American Nature Writing
- John ElderJohn ElderDepartments of English and American Literature and Environmental Studies (Emeritus), Middlebury College
Nature has, like love, been an essential topic for authors in every language and every literary form. The first thing to acknowledge about the term nature writing is that it conventionally refers to a distinctive category of nonfiction, not to the entire spectrum of literature about the natural world. The present survey is further restricted to American nature writing, though the genre has also developed in many other countries. The American lineage of nature writing has been especially influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who combined journal-based descriptions of the New England landscape and knowledgeable appreciation of science with lyrical prose, receptiveness to nature’s human and transcendent meanings, and a highly personal voice.
Thoreau’s own orientation to solitude, wildness, and the music of nature has also been complemented, however, and in some cases forcefully challenged, by subsequent writers focusing on urban landscapes; environmental justice; the impact of gender, class, and race on our visions of nature; environmental justice; food and agriculture; and material culture. Many literary scholars also now prefer to consider nature writing under the multi-genre and international rubric of “environmental literature.” Nevertheless, this particular form remains a vital model for integrating imaginative literature with close observation of natural phenomena. Today’s writers continue to find, with Thoreau, that books “with earth adhering to their roots” may blossom in the human spirit, revitalizing individual lives even as they also address the urgent environmental and cultural challenges we now confront.