Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
nature writing, new england writers, environmental literature, nature writers
This thesis examines five New England nature writers and their works from three distinct historical literary periods―William Cullen Bryant’s poetry from the era before industrialism (up to 1830); Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays (1841-1844) and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) from the Industrial Revolution (1830-1860); and finally Robert Frost’s poetry and Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1929) from the modernist period (1920-1950). These writers are connected by a shared and intense love of nature; however, because they write during different moments in history, their approaches to and definitions of “nature” vary. This thesis engages with these writers and their times in light of the historical development of industrialism and how it has worked to undermine the importance of connecting with the natural world. Over the course of three chapters, this thesis traces the development of environmental thought among New England writers and takes account of how industrialism changes predominant attitudes about nature. Since each of these writers rejects certain cultural attitudes that prevail in their time, this thesis grapples with how and why they depart from the norm in terms of their thoughts about the natural world. In pre-industrial New England, Bryant is free to adopt a strong Romantic conception of nature—one that is largely absent of concerns about protecting or conserving the environment. His advocacy for a deep spiritual connection with nature clashes with the prevailing capitalist view of nature that would help industrialism to develop in New England. However, once the Industrial Revolution sweeps across New England, Emerson and Thoreau issue warnings about the dangers of industrialism severing humanity from the natural world. They rail against the institutions and customs of their times, arguing that those will contribute to a society-wide spiritual rot. By the twentieth century, Beston and Frost have to grapple with being lovers of nature in a world that is irreversibly industrialized. Frost is pessimistic about humanity’s ever-decreasing connection with the natural world, while Beston remains hopeful that we can engage meaningfully and spiritually with the environment even in modern times. These somewhat divergent views highlight the tensions of environmental thought in the modern, industrial world between the desire to live in harmony with the natural world and the bleak realities of modernity. Industrialism and its effects of alienating large swaths of our culture from engagement with the natural world have forced these authors to focus on how to protect New England environments and landscapes. This history of this grand conversation about nature delivers us into the present moment in which we must find a way to cope with global environmental crisis. Learning about the history of environmental thought and writing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New England helps us to better understand contemporary environmental concerns and gives us the chance to move forward in the best manner possible.
Pinkham, Robert, "Conceptualizing Nature: New England Nature Writers" (2017). Honors Theses. 71.