In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Writing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Anthologies
  • Journals, Magazines, Digital Resources
  • Ecocritical Approaches
  • Women’s Writing and Ecofeminism
  • The Literature of Environmental Justice
  • Native American Writing and Place
  • Natural History and Science Writing
  • Animal Studies
  • Science and Climate Fiction
  • Pedagogical Approaches

American Literature Environmental Writing
Mark Long
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0206


Most environmental writing in the United States through the 20th century is entangled with the concept of nature—the commonplace idea of a space apart from the human world. In American environmental writing this idea of nature is reproduced in narratives of exploration and pastoral visions of the landscape during the colonial and early national periods; in 19th-century mythographies of the American frontier; and in 20th-century social movements dedicated to preservation and conservation. By the middle of the 19th century, environmental writers were working in forms, such as the nature essay, to record individual experiences of nature and investigate the local knowledge of place-based communities. However, by the middle of the 20th century, environmental writers began considering human life as a part of the nonhuman world. Through this conceptual lens, environmental writing becomes radically inclusive as writers explore natural habitats such as the human body, material exchanges and unfolding biological processes, and the social and economic ecologies of built and urban environments. At the same time, environmental writing has chronicled the global environmental crisis in the Anthropocene—an epoch in which the slow violence of environmental change, accelerated by expanding human populations and inexorable economic growth, becomes visible in deforestation, the loss of soils, species extinction, bioaccumulation, ocean acidification, toxic emissions, and climate change.

General Overviews

Studies of symbol and myth in Smith 1950 and the analysis of the pastoral in Marx 1964 provided evidence for studies of the expansionist ideology of westward settlement in 19th-century America. Subsequent studies of environmental writing include Gatta 2004, a broad survey of the presence of religion in American literary and cultural history, and Kolodny 1975, an influential historical and feminist critique of masculine representations of the American landscape. In the author’s comprehensive survey of American environmental writing, Buell 1995 uses Henry David Thoreau as a reference point. Buell 2001 then broadens his chronicle of environmental writing to include new forms of literary and cultural production engaged with environmental concern. For Murphy 2009, the study of literary representations of the environment becomes part of a broader multidisciplinary cultural inquiry that investigates urban spaces, discourse of toxicity, watershed aesthetics, environmental ethics, animal studies, bioregional investigations of place, environmental justice, the literature of natural disasters, utopian and dystopian narratives, and transnational approaches to American literary and cultural production.

  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    Buell’s study of perceptions and representations of the environment in nonfiction, using Walden as an exemplary touchstone, describes a tradition of thinking and writing that extends the scope and method for the study of environmental writing and suggests new approaches to impending environmental catastrophe.

  • Buell, Lawrence. Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674029057

    This book rejects the conflation of “environment” with “nature” and focuses on environmental writers concerned with toxic discourse, re-inhabiting urban spaces, and the retrieval of unloved places. Buell builds a case for environmental writing as committed to “environmentalist praxis.”

  • Gatta, John. Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195165055.001.0001

    This overview of religion in environmental writing highlights the English Puritans to the early 21st century and includes discussion of Jonathan Edwards, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, among others.

  • Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

    This landmark study describes the commonplace use of female imagery to represent the American West. Kolodny argues that metaphors of the feminine landscape appear in documents of exploration and colonization as well as in the pastoral and agrarian writing of male writers such as Philip Freneau, James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, and William Gilmore Simms.

  • Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    Marx evaluates the literature, ideas, and cultural symbols associated with the pastoral ideal to account for the effects and representations of industrial and technological transformations in the United States, and considers the cultural conflicts that arise in the pastoral desire for a harmonious relationship between the human world and the environment.

  • Murphy, Patrick D. Ecocritical Explorations in Literary and Cultural Studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009.

    A transnational approach to American literary and cultural production, Murphy argues, includes not only contemporary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, but environmental science fiction, utopian and dystopian narrative, environmental justice mysteries, and the literature of natural disasters.

  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

    Smith documents the myth of the West as an agrarian utopia and elaborates individual and collective perceptions of the environment that structure early visions of American empire. The book includes analysis of writing by Thomas Jefferson, James Fenimore Cooper, Frederick Jackson Turner, William Gilpin, and Horace Greeley.

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