American Literature and the American Environment

Professor: Lawrence Buell
Institution: Harvard University
Course Number: A-64

Syllabus (Fall 1994)
Offices= 17 University Hall (495-4211) (Dean’s Office)
8 Prescott Street, #21 (495-8444) (English Office)
Office Hours= Friday 2-4 p.m. (at 8 Prescott St.) and by appointment
Head TF=Susan Ferguson (868-1443)


This course studies some of the chief ways in which American literature has dealt with the physical environment, concentrating especially on examples of narrative and nonfictional prose, but with some attention to poetry also. In this way it provides an entry-way to the study of American literature and to literary theory and criticism. But this conceptual apparatus is developed not simply as an end in itself but also as a means of bringing into focus such broader questions as: What is the relation between environmental experience and literary representation of the environment? How is environmental writing or reading quickened or subtilized–or inhibited–by direct experience? How is environmental perception affected by anthropocentrism and more specific cultural and ideological forces? How has the history of the physical environment shaped the history of literature and the arts? How do the definitions of “nature” and “wilderness”–and the values attached to these–change from age to age?

The course will address such questions through a combination of approaches: lecture, interactive nonauthoritarian discussion (the section meetings), both formal and informal writing, and a “practicum” in environmental perception and reflection.  The course aims to be challenging as well as interesting, but it does not presuppose any special knowledge of literature or other disciplines beyond the high school level.

I. REQUIRED TEXTS (Sourcebook available at Science Center Stockroom;
other texts available at Coop; all texts on Lamont and Hilles Reserve)

Austin, Mary. Land of Little Rain. Penguin.
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Vintage
Connaroe, Joel, ed. Six American Poets. Vintage.
Dickey, James. Deliverance. Dell.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear,” from Go Down, Moses. Vintage.
Least Heat Moon, William. PrairyErth. Houghton Mifflin.
Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac. Oxford Univ. Press.
Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams. Bantam.
Lyon, Thomas, ed. This Incomperable Lande. Penguin.
Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. Penguin.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Norton Critical Edition (revised), ed. Rossi.
Tuan, Yi-fu. Topophilia. Columbia Univ. Press.

[Note. Most lectures presuppose that you’ve read the assignment.]

