Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
The creative writing of landscape and environment is riding high on the research agendas of a number of scholarly fields. In literary studies, ecocriticism has seen attempts to map a set of characteristics that constitute an environmentally oriented text, often with the result that nonfiction writing (or, less often, poetry) is the form prioritized. By contrast, fiction has been seen as less capable of embracing landscape and environment because it is concerned first and foremost with human affairs and has taken the narrative shapes that typically accompany this emphasis. However, the postwar and contemporary period has seen extensive formal experimentation running counter to this set of assumptions. First, novelists concerned with landscape and environment have found ways to demonstrate the implication of human history in natural history. Second, nonfiction writers have recognized that they might profitably deploy literary forms and techniques usually associated with fiction in their writing of landscape and environment. The upshot has been a generic coalescence and the emergence of landscape writing as a category that straddles habitual divisions in the way that literary forms are conceived. The plasticity of the environment—for better or worse—has registered in urban and rural settings, as well as those that fall somewhere between this (perhaps outmoded) binary. The increasingly unavoidable knowledge of the consequences of human actions upon the environment form an important context for the falling away of older forms such as the nature novel and act as a spur to re-conceptualize both places and ways to write about them.
No longer viewed as mere prologue to the emergence of authentic American literature, colonial writing displays a fertile diversity of literary styles, genres, and linguistic traditions. Yet its array of expressive forms differs markedly from that which latter-day readers of short stories, novels, and plays usually expect “literature” to look like. Colonial writers, not motivated by ambition to create art for art’s sake, penned instead a multitude of sermons, treatises, chronicles, histories, letters, conversion narratives, political pronouncements, slave and captivity narratives, travel reports, and promotional tracts. Such works of creative nonfiction continue to deserve attention today—not only for what they reveal about the formative cultural mythology of the American nation but also because of the rhetorical artistry invested in compositions as varied as William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, or Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. The imaginative intensity of writing by colonial New Englanders such as Jonathan Edwards, together with those symbols and modes of discourse made mythic by leading Massachusetts Puritans, have left an enduring imprint on American consciousness. In one traditional genre of literature, that of poetry, the output of colonial New Englanders was impressively prolific. Especially noteworthy is the corpus of devotional poems left us by Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Taylor’s poetic meditations, unpublished until the modern era, display remarkable wit, exuberance, and artistry. And Bradstreet’s long verse-reflection titled “Contemplations” warrants recognition as the first poem to record a sustained, appreciative response to outdoor experience in British North America. Yet even within the context of British-dominated settlements, the sensibility of colonial writing was scarcely monolithic. It reflects the expression not only of Puritan New Englanders but also of Anglicans, Pennsylvania Quakers, Deists, Southern planters, political revolutionaries, traders, explorers, and worldly adventurers. Increasingly, too, scholarship has begun to recognize that North America’s pluralistic literary heritage from this period includes writing in languages other than English, from New Spain and New France, as well as mediated transcripts of indigenous oral traditions. Moreover, in the light of present-day interest in “green” and gender-linked themes, works such as William Bartram’s nature-suffused Travels through Southern climes, or Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of her captivity and restoration, have drawn renewed attention.
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.