all humans are bound in a communal sympathy, the ecocentric foundations of his ideals productively complicate the very definition of what it means to be human’ (25). Here, Forster’s work is linked to Timothy Clark’s definition of ‘romantic humanism’, which creates a foundation for Sultzbach to build the argument that in Forster, what it means to be human is only understood by grappling with what it means to be an organism in a larger environment - an environment that informs human qualities and characteristics.

Chapter Two, ‘The Phenomenological Whole: Virginia Woolf’, employs Forster’s own tribute to Woolf in order to introduce the latter’s use of embodied perception. ‘“Food with her was not a literary device put in to make the book seem real”,’ Forster writes of Woolf. ‘“She put it in because she smelt the flowers, because she heard Bach, because her senses were both exquisite and catholic, and were always bringing her first-hand news of the outside world’”(82). Sultzbach uses Forster to establish the idea that Woolf goes beyond creating vivid prose, and, in effect, reminds her readers of the potential danger inherent in rejecting ‘our knowledge of the embodied world in favor of a presumption of intellectual detachment’ (82). The chapter rightly notes that themes of embodied perception and environmental awareness in Woolf’s work were largely overlooked until the 1990s. Sultzbach cites Gillian Beer’s Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (1996), along with other works in this area, and then goes on to examine the idea of ‘Woolf as a green reader’, arguing that the author’s own examination of literary texts in The Common Reader could be seen as what we now identify as ecocritical readings (89). The chapter thus pays homage to the ways in which Woolf perhaps anticipated many of the preoccupations of ecocriticism. ‘The Meaning of a More-Than-Human Life in To the Lighthouse’, one of the chapter subsections, offers a particularly compelling reading of the novel. ‘To the Lighthouse is traditionally understood as an elegiac commentary on the apocalyptic crisis of the First World War,’ Sultzbach writes. ‘An ecocritical reading of the novel shifts this tonal emphasis, acknowledging the dark impulses of death, but revealing the ever-present tension of isolation and community posed by the invigorating potential of embodied interaction with the encompassing environment’ (119-20).  Such a claim exemplifies what Sultzbach does so well throughout Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination - demonstrating the sort of symbiosis that exists between older readings of the texts at hand and the ecocritical perspectives that this work seeks to highlight.

Chapter Three, ‘Brute Being and Animal Langue: W H Auden’, is perhaps the most ambitious. In it Sultzbach agues that Auden’s later poetry is ‘consciously questioning whether any human can speak “for” Nature,’ as Thoreau suggested was possible - indeed, imperative' (146). This question is used as a sort of foundation for developing and expounding Auden’s environmental philosophies, which tend to center on two recurring principles. The first, that individuals must recognize in both literary and scientific representations of nature and ‘progress’, that human advancement has fundamentally changed the game of Man versus Nature. Because humans have plundered so many resources and life forms, they now need to protect Nature, rather than battle or enslave it.  The second principle argues for the moral recognition of a new, more nurturing partnership with nature - of an ethical consciousness fostered by love (151-52).

The sort of essentiality inherent in the relationship between individual, art, and environment that Sultzbach seems to be underscoring through her discussion of Auden segues seamlessly into her conclusion. ‘The struggle for better ways to love and create has never been the product of one movement or generation,’ Sultzbach states. ‘We unfurl our leaves and pages, in concert with the logos of a larger creative and living world’ (198). Thus, while her argument is primarily about the modernist imagination, this project would have its readers see the many ways in which these questions of environment, experience, and creativity exist outside the confines of a critical movement or historical moment. While acknowledging the longer pastoral tradition, and how this manifests itself in the texts addressed, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination also introduces readers to the expanding field of ecocriticism, offering a study of ‘green modernism’ that illuminates and concretizes what it means to be a human existing in a living environment.

Kalika Sands, University of Oxford