Unnatural History: Ecological Temporality in Post-1945 American Literature

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Wald, Priscilla

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While environmental literary criticism has traditionally focused its attention on the textual representation of specific places, recent ecocritical scholarship has expanded this focus to consider the treatment of time in environmental literature and culture. As environmental scholars, activists, scientists, and artists have noted, one of the major difficulties in grasping the reality and implications of climate change is a limited temporal imagination. In other words, the ability to comprehend and integrate different shapes, scales, and speeds of history is a precondition for ecologically sustainable and socially equitable responses to climate change.

My project examines the role that literary works might play in helping to create such an expanded sense of history. As I show how American writers after 1945 have treated the representation of time and history in relation to environmental questions, I distinguish between two textual subfields of environmental temporality. The first, which I argue is characteristic of mainstream environmentalism, is disjunctive, with abrupt environmental changes separating the past and the present. This subfield contains many canonical works of postwar American environmental writing, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. From treatises on the ancient ecological histories of particular sites to meditations on the speed of climate change, these works evince a preoccupation with environmental time that has not been acknowledged within the spatially oriented field of environmental criticism. However, by positing radical breaks between environmental pasts and environmental futures, they ultimately enervate the political charge of history and elide the human dimensions of environmental change, in terms both of environmental injustice and of possible social responses.

By contrast, the second subfield, which I argue is characteristic of environmental justice, is continuous, showing how historical patterns persist even across social and ecological transformations. I trace this version of environmental thought through a multicultural corpus of novels consisting of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Helena María Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus, Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Some of these novels do not document specific instances of environmental degradation or environmental injustice and, as a result, have not been critically interpreted as relevant for environmental analysis; others are more explicit in their discussion of environmental issues and are recognized as part of the canon of American environmental literature. However, I demonstrate that, across all of these texts, counterhegemonic understandings of history inform resistance to environmental degradation and exploitation. These texts show that environmental problems cannot be fully understood, nor environmental futures addressed, without recognizing the way that social histories of inequality and environmental histories of extraction continue to structure politics and ecology in the present.

Ultimately, then, the project offers three conclusions. First, it suggests that the second version of environmental temporality holds more value than the first for environmental cultural studies, in that it more compellingly and accurately represents the social implications of environmental issues. Second, it shows that “environmental literature” is most usefully understood not as the literature that explicitly treats environmental issues, but rather as the literature that helps to produce the sense of time that contemporary environmental crises require. Third, it shows how literary works can not only illuminate the relationship between American ideas about nature and social justice, but also operate as a specifically literary form of eco-political activism.






Evans, Rebecca McWilliams (2016). Unnatural History: Ecological Temporality in Post-1945 American Literature. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/12226.


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