Literature and the Environment: A Few (Eco)Critical Positions

As I began trying to articulate my dissertation project, I knew what phenomena were present in the texts that I wanted to talk about: urban and industrial sprawl, pollution of the air and water, the cultivation of nature, etc.  The challenge for this, as for any project, was to find both the right language and the right framework for bringing these phenomena together into a cohesive critical project.  They are, broadly speaking, environmental issues, or at least we would categorize them as such today.  But how could I talk about them in a way that was coherent and true to the texts, while achieving what all of us at a research university are supposed to be doing, that is, generating “new knowledge?”  Exploring possible answers to this question, of course, is more or less what ecocritics have been up to for the last couple of decades.  The questions here become, how does one read a text in an ecologically mindful fashion?  How does one sustain a critical project based on such a mode of reading?  Ultimately what these questions boil down to, though, is one that drives literary studies: how does one read?

It turns out that a discussion unfolded in Raabe scholarship in the 1980s and early 1990s over just these issues, with Wilhelm Raabe’s novel Pfisters Mühle as the object of contention.  This was ecocriticism’s most protean stage, when texts on the environment and literature were appearing, but before we began to get volumes, journals, and associations.  A quick gloss of the debate:  In 1980 Horst Denkler published an essay entitled “Wilhelm Raabe: Pfisters Mühle (1884).  Zur Aktualität eines alten Themas und vom Nutzen offener Strukturen” in the volume Romane und Erzählungen des bürgerlichen Realismus: Neue Interpretation.  The essay appeared again under the title “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle” in Wilhelm Raabe: Studien zu seinem Leben und Werk, which appeared at the time of the author’s 150th birthday in 1981.  The essay is published elsewhere, including as the afterword to the Reclam edition of Pfisters Mühle.1  The goal in the essay is to bring together the subjects of industrialization, environmental depredation, historical change, etc. together in a way that would more properly account for the polyperspective nature of the novel (Denkler 86-87).  But Denkler also argued that the subject of pollution in the novel makes it particularly relevant today (87).  Jeffrey Sammons critiqued this relevance argument in a piece that eventually became a chapter in his seminal book on Raabe Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community.2  In a nutshell, Sammons felt that asking about contemporary relevance might be interesting, but as a critical practice runs the danger of bringing the text to us in our time, rather than encountering the text on its own terms (269, 282).  The discussion continued in 1992 with Heinrich Detering’s article on Raabe’s texts Pfisters Mühle and Meister Autor3.  Detering points to the concreteness of the environmental thematic, and very helpfully situates it within the larger poetic context.  Denkler is continuing a line of argumentation that Hermann Helmers developed in his 1987 article “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung,”4 and together these two essays are useful models for how one can read the real-existing environmental thematic within the text’s overall poetological framework.

This discussion is tremendously important for my dissertation, both because I write about Pfisters Mühle, but more importantly because it gets at the most basic issues of critical stance and disciplinary convention that anyone interested in literature and the environment inevitably bumps into.  None of what I am about to say is new or revolutionary, but it is worth saying out loud as a means of achieving some sort of critical orientation.  All of these points are ultimately related, and I’ll have more to say about them later, but for now, here we go.

1.  Respect the historicity of the texts.

Discourses, concepts, and political positions all change with time.  “Environment” and “ecology” do not mean today what they did in the nineteenth or even the early twentieth centuries.  “Environmentalism” already in 2013 designates a broad spectrum of sometimes antagonistic camps.  In the American popular imagination it is often (and often unfairly) affiliated with the left, but historically has cut across political camps.  For that matter, some ways of thinking that seem to be the province of some leftism and left liberalism were out-and-out conservative in the 19th century.  At the same time, authors will be products of their respective ages, whose thinking is either within or in some way related to the particular paradigms of their own historical moments.  In this context, too, no matter how scientifically well-informed an author is, his or her knowledge will not go beyond that of his or her own time.

2.  Politicized readings are important, but that doesn’t cancel out the first point.

This has to do with my first thesis, and has to do, too, with the question of relevance.  In the case of mid- to late 19th century German realism, there are lots of continuities between what the authors are depicting and what we are dealing with now in 2013.  In that sense, I contend that the literature can help us think about contemporary environmental questions.  BUT that alone doesn’t make them authors that we should all read and encourage others to read as a way of promoting good ecological consciousness, whatever that would be.  It is also worth saying again that environmental thinking cuts both ways politically.  In the case of Raabe, his critique of “progress,” which comes at the expense of the natural environment, in his novels, was a point that his National Socialist readers latched on to in order to integrate the author into the regime’s cultural politics.

Instead I see my task as being one of understanding the contours of the environmental thematic and working out the formal and aesthetic stakes thereof.  This might be an abandonment of the activist stance that many ecocritics assert.  That’s a theory versus practice problem, about which I’ll have more to say later.  For the moment I tend to feel that whether a text has a given contemporary use-value is a question best left up to the reader.

3.  The stakes of the argument must come from the text itself.

Supposedly Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It prompted a rejection note from a publisher who quipped “these stories have trees in them.”  When this story pops up in ecocritical scholarship, it is usually presented as evidence of the disconnect between the literary establishment and the material world.5  But we can also invert the moral that this anecdote supposedly has.  “These stories have trees in them.”  So what?  We might expand that and say that “these stories have oak, birch, and linden trees in them.”  So what?  One of the basic assumptions in writing about literature and the environment is that “environment” is more than “setting,” a term that Lawrence Buell (whom I recently had the distinct pleasure of meeting) has pointed out “deprecates what it denotes” (84-85).6  Enough intent goes into the construction of a text that there isn’t much that is harmless or incidental.  But if these details can’t be integrated into the larger poetological framework, then all you have is something that is interesting, but not particularly compelling.  “Oak, birch, and linden” really are just trees, and all we have are notes on settings, and maybe motifs.  But we don’t have a work of criticism.

4.  Like the production of energy, the critical project also needs to be sustainable.

“Sustainable” means here that your approach should be able to have enough purchase on enough texts that we are not simply building a critical movement around one genre, one national literature, one analytic, or one conclusion.  In ecocriticism one need not look far to find “place” held up as a favored category, “realism” as a mode of writing that best promotes some sort of ecological consciousness, or “nature writing” as a genre that is intrinsically environmentally “good.”  So-called second wave ecocriticism, of course, has taken this point to heart, and produced some very exciting work on urbanism, science fiction, electronic music, etc.  I don’t necessarily think that every work of art needs to be able to be subject to ecocritical inquiry in order to justify journals and professional associations, but we also should be thinking about ways that we can have a large enough gene pool that we don’t limit our critical scope.

1. My citations from Denkler are from the 1988 volume Denkler, Horst.  Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller.

2. Sammons, Jeffrey. Wilhelm Raabe: The Fiction of the Alternative Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

3. Detering, Heinrich. “Ökologische Krise und ästhetische Innovation im Werk Wilhelm Raabes.” Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1992): 1-27.

4. Helmers, Hermann. “Raabe als Kritiker von Umweltzerstörung. Das Gedicht »Einst Kommt die Stunde« in der Novelle »Pfisters Mühle«.” Literatur für Leser (1987): 199-211.

5.  See the section “Representing Nature” in Michael Cohen’s essay “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique,” available here:

6. Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

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