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Karl Kroeber Ecological Literary Criticism Essay

Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind.

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Book Review


Books (Book reviews)


Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1997 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139


Date: June, 1997 Source Volume: v24 Source Issue: n2


NamedWork: Ecological Literary Criticism (Book)


Reviewee: Kroeber, Karl

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All three of these books share a (Romantic) concern with the invisible. Under this rubric, they can be arranged in a spectrum: from the most literal of vacancies, that left by the dead; through the middle ground of cultural exclusion, the fate of women Romantic writers; through the paradoxical absence of what is too manifestly present, Romantic nature. This spectrum correlates with another: Bearing the Dead, the most prolonged and unified study, least troubles the turf of Romantic scholarship, while Re-Visioning Romanticism makes the case for broadening borders and complicating definitions of Romantic study, though sticking to traditional literary-historical method. The last, Ecological Literary Criticism, is potentially the most disruptive of boundaries, but that disruption fails to realize itself; it contains the ingredients for exploding humanities disciplines altogether, but its author withholds the detonator.

Esther Schor's suggestive and thoughtfully written study examines mourning as ethical and social action in the philosophy, politics, and poetry of the century that closed with the accession of Queen Victoria. Schor explains in her introduction that the study is intended as a corrective to the widespread influence of Freud's focus on the individual psychology of grief in "Mourning and Melancholia"; the story of mourning is only half-told, according to Schor, without the counter-tale of its extremely significant public dimension.

Despite its claim to an undernarrated context for grief, though, Schor's narrative presents readers in the field with a familiar cast of historical figures and controversies. The first part of Bearing the Dead examines eighteenth-century moral philosophy, pivotal to a transition in the social significance of mourning from a subordinated feminine domain to a masculinized cornerstone of public conduct and ultimately to national identity by the century's end. In the process, Schor relates elements of moral philosophy from Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith, a lineage broadly useful for the project of disentangling the political web of sympathies in the 1790s. Schor's context of mourning provides a focus for examining these thinkers who are often less manageable in the larger categories of politics, economics, and "anthropology" in the sense developed in Alan Bewell's highly respected recent work on Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. In fact, Bearing the Dead is strongest when it sticks firmly to the subject of mourning and weakest when it extrapolates mourning into other territories, particularly economic exchange. Although such a connection is abundantly justified, particularly in the case of Adam Smith, a touchstone throughout Bearing the Dead, the connection is so overdetermined that doing it justice requires a much more lengthy historical and theoretical analysis than Schor's study offers. Even if the association of sentiment with political economy is indispensable, it needs either a sharper historical lens or a stronger theoretical apparatus.

More satisfying theses emerge from Schor's consideration of the practice of "publishing grief" famously condemned by Samuel Johnson, who saw sincerity and literary production as competing in a zero-sum game. Schor herself takes on Johnson; sincerity and grief are not competitors, but rhetorical fields requiring deft management to prevent conflict. When conflict occurs, literary production simply fails to teach grief, and this, she claims, is ultimately Wordsworth's issue with Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," famously excoriated in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Even more compelling is Schor's discussion of Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets. In contrast to Gray, or even Wordsworth, the abiding melancholy and sense of failure in her work is not simply a failure to appropriate mourning, a conventional admission of rhetorical inadequacy, but a gendered double failure based on the exclusion of female grief from significance as the elegy became masculinized, harnessed to the yoke of public business. This in turn meant for Smith financial failure, the failure of a woman writing elegies for money, her double impropriety reflected in a lack of sales. But again, as with the economic metaphors of the opening chapter, one wishes Schor had developed this argument with a less generalized scope.

Schor finishes her opening section with an examination of the politics of sympathy in the 1790s as exemplified in the work of Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the early Wordsworth. Again, the specific context of mourning particularly anticipating Wordsworth's elegiac scenes - makes familiar material compelling: Schor claims Burke's portrayal of the French revolutionary drama captures what he regarded as a too libertarian horizontal commerce of sympathy in the more controlled and regal spectacle of the tragedy of royalty; he harnessed domestic circulation to diachronic inheritance rather than synchronic and dispersed exchange. Paine countered with an emphasis on movement, the contemplation of the ancient dead as aesthetic rather than social. While rhetorics of Burke and Paine abound in recent critical work, Schor's most interesting point - once again, insufficiently developed - is that their clash over the operation of sympathy produced in the young Wordsworth a kind of impasse, "a deep, nostalgic pessimism in the moral value of sympathy" (111), ultimately setting the stage for Wordsworth's later gravitation towards Burke.

