In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecology in Literature

  • Introduction
  • First Wave: Ecocriticism and Environmental History
  • Second Wave: Literary Ecocriticism
  • Ecocritical Journals and Associations
  • Ecology and Global History
  • Medieval Literature
  • Early American Literature through the 19th Century
  • British Literature in the 19th Century
  • American Literature in the 20th Century
  • Modern British and Postcolonial World Literature
  • Nonhuman Centered Ecocriticism

Ecology Ecology in Literature
Kevin MacDonnell, Steve Mentz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0148


Increased interest in ecological questions across many academic disciplines has given rise to ecocriticism, a thriving and contentious academic field within literary studies. This subfield, which has produced influential work from medieval studies to postmodern and contemporary literary studies, investigates relationships between human beings and the nonhuman environment. Ecocritical writings range from cultural histories of human ecological entanglements to critical analyses of the meanings of such terms as human and nature. With its origins paralleling the birth of modern environmentalist politics, ecocriticism produces historical and theoretical models that engage the rising tide of ecological awareness in the 21st century. Subdiscourses within the field explore environmental justice, gender, ethics, economic development, and the Global South, various articulations of critical theory, the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, and multiple versions of activist politics. Ecocritics collectively bring the tools and methods of the humanities to bear on urgent questions for today’s age of global ecological crisis. Often combining creative or nontraditional forms with established research methods, ecocritics invent ways to use the humanities to engage our rapidly changing environment. This discourse represents an attempt by humanities scholarship to come to terms with a rapidly changing world.

First Wave: Ecocriticism and Environmental History

The first wave of literary ecocriticism received its canonical presentation in Glotfelty and Fromm 1996, but that influential collection itself owes much to earlier speculations found in Rueckert 1996 (cited under Second Wave: Literary Ecocriticism) as well as the long history of the critical reception of pastoral literature, reconsidered in Gifford 1999 (cited under Second Wave: Literary Ecocriticism). This early wave of ecocriticism also engages with the defining moments of environmental history, as pronounced in Cronon 1995, Worster 1994, and other works.

  • Cronon, William. 1995. Uncommon nature: Rethinking the human place in nature. New York: Norton.

    The idea of “wilderness” has to be reconceptualized, argues Cronon in his pathbreaking investigation of the history of the term in American culture. Wilderness is a societal construct that has developed out of two major cultural developments: the idea of the sublime and the American frontier myth. Far from critiquing the entities that exist in the wild, Cronon argues that the habits of thinking that emerge from the idea of wilderness need to be reconsidered to account for a less remote, more local appreciation of nonhumans.

  • Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm, eds. 1996. The ecocriticism reader: Landmarks in literary ecology. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

    This collection represents the first attempt to gather together literary studies under the banner of literary ecocriticism and place ecological questions alongside questions of race, gender, class, and cultural history. Drawing inspiration from the “greening” of humanities disciplines from history to philosophy, the collection brings together criticism from many subdisciplines. Essays on nature writing, postmodern fiction, and comedy as an ecological genre suggest the multiple futures of ecological literary criticism in anglophone studies.

  • Harrison, Robert Pogue. 1992. Forests: The shadow of civilization. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226318059.001.0001

    Harrison conducts a sweeping account of the roles forests have played in literature and culture, ranging from the texts written thousands of years ago through 21st-century artistic productions. Whether it be the appearance of the forest as the first antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh or the forest as the dark, chaotic antithesis to the order of the city or town in post-Enlightenment thought, Harrison points to the perpetual human tendency to carry out practices of deforestation.

  • Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Winner of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment’s prize in 2013 for the best scholarly book in ecocriticism, Nixon’s study of environmentalism in the context of global social justice has greatly influenced recent efforts to contextualize global ecostudies. With chapters on Nigerian oil fields, neoliberal environmental discourses, and the relationship among environmentalism, postcolonialism, and American studies, Nixon’s book appears poised to shape new developments in the field.

  • Sutter, Paul S., ed. 2013. Special issue: The world with us: The state of American environmental history. Journal of American History 100 (June).

    The special issue follows a famed round table discussion in the Journal of American History in 1990 led by Donald Worster and describes how environmental history has become one of the fastest growing subfields within American history. Sutter examines the role of more appreciation of nonhuman influences by environmental historians and then describes some of the environmental history and urban environmental history subfields within American history.

  • Worster, Donald. 1994. Nature’s economy: A history of ecological ideas. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1977. Worster provides a detailed history of ecology, as both a scientific field and a cultural concept, in an effort to account for the contemporary understanding of man to carry out practices of deforestation. He traces the origins of the concept and considers thinkers through Darwin and up to 20th-century ecologists, highlighting the lack of consensus and proliferation of competing ideologies that define the field.

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