By linking literary history with environmental history, I study how historical attitudes about environments and climates are codified in literary texts, what values attach to them, and how relationships between humanity and nature are figured in fiction.
My dissertation, “Modernism, Ecology, and the Anthropocene,” shows how British modernism and the scientific discipline of ecology evolved from shared concerns with the vitality of the earth, the shaping force of climate, and the need for new and more holistic ways of codifying the natural world. Many of modernism’s most familiar texts, by E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells, reveal a sustained preoccupation with major debates in environmental and intellectual history, including competition between vitalist, holist, and mechanistic philosophies of science, global industrialization by the British Empire, and the emergence of ecology as a revolutionary means of ordering the physical world. My project uncovers these preoccupations in order to illustrate how consistently literary works leverage environmental ideologies and how pervasively literature shapes cultural and even scientific attitudes towards the natural world.
As it becomes more historicist, transnational, and flexible in terms of periodization, modernist studies slowly becomes greener. And as the more capacious mindset of the environmental humanities escorts ecocriticism into a wider field, my research fulfills the need for contextually-thick histories of modernist ecological thinking that place major modernist texts and figures within their cultural and philosophical milieu. My eco-historical project illuminates how literary works evolve from and in turn shape cultural and scientific ideas about humanity’s relationship to the earth and makes a vital contribution to an emerging interdisciplinary dialog. Literary studies, I argue, must intervene in debates about the timeline, causes, and significance of the Anthropocene by exploring how anthropogenic changes to the environment and climate are represented in imaginative works of fiction, and how these representations respond to and shape wider cultural conceptions of nature, climate, and the environment.
A Modernist Anthropocene: Novels and Ecosystems, 1880-1960, my first book project, argues for a “Mid-Anthropocene” definition of modernism that enlivens analogous dialogues in modernist and Anthropocene studies about periodization and planetary scale. The book develops my dissertation research by exploring environmental writing under-analyzed by scholars of modernism (e.g. W.H. Hudson, Henry Salt, Richard Jefferies, Vita Sackville-West) and revealing the connections between organicist nationalism and the development of ecological thought across the British Empire. A digital network visualization of authors, scientists, and philosophers I am building with the software Gephi, “Ecology’s Ecosystem,” will aid this research and be a stand-alone digital project. My article “An Imperialist Inherits the Earth: Howards End in the Anthropocene,” emerged from this project and appears in MLQ’s December 2016 issue (77.4). Another piece, “Early Ecology and Climate Change in the Future Histories of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon,” will appear in a peer-reviewed collection, Modernism and the Anthropocene, edited by Jon Hegglund and John McIntyre, to be published by Lexington Books in their Ecocritical Theory & Practice series.
The next phase of my research will be a second book project, Forms of Change: Realism, Modernism, and Climate Fiction, that explores the tension between modernist, experimental, and conventional style in ecologically-oriented speculative fiction, including contemporary “cli-fi” (Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson) and works by authors such as Olaf Stapledon, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, Amitav Ghosh, Jeanette Winterson, and Maggie Gee. The website I’ve developed, Teaching Cli-fi, represents another aspect of this research project.
In their book The Shock of the Anthropocene, environmental historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz recently claimed that the Anthropocene offers a “rallying point” for a host of disciplines, listing 8 from the sciences and humanities—but omitting literary studies. My research corrects oversights like these by proving that the contextually-thick study of literary works makes a necessary contribution to one of the most significant problems facing the human race in the twentieth century: how to live sustainable and imaginatively rich lives in the rapidly changing world of the Anthropocene.