It is in the area of Wordsworthian problematics that Bearing the Dead makes its greatest effort. The contested genealogy of sympathy set up in the opening chapters provides a compelling framework for both the multiplicity of Wordsworths in the poet's long career and the multiple perspectives he presents synchronically in his long narrative poems. Schor presents The Ruined Cottage as a poetically mediated tension between, on the one hand, the impotence of sympathy in the face of passionate grief and, on the other, the organic resolution of this gap in the broader context of nature - a tension also emblematic of the oscillating sway of lyric and narrative. However, this triumph of an "organicist genealogy of morals" only occurs when the over-rich overflow of the sympathetic eye, that is, fancy, is curbed by what Schor insists is reason, allied with imagination. This use of "reason" together with an offhand deployment of the term "imagination," especially in an analysis of Wordsworth that will momentarily turn to Burke, gets far too light a treatment; it seems equally likely that reason and fancy have a ghostly complicity, as Burke himself argues in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Indeed, it is not certain what Burke's role is in the Wordsworth section, despite explicit engagement with the Wordsworth/Burke problem in a chapter on The Excursion. There, Schor declares Wordsworth's Burke "idiosyncratic," yet she goes on to describe not Wordsworth's but J.G.A. Pocock's Whiggish Burke in order to link Burke to Adam Smith. Nonetheless, as with the analysis of The Ruined Cottage, treatment of The Excursion's multiple tale-telling works well, the different viewpoints essentially mediated by different forms of mourning. Ultimately, Schor claims that the Smith-Burke trajectory, upholding the masculine function of mourning as a source of public unity and definition of the social body, intertwines with a second more sentimental and feminine tradition. This second tradition is both literally and figuratively the "conception of the dead"; the idea of absence given birth by elegiac poets.

Death and conception converge in the final chapter of Bearing the Dead, describing Princess Charlotte's death in childbirth and ensuing public funeral. Set against the scandalous behavior of the royal family during the Regency, the Princess' death occasioned an empire-wide organization of observances. Schor documents the controversy spawned over the government coordination of the funeral events throughout the kingdom, and she interprets it as evidence that the public significance of "family" was moving from the designation of a line of patrilineal descent to the designation of an orderly domestic sphere, officially private but ensuring the useful incorporation of the feminine. A change in the notion of family from public to private also means a change in the character of mourning. Upon the Princess' death, the dispersed family of the Regency household drew criticism; the household, particularly as the proper sphere of women, acquired a new symbolic importance that, while bracketing a woman's place, nonetheless gave her a definite dominion. The transition also originates the trajectory of the modern individual and psychological focus on mourning that culminates with Freud, bringing Schor's study full circle.

Re-Visioning Romanticism, on the whole, carries out its promises more thoroughly than Schor's diffuse narrative. This collection of essays, loosely associated by the theme of women writers negotiating the transgressive image of the woman writer, is ideal for scholars new to the problematic of female Romantic art. Most of its work is a comfortable blend of primary documents, biography, cultural history, and literary criticism. Divided into three sections that cover, roughly, text, context, and evaluation, essays from well-known and less-known scholars cumulatively configure a countergaze to the heavily male, heavily abstract "vision" that has been the traditional basis for Romantic studies.

The strength of the book, though, defies its three-part layout. Sheer repetition makes it a powerful contribution towards understanding women's historical and canonical exclusion from sanctioned academic turf and makes it a justifiable addition to the work of Anne Mellor and Andrew Ross, editors of the most widely read current collections on the subject. A Gothic combination of confinement, economic exigency, and social prohibition figure repeatedly in the essays' accounts of the circumstances of female writing. Often, the result is strange and unstable; in a sense, the dustbin of aesthetic mediocrity to which earlier generations of scholars had relegated women's art of the early nineteenth century emerges as a kind of historical safe zone, a refuge to which these women deliberately fled from the tortured and tyrannical abuses of patriarchal oversight of the arts.

