Dewey W. Hall, Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists: An Ecocritical Study, 1789-1912

Dewey W. Hall, Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists: An Ecocritical Study, 1789-1912 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) 240pp. £65.00 Hb, PDF, ePUB. ISBN 978-1-4094-2264-8

The current field of ecocriticism is expansive and vibrant.  As environmental crises continue to demand urgent attention and material response, the role of literature in shaping this response has come under increasing scrutiny.  In Can Poetry Save the Earth? (2009), John Felstiner asks: ‘can poems help, when the times demand environmental science and history, government leadership, corporate and consumer moderation, non-profit activism, local initiatives? Why call on the pleasures of poetry, when the time has come for all-out response?’  Felstiner’s subsequent discussion of an Anglo-American tradition of ecological poetics from the Psalms to Gary Snyder reveals that there is a rich debate to be had in response to this question, a debate to which Dewey W. Hall contributes in his monograph.

Hall’s study places Wordsworth and Emerson at the heart of what he perceives to be a Romantic naturalist tradition, whereby ‘literary figures represent a vital connection from natural history to the early environmental movement’ (12).  Taking Gilbert White as his exemplary ‘Romantic naturalist’, he argues for his transatlantic legacy within environmental thought and action in relation to two specific trains of influence occurring before the 1890s. The first is Wordsworth’s reception of White, and his subsequent influence on the activism of Octavia Hill and the emergence of land preservation via the National Trust in Britain.  The second is White’s influence on Emerson and how Emerson then shapes John Muir’s involvement with the National Parks movement in America.  These lines of influence are traced across seven chapters, divided into two sections (‘Toward Romantic Naturalists’ and ‘Toward Early Environmentalists’).  Chapter One introduces White as the key figure throughout Hall’s enquiry and discusses his influence on Wordsworth and Emerson.  Chapter Two sees Hall flesh out his definition of the ‘Romantic Naturalist’, where a ‘hypothesis driven view of nature’ combines with a sense of ‘intimacy’ and ‘wonder’ (31), and focuses on the interrelations between White, Wordsworth and Jonathan Otley.  The connections drawn in this chapter between White’s Natural History of Selborne and Wordsworth’s Description of the Scenery of the Lakes (1822, 1823) are particularly illuminating, uncovering Wordsworth’s engagement with meteorology as a keystone for considering him as a ‘poet-turned-naturalist’ (49).  Chapter Three moves on to discuss Emerson’s early lectures (1833-1834), also taking meteorology as a crucial element of his ‘proto-environmental’ thinking, and arguing for evidence of Emerson’s concern with air quality and potentially catastrophic changes in the hydrological cycle.  Chapter Four draws some interesting comparisons between Wordsworth’s ‘green letters’ of 1844 (concerning his objections to the impending Kendal to Windermere railway line in the Lake District), and Emerson’s green lectures from 1841-1844.  In this chapter, Hall makes his suggestive and forceful argument that both writers’ early environmentalism grows out of their objections to the despoilation of familiar landscape at the hands of industrial advances.  Chapter Five then develops this premise and looks more deeply at Wordsworth’s poetic influence upon the open space movement in Britain and influence upon Octavia Hill’s involvement with the National Trust, whilst Chapter Six considers the evidence for Emerson’s impact upon John Muir’s involvement in the National Parks movement in America.  The final chapter seeks to address what Hall perceives as the ‘Romantic’ echoes in Muir’s nature writing and ‘preservationist voice’ (6).  This chapter offers an accomplished reading of Muir’s detailed knowledge of glaciology and his attempts to preserve Yosemite Valley, combined with suggestive readings of the ‘evidence in Muir’s prose of resonances with Wordsworth’s writing’ (180).  Although the lines of influence that Hall traces between these writers are not always convincingly direct, his acute attention to textual echoes across poetry and particular strains of natural history prose offers a new and fruitful reading of Romanticism’s role in shaping early environmental action.

Within his specific framework of intellectual and reception history, Hall manoeuvres deftly around Wordsworth's and Emerson’s particular literary engagements with botany, geology, and meteorology, resulting in a study that is concerned deeply with the scientific particularities of each author’s relationship to an ecological vision.  Indeed, it is through his dedication to the ‘naturalist’ tendencies of these ‘Romantic naturalists’ that Hall forges his distinctive, if at times un-nuanced, mode of ecological criticism.  Frustrated by what he perceives to be the trappings of postmodern and post-structuralist approaches within ecocriticism, Hall identifies his approach as a way towards ‘naturalizing the natural’ by ‘putting the stuff back into nature’ (24). This means moving on from the more ‘anthropomorphic’ views of nature as a ‘mirror of the mind’ which he accredits to previous critics such as Geoffrey Hartman, but also tackling more recent suggestions that ‘nature’ and wilderness’ in particular are cultural constructs in themselves.  It is in relation to the latter that Hall can at times be ungenerous towards other critics in the field.  His study is full of scrupulous detail and research that offers insightful new readings of the writers in question, but it lacks the theoretical rigour and questioning of other ecocoritical standpoints.  For instance, Hall’s suggestion that we can access a kind of ‘natural naturalism’ where nature is no longer an empty signifier, but a material reality made up of interrelated biotic communities is valid and worthwhile.  But to dismiss suggestions from other critics, such as William Cronon, that our engagement with the natural non-human world might always be shaped by our cultural constructions of it, means that his argument loses out on a level of complexity and richness that a closer acknowledgment of texts such as, for instance, Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature (2007) might have lent it.

Furthermore, in his dedication to the argument that Wordsworth and Emerson’s environmental awareness’ are best understood as heralding from ‘the science of the age, rather than the spirit of the age’ (12), Hall is sometimes dulled to the value of the imaginative, affective, and aesthetic as elements of ecological thinking.  Indeed, his answer to Felstiner’s question ‘can poetry save the earth?’ is wedded somewhat mechanically to his central thesis: ‘If it can, it will be because poetry appeals to a sensibility in readers valuing the network of interrelationships existing among human and nonhuman entities in a biotic community’ (27).  His suggestion, too, that ‘writers embedding science-based wonders in poetry and prose demonstrate a link between science and literature’ (19) rather shuts down any sense of dialogue or reciprocity that might also consider what poetry’s own qualities and modes of attention offer science in turn, or how the writers in question might develop or complicate the sciences they encounter in their own work rather than merely ‘embed’ them.  Romantic poetry and prose appear as an analogue of natural history and theory in Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists, and Hall’s attempts to assert the history of its influence on material activism in the world is admirable.  Yet his reclaiming of the ‘Romantic’ as overtly ‘naturalist’ and ‘preservationist’ also offers a potentially narrow reading of the environmental legacy of the period that does not always do justice to the complex relationship between the scientific, cultural, and aesthetic in Wordsworth and Emerson’s works.  Despite this, Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists offers a fascinating study of the transatlantic legacy of Gilbert White and a careful and scholarly account of Wordsworth and Emerson’s points of contact with natural history, making it an important and useful work for anyone with an interest in the ecological resonances of Romantic literature.

Erin Lafford, University of Oxford