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An Exchange on Thoreau

In response to:

The Struggle Over Thoreau from the June 24, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Leo Marx’s critique of recent attention to Henry David Thoreau’s late-life “ecocentric” turn [NYR, June 24 and July 15] makes strong, important claims not only about Thoreau’s life and writings but also about the proper way to understand literature (particularly literature of a “pastoral” sort) and the proper direction of the whole environmental movement to boot. As the ecocritic subjected to Marx’s most extended scrutiny, I’d like to respond to his arguments.

Readers intimately acquainted with Marx’s previous work will recognize this review-essay as a significant modification of an early, much more dismissive reading of Thoreau’s interest in the natural world, a modification all the more notable given the remarkable self-consistency of Marx’s views during the course of his long, distinguished career. Those not so well versed, however, are bound to notice chiefly the review’s element of continuing resistance to strange and aberrant deviations from truths long held virtually self-evident.

Somewhat like “the ecocentrists” whom Marx amusingly satirizes as “the Puritans of today’s environmental movement,” the essay likes to keep its categories clear and distinct. You are either an ecocentrist or an anthropocentrist. Pastoral and nature writing are two different things. Pastoral isanthropocentric and remains stable over time. Anthropocentrism and ecocentrism are also solid, stable categories: for purposes of this essay, anyhow, E.O. Wilson is equivalent to L. Buell. Likewise, individual literary works either are or should be self-unified entities. Walden is held together by a “controlling principle,” and to think of it as a constellation of trajectories that can pull against as well as with each other seems arbitrary and confusing—notwithstanding Thoreau’s notorious paradoxicalness. In all these areas, the review displays, to my mind, a hardening of the categories, doubtless reinforced by the generic polemicism of the essay-review as a form of writing. This I take to be the major cause, for example, of the contrast between its astringency toward my book relative to theauthor’s more supple, constructive, and generous (though certainly not uncritical) assessment expressed informally on prior occasions.

But the review’s contentiousness, including its tendency to cast me as a zealot in a bad cause despite complimentary asides, definitely does reflect differences of opinion on a series of major issues, some of them extending far beyond the figure of Thoreau. Was Thoreau’s turn toward natural history and proto-biocentrism after 1850 damaging to him as a writer? Did it compromise his social/political oppositionalism? Did it strongly influence the making of Walden into the classic it is now held to be? Did Walden remain the same work from initial draft (1845) to final publication (1854) many drafts later? Should literary classics be contemplated as works in progress of souls in progress, rather than as definitively finished products? Should Thoreau be reckoned a prophet of contemporary ecocentrism? Can pastoral imagination subserve or at least prepare the way for ecocentric values? Does ecocentrism as an ethic and/or politics have substance and value? To these eight questions I should basically answer no, no, yes, no, yes, yes, yes, and yes; and Marx would basically argue the opposite, although on the first four issues less categorically than he once did. Since all eight remain to some extent open questions (even though of course I think I’m closer to being right), small wonder if either of us should yield to the temptation to become pugnacious or defensive.

Given that the future of the environment is self-evidently a far more world-shaking concern than faithful custodianship of Thoreau’s memory by literary scholars, the eighth and final question is the most portentous. Marx’s critique of ecocentrism reflects a practical-minded conviction that environmentalism must be anthropocentric (i.e. respectful of human interests) in order to be workable. Here I actually don’t disagree, despite what the review may suggest. But I do believe, as Marx seemingly does not, that for humans to teach themselves to think more biocentrically will be indispensable toward the redirection of human thinking about humanity’s place on this planet that the twenty-first century will require if the human life on the planet is to remain tolerable. This environmental “Puritanism,” in other words, seems to me likely to exert as vital an idealizing andenergizing force within environmentalism as Puritanism has done in US history, even as we quite properly recognize the limitations of both as comprehensive life strategies. That Thoreau developed the ability to think such thoughts—about Puritanism and ecocentrism both!—as early as modernization’s paleotechnic era, as Lewis Mumford called it, is certain to make him an even more luminous and inspirational figure in the next century than he has been in the present one. By the same token, the burgeoning ecocritical movement that Marx views so warily is certain to grow, not diminish.

Lawrence Buell

John P. Marquand Professor of English

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Leo Marx replies:

If my review of Lawrence Buell’s important book is unduly contentious, I regret it, but it is the contentiousness of an ally, not an antagonist. I share his alarm at theaccelerating rate of environmental degradation, and his conviction that the literary treatment of humanity’s relations with nonhuman nature can have significant real-world consequences. Of course it would be great if most people adopted an attitude of reverence, humility, responsibility, and care toward the natural world. But I don’t share his confidence in a mass conversion to that ecocentric outlook as the most practicable way out of today’s impinging ecological impasse. Most people in our world are unlikely to see things that way while they are deprived of adequate food, water, housing, and health care. Environmental problems cannot be separated from our dominant political problems.

Nor do I concur with Buell’s related commitment to the superiority of nature writing as a literary means of raising the environmental consciousness. He assumes that the power of literary works to enlist readers in the defense of the environment is chiefly determined by the extent to which “first (nonhuman) nature” is their primary subject. Nature writing is his environmental genre of choice because itfocuses attention on the natural world “in itself,” or “for its own sake.” (Those phrases are a kind of mantra of Buell’s creed.) By the same token, he dismisses writing in the pastoral mode because it does not direct readers’ attention to the unsullied nature of nature.

I believe that Buell is mistaken, and for reasons that illuminate the weakness of his ecocentric commitment. Take, for example, his startling dismissal, early inThe Environmental Imagination, of the ecological import of Moby-Dick because, he writes, “Melville’s interest in whales was subordinate to his interest in whaling.” Buell seems to think that a book exclusively devoted to whales “for their own sake”—as they exist in “first nature,” wholly independent of Homo sapiens—is more likely to heighten environmental awareness than a book depicting the actual existence of whales in oceans dominated by humanity and its ingenious whale-killing technologies. Only works of pure nature writing, in other words, evoke that close bond with nature on which the defense of Earth’s ecological integrity ultimately will depend.

The pastoral mode recommends itself for precisely opposed reasons. (Of course the two categories are not absolute, distinct, or stable over time, but they constitute an ideal type of an indispensible conceptual polarity.) Granted that pastoral writing often has been frivolous in tenor, environmentally irrelevant, and intellectually lightweight, it nonetheless has always embodied a tacit, potentially dialectical view of humanity’s relations with nature. Ever since its emergence in the ancient Near East, some two millennia ago, the hallmark of pastoral has been the ever-meaningful contrast between two ways of life, each grounded in a distinct set of relations with nature. This contrast was particularly meaningful to American writers like Thoreau, who in effect reinvented the mode in the form of the hybrid genre—the pastoralromance.

The pastoral is an unequivocally anthropocentric mode. To writers and artists who work in it, nonhuman nature is interesting and significant chiefly (or only) so far as it bears on human experience. (Homo sapiens is trapped, presumably like all species, in the inescapable narcissism of species being.) Thus the pastoral view of life is consonant with the uniqueness of humanity’s situation. Although we are inextricably enmeshed in nonhuman nature, our manifest power to modify it exceeds that of most other species by orders of magnitude. (The collective power of bacteria and other microorganisms is another matter.) Hence our appreciation of nonhuman nature “for its own sake” is not a reliable guideto resolving the ineluctably human problem of environmental degradation. Far more important, I believe, is a recognition—fostered by works of the pastoral imagination like Walden—of the ecological consequences that follow from humanity’s socioeconomic, political, and culturalarrangements.

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