Most essays make clear that the work of recovery means encounter with a recalcitrant vision unassimilated to the values generated by even recent literary judgment. Why isn't women's writing more committed to decrying the poverty and subordination that afflicted them in such disproportionate numbers? Several essays unmask such an expectation as the product of a luxuriant voyeurism, complicit itself with women's interment in literary oblivion. Instead, we find that victims of poverty and subordination put survival above the manufactured values of a real or imagined leisure class of artists. Stuart Curran opens the book describing the stark contrast between the life of turn-of-the-century poet and novelist Mary Robinson and that of her competitors and successors, the later-to-be Lake Poets; though Robinson, Wordsworth, and Southey all wrote of rural poverty, Curran points out Robinson's work is the least politicized (and therefore the most devalued) because she alone among them experienced poverty directly. Linda H. Peterson adds that Robinson's Memoirs, with their gender-transgressive artist persona, were more immediately the production of a legacy for Robinson's daughter than a justification of literary immortality. Susan Wolfson surveys Felicia Hemans's "self-consuming" heroines as emblematic of a similar cultural dilemma about female writing. While, for example, Hemans made private fun of Wordsworth's bluntly tendentious gift of a set of scales through which he hoped to turn his competitor's attention to domestic economy, the inescapable oxymoron of the woman-artist played itself out in plots of despair in her narrative poems. Julie Ellison describes the peculiar blend of fancy and sentimentalism in the writing of African slave Phillis Wheatley as a marked evasion of her own lamentable circumstances, upon which she presumably could easily have capitalized given the abolitionist debate; what Wheatley in fact sidesteps is further prostitution of her dual victimhood as woman and slave for the edification of her oppressors.

But domestic and institutional strictures also produce novel forms of liberation. Both Marlon B. Ross and Jane Aaron examine women's writing in the context of religious nonconformity; Ross finds the double-outsidership of dissenting women writers Hannah More and Anna Barbauld to be at once doubly enabling and a double bind. Jane Aaron, looking at the particular case of Welsh Calvinist nonconformity, locates a freedom of erotic expression in the poetry of Ann Griffiths that she compares to contemporary ecriture feminine. Judith Pascoe locates an antidote to gendered strictures in the unlikely field of science; in an essay on Charlotte Smith, Pascoe demonstrates Smith's pursuit of botany as the basis for a critical difference in her Romantic vision. Scientific emphasis on close study inverts the topos of the masculine view from the heights with minute vision; science also lends an authority that gender propriety proscribes. Finally, in the closing essay, Catherine B. Burroughs finds dramatist Joanna Baillie's work in theater design a resource for contemporary women's theater studies.

It would take a hardened ideologue to read this volume cover to cover and remain committed to the "big six" canon, historically or aesthetically. Nonetheless, the collection cannot yet grant itself representative status in the "paradigm shift" announced by editors Wilson and Haefner in their introduction. It remains as impossible to locate a new "paradigm" as it is to articulate the "spirit of the age." One of the interlocutors in Jerome McGann's playful polylogue on the status of the field mocks the continuing romanticism of the notion of a field in crisis, but in crisis it remains. Even so, in a sense this volume's very indulgence of Romantic ideology works to ideological rift: the haunted dungeons of the patriarchal pile, the elaborate feints and ruses of its clever but isolated captive lure us to a Romantic counter-tradition that might allow us to gaze through other eyes.

It is perhaps sophistical to accuse Karl Kroeber of blatant self-contradiction in giving the name Ecological Literary Criticism to a polemic. Nonetheless, Kroeber seems to invite such a charge; his own characterization of ecology as relational, immanentist, holistic, yet humanistic seems belied by the book's frequent broadsides against literary critical movements of the past twenty years, especially Yale "formalism" and "leftist" new historicism. This is wasteful; the excursions of recent theory-heavy scholarship into quasi-virtual environments generated by estranged and decentered notions of the subject have already proffered a wealth of sites for the kind of interdisciplinary work Kroeber advocates for science and the humanities.

