Second nature: Literature, capital and the built environment, 1848--1938
Sipley, Tristan Hardy, 1980-
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Sipley, Tristan Hardy, 1980-
This dissertation examines transatlantic, and especially American, literary responses to urban and industrial change from the 1840s through the 1930s. It combines cultural materialist theory with environmental history in order to investigate the interrelationship of literature, economy, and biophysical systems. In lieu of a traditional ecocritical focus on wilderness preservation and the accompanying literary mode of nature writing, I bring attention to reforms of the "built environment" and to the related category of social problem fiction, including narratives of documentary realism, urban naturalism, and politically-oriented utopianism. The novels and short stories of Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Upton Sinclair, and Mike Gold offer an alternative history of environmental writing, one that foregrounds the interaction between nature and labor. Through a strategy of "literal reading" I connect the representation of particular environments in the work of these authors to the historical situation of actual spaces, including the western Massachusetts forest of Melville's "Tartarus of Maids," the Virginia factory town of Davis's Iron Mills, the Midwestern hinterland of Sinclair's The Jungle, and the New York City ghetto of Gold's Jews without Money. Even as these texts foreground the class basis of environmental hazard, they simultaneously display an ambivalence toward the physical world, wavering between pastoral celebrations and gothic vilifications of nature, and condemning ecological destruction even as they naturalize the very socio-economic forces responsible for such calamity. Following Raymond Williams, I argue that these contradictory treatments of nature have a basis in the historical relationship between capitalist society and the material world. Fiction struggles to contain or resolve its implication in the very culture that destroys the land base it celebrates. Thus, the formal fissures and the anxious eruptions of nature in fiction relate dialectically to the contradictory position of the ecosystem itself within the regime of industrial capital. However, for all of this ambivalence, transatlantic social reform fiction of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century provides a model for an environmentally-oriented critical realist aesthetic, an aesthetic that retains suspicion toward representational transparency, and yet simultaneously asserts the didactic, ethical, and political functions of literature.
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