9/19 M Introduction: Texts and Worlds
9/21 W Structures of Environmental Perception
Meinig, “The Beholding Eye” (Sourcebook)
Stevens, ” 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (6 American Poets, 125)
Tuan, Topophilia, Chapters 1-2, 8
Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative” (Sourcebook)
9/21 F Repeat First Lecture
9/26 M Nature as Fact vs. as Metaphor
Alexander Wilson, “Wood Thrush” (Lyon)
Whitman, section 6 from “Song of Myself” (on the grass), and “Noiseless Patient Spider” (6 Amer. Poets, 9, 64)
Dickinson, poems #s 986 and 1448 (6 Amer. Poets, 97, 101)
Stevens, “Not Ideas … but the Thing Itself” (ditto, 141)
Williams, “so much depends” (ditto, 165)
Hughes, “Dream Variations” (ditto, 232)
Berry, “The Specialization of Poetry” (Sourcebook)
[Sectioning on 9/26, section lists posted Wednesday, 9/28 Core Bulletin Board, Ist Floor, Sever]
9/28 W A Short History of American Literature’s Changing Perception of
the Natural Environment
Bryant, “The Prairies” (Sourcebook)
Thoreau, “Walking” (Lyon)
Whitman, section 52 of “Song of Myself” (6 Amer. Poets, 23)
Burroughs, “The Natural Providence” (Lyon)
Frost, “Design” (6 Amer. Poets, 217)
Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar” (6 Amer. Poets, 122)
Tuan, “Our Treatment of the Environment in Ideal and Actuality” (Sourcebook)
W-TH-F First section meeting: “Fact” vs. “Metaphor”
10/3 M Imaging Wilderness in Early America
William Wood, excerpts from New England’s Prospect (in Lyon, Incomperable Lande)
Mary Rowlandson, Narrative (Sourcebook)
William Bartram, Travels [to be distributed]
Tuan, Topophilia, Chapter 4: “Ethnocentrism, Symmetry, and Space”
10/5 W Imaging Wilderness at the End of the Frontier Era
Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain: “The Land of Little Rain,” “The Scavengers,” “Shoshone Land,” “The Basket Maker,” “Nurslings of the Sky”
W-TH-F Second section meeting: Rowlandson and Austin
10/10 M No class. Columbus Day
10/12 W Imaging Wilderness from Modern Suburbia
James Dickey, Deliverance
W-TH-F Third section meeting: Dickey
10/17 M Agrarian Pastoral Fiction 1: Issues of Gender
Cather, O Pioneers!
   Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood” (sourcebook)
Tuan, Topophilia, Chapter 6: “Culture, Experience, and Environmental Attitudes”
10/19 W Agrarian Pastoral Fiction 2: Cather’s Compromise
Cather, O Pioneers!, finish
Frost, “The Pasture” and “After Apple Picking” (6 Amer. Poets, 197, 205)
W-TH-F Fourth section meeting: Cather
10/24 M Wilderness Romance 1: The Initiation Plot
Faulkner, “The Bear,” from Go Down, Moses, sections 1-3, 5
(Also note genealogical chart in Sourcebook)
10/26 W Wilderness Romance 2: The Envelope of Social History
Faulkner, section 4 of “The Bear”
W-TH-F Fifth section meeting: Faulkner
F Short paper due
10/31 M The Aesthetics of Relinquishment: Three Versions
Andrews, “Land in America: A Brief History” (Sourcebook)
Edward Abbey, “The Great American Desert” (Lyon)
Wendell Berry, “The Making of a Marginal Farm” (Lyon)
Barry Lopez, “Renegotiating the Contracts” (Lyon)
Start reading Silko, Ceremony
11/2 W A Native American Repossession
Silko, Ceremony, to p. 105
W-TH-F Sixth section meeting: Silko I
11/7 M Silko: The Ethnographical Imagination
Silko, Ceremony, to p. 215
excerpts from Boas, Keresan Texts (Sourcebook)
11/9 W Silko: Geography, Culture, and Gender
Silko, Ceremony, finish
Allen, “The Feminine Landscape of Silko’s Ceremony” (Sourcebook)
Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”
Tuan, Topophilia, Chapter 7: “Environment, Perception, and World Views”
W-TH-F Seventh section meeting: Silko II
11/14 M Hour examination
11 /16 W Realizing the Near at Hand
Leopold, Sand County Almanac, part 1
Dillard, “Nightwatch” (Lyon)
Thoreau, Walden, read through “Sounds,” focusing especially on the “Sounds” chapter
W-TH-F Eighth section meeting: Leopold, Dillard, Thoreau
11/21 M Toward a More “Ecological” Imagination
Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “The Land Ethic”
Thoreau, Walden, read through “The Ponds”
11/23 W Thoreau’s Struggles
continue reading Walden, taking special note of “Higher Laws” and “Brute Neighbors”
Th-F Thanksgiving: no section meetings this week
11/28 M Walden as an Environmental Pilgrimage-I
finish Walden
Tuan, Topophilia, Chapter 9: “Environment and Topophilia”
11/30 W Walden as an Environmental Pilgrimage-II
review as much of Walden as you can
W-TH-F Ninth section meeting: Walden
12/5 M Rediscovering Terra Incognita: Landscape vs. Narrative
12/7 W The “Reconciliation” of Western Science and Aboriginal Knowledge
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Prologue, chapters 1-2, 5, 7, Epilogue
W-TH-F Tenth section meeting: Lopez
12/12 M Defamiliarizing Middle American Reality
12/14 W Map Sense and Place Sense
William Least Heat Moon, PrairyErth: “Crossings,” “Saffordville,” “Hymer,” “Homestead,” “Wonsevu,” “Circlings”
W-TH-F Eleventh section meeting: Least Heat Moon
12/19 M Environmental Apocalypticism vs. Environmental Reinhabitation
Tu Longer Paper Due
Jan. Review session for final exam, time t.b.a.