Ecological Literary Criticism wants to replace a hermeneutic of suspicion with a positive - and positivistic - reassessment of canonical Romantic writing. The contemporary science of ecology provides the means. De-emphasizing the autonomous self in favor of the system, ecology reaches out to the tangled problematics of Romantic subjectivity, at once produced and producing, natural and opposed to nature. This is a rich project; nature, confined by structuralism and its successors to an unknowable, precultural noumenal realm, excluded a priori by the very act of representation, returns from the repressed in a variety of biological and cognitive theories that have slowly begun to seep into the practice of literary criticism - in media theory and systems theory, for example. But such interdisciplinarity does not support the linear scheme of progress Kroeber asserts in order to recast the Romantics as the giants upon whose shoulders we now stand. Kroeber sees new science as providing as never before a guide to social behavior and a redefined individualism, but, in fact, scientific implications are far less clear. Chaos theory, one of his exemplary areas of research, in a sense only underscores scientific inadequacy; its a posteriori method testifies to the abysmal magnitude of our nonunderstanding, recalling the Baroque insecurity of Pascal's terrific spaces. Gerald Edelman's neural Darwinism, another touchstone for the book, theorizes a situation-contingent, highly individuated growth of neural pathways and so, from Kroeber's viewpoint, provides a biological foundation for individual uniqueness. But it has other implications. Neural Darwinism also underscores the distance of interiority from environment, of perception from reality, a trait the theory shares with a variety of other current accounts of cognitive processing. While a great deal of "hot" contemporary science indeed attests to the futility of Jacobinical ambitions to rationalize the cosmos under universal laws, such testimony does not mean a better world is on the way as the Romantics well knew.

And, ultimately, so does Kroeber. He is at his best here in his portrayals of Romantic ambivalence. Although far from forgotten by contemporary criticism, as the book insists, the troubled promotion of simultaneous self-reference and self-doubt Kroeber attributes to P.B. Shelley well expresses the duality of the poet's mature work. This tension gains something of the impact it deserves when supplemented by the holistic system/self Kroeber describes in neural Darwinism. Kroeber writes of Shelley's intertwined dramas The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound that "Shelley extends Wordsworth's recognition that our minds all too readily injure themselves. The very power of the human mind assures that such injurious actions will easily become institutionalized" (130) - and, indeed, the biological institutionalization of habit, an action's tendency to be repeated, is at the heart of Edelman's relevance to a more general systems theory to which Shelley was a remarkable early contributor.

Less remarkable is Kroeber's analysis of Wordsworth's interplay of loss and recompense, memory's withholding of the past and the earth's withholding of the dead, as a form of individual/nature reciprocity that anticipates neural Darwinian "reentry." Although the immensely complex architecture of experience is suggestively common to both Edelman's and Wordsworth's respective projects, Romantic scholarship has already discussed an essentially reiterative function as the basis of Romantic memory in the more immediate historical context of David Hartley's psychology and Edmund Burke's political genealogy of morals; none of this work gets attention in Kroeber's book.

Finally, Ecological Literary Criticism promotes an alliance of Shelley and Malthus that seems riddled with political omissions. Kroeber asserts that Malthus and Shelley, promoting demographics and democracy respectively, treat "the people" holistically as a self-organizing system, a breakthrough to contemporary global humanism. Yet the book ignores the significance of class to both writers; Malthusian reproductive strictures, as even Shelley pointed out, targeted "the people" along a differential grid determined by class. Shelley's very conscious consideration of the relation of class to poetic form and rhetoric has ample documentation in his prose and letters. The rationale behind The Mask of Anarchy's invocation of "the people" is far more tangled than an unambiguous pursuit of a trans figured democracy; it is also a calculated play to mass outrage from which the "refined" upper classes were excluded.

One suspects the book's difficulties rest on its commitment to an old-style humanism in the context of a new style trans-disciplinary science. Kroeber is determined to salvage simultaneously "holistic conceptions of nature," "close attention to individuality" (11), and "fine poem[s]" (46); there is less interrogation of the "big six" Romantic canon here than there is of the more secure canon of science. Kroeber makes much of the potential of "feminist science" (although he barely describes the field); yet, it appears, feminine Romantic voices have, strangely, no relevance to the subject. Darwin, ecology, and individual-based justice are extremely difficult to reconcile, and their contradictions account for the post-humanist theme of much current interdisciplinary work in the sciences and humanities, a prospect as alarming as it is exciting. Ecological Literary Criticism has to give something up; it cannot subdue the volatile mix of elements it so ambitiously combines.

Brigham is assistant professor of English at Kansas State University. Her current work studies systems theory in the context of British Romanticism and the sublime, both past and present, poetic and technological.

Gale Copyright:

Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

190 Western American Literature opening moments o f two intertwined careers that did much to shape the liter­ ary marketplace o f their time. NICOLAS WITSCHI U niversity o f Oregon E cological L iterary C riticism : Rom antic Imagining and the B iology o f Mind. By Karl Kroeber. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 185 pages, $16.00.) In E cological L iterary C riticism , Karl Kroeber seeks to dispute New Historical interpretations of English romantic poetry by exploring the roman­ tics’ b elief that “humankind belonged in, could and should be at home within, the world of natural processes.” Extending an argument first developed by Jonathan Bate in Romantic E cology (1991), Kroeber exam ines what he calls the “proto-ecological” view s o f W ordsworth and C oleridge, the romantic characteristics of Thomas M althus’s Essay on Population (1798), and the revision of the first generation of romantics by Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The term “proto-ecological,” writes Kroeber, “is meant to evoke an intellectual position that accepts as entirely real a natural environment existent outside of one’s personal psyche,” an environ­ ment that “can be fully appreciated and healthily interacted with only through im aginative acts o f mind.” These im aginative acts are the central contribution of the romantics to our time, according to Kroeber, because romantic imagining anticipates the biolog­ ically materialistic understanding of mind offered by contemporary scientists. In his final chapter, therefore, Kroeber outlines the “Neural Darwinism” of biologist Gerald M. Edelman and draws on Edelman’s findings to assert that “we are superbly fitted to nature and nature is superbly fitted to our develop­ ment, even, as Wordsworth dared to suggest, to underwriting the evolution of culture.” D espite its promising title, the only form of “ecological literary criticism ” offered by this book is Kroeber’s own. A side from his discussion of the New H istoricism , Kroeber fails to engage recent developm ents in deep ecology, eco­ logical spirituality, ecopsychology, ecofem inism , environmental history, or environmental ethics, not to mention current work in ecocriticism , nature writ­ ing, or nature poetry. Moreover, Kroeber’s tendency to assert what ecocriticism “is” undermines his acknowledgem ent that this new critical movement can sup­ port a diversity of political and philosophical perspectives about the relation­ ship between literature and the environment. Finally, by suggesting that no one who has “encountered a forest fire, sailed on the ocean, or been out in a middle-western thunderstorm” could also understand that “nature” is a cultural construct, Kroeber both oversim plifies Reviews 191 New Historicism and overlooks its potential to contribute to an environm ental­ ly informed analysis o f power relations. DANIEL J. PHILIPPON U niversity o f Virginia Where P ast M eets Present: M odern C olorado Short Stories. Edited by James B. H em esath. (N iw ot: U niversity Press o f Colorado, 1994. 200 pages, $22.50/$12.95.) These stories have been brought together by editor James B. Hemesath because they reflect som ething “truly Colorado,” though, as I suspect Hemesath would favor, pinning down what that is can be a difficult task. Colorado is a diverse state, and these stories draw on the cultural diversity and Hispanic folklore of the south and the geographic diversity o f the entire state. There is a story of a community in the eastern plains, one set in the northwest corner near Dinosaur National Monument, stories of the ski towns, and stories o f the cities and suburbia along the Front Range. Many of the stories involve the theme of Colorado as destination, of people com ing to Colorado from somewhere else for some “reason,” as the early settlers once did. The title of the collection draws on what elem ents of its past heritage remain as Colorado struggles to define itself in an increasingly urbanized and com plex present. The “Can M en” by Robert O. Greer, Jr. is a heartfelt story of how two former and now hom eless rodeo cow boys spend a winter afternoon in Denver; Gladys Sw an’s “Backtracking” is about the remnants of dim e-fiction codes and the dreams “that sent...