The course grade will be determined as follows:
-15 % short paper
-15% hour exam
-25% longer paper
-25% final exam
-20% environmental imagination project and participation in section meetings (including both attendance and quality of discussion)

The Short Paper, due 4:30 p.m. Friday October 28 (in your TF’s mailbox), should be apprx. 1000 words (apprx. 4 typed pages) and should discuss the
relationship between “literal” and “metaphorical” representation of environment in one of the following writers: Rowlandson, Austin, Dickey, Cather, Faulkner. The paper should begin from a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” assumption–that is, it should assume both that all these writers are both committed at some level to describing literal environments and also to metaphorizing them. Accordingly, the paper should focus on such issues as (a) the “mix” between these (For instance: Is the work, relatively speaking, detailed or sparse in its rendering of landscape detail? Is it metaphor-rich, or sparse?); and (b) whether these two dimensions seem at odds, essentially harmonious with each other, or some of both. No extra reading or research is required for this paper, though you are welcome to undertake such.

At some point in the paper, you should include a detailed discussion (250-300
words or more) of a particular exemplary paragraph or section of the work (no more than a page in length) you are discussing. [This passage should be printed not in the main body of your paper but at the end, as an appendix, and it should not be considered as counting toward the overall word limit.] The reason for including this requirement of detailed discussion of a short passage
is to ensure that you will get some experience in doing micro-level analysis of a literary text.

The Hour Exam, on Monday November 14, will be a test to which you are welcome to bring your notes and even your books (though the latter should not be much needed). It will consist of a limited number of short answer (identification) questions and (for the bulk of the exam) two essay questions.  In each part, you will be given a certain amount of choice. I shall prepare you in more detail for what to expect on the exam as the time approaches.

The Longer Paper, to be submitted at the final lecture Monday December 19,
should be apprx. 2500 words in length (apprx. 10 typed pages not counting any endnotes.) should discuss some significant aspect of problem of environmental representation with extensive reference to at least two major works read in the course and should make significant use of some of the concepts unfolded in lecture and in the assigned critical reading. Additional research, as in the case of the first paper, is not required, although you are encouraged to consult any pertinent sources among the books on reserve. Before setting down to write either paper, you are urged to consult your section leader.

[Note on lateness policy. Papers submitted late without a valid excuse will be penalized at the rate of 1/3 of a grade per day or fraction thereof (with Saturday and Sunday counting as a single day.) Valid excuses are two in number: personal illness and family emergency.  Academic and work conflicts are not grounds for an extension.]

The Final Examination will cover all the material for the course, though a more than proportional emphasis will be placed on material assigned after the hour exam. As with the midterm, you will be permitted to bring your books and notes to the final. The format of the exam will be similar to the midterm in that there will be a section of short identification questions followed by two essay questions.

The Environmental Imagination Project is a series of 10 short (one double-spaced typed) informal essays on stipulated topics. These are described in a separate handout.


A. Specifications for Written Assignments
1. Format. All written assignments (other than examinations) must be typed, double-spaced, with pages numbered (if multiple pages). All quotations should be documented. In the case of a quotation from an assigned text or Sourcebook item, you should insert the reference into the main body of your paper in parentheses, in the form of a short title followed by the page number(s). [For example, such a reference to Aldo Leopold’s text might read: “To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery” (Almanac, 87).] Other references should be indicated in endnotes with sufficient author-title-publisher-date-page information to identify the source. Any self-consistent format that conveys this
information is acceptable. Explanatory notes can also be put among the endnotes. All sources to which you are substantially indebted should be acknowledged in your notes, whether or not you quote them directly; otherwise you have committed plagiarism.
2. Limits of Collaboration. You are welcome to discuss your ideas for papers with classmates as well as with TFs and with me. But your writing is to be your own individual work. You are not permitted to show your papers themselves or drafts or other written notes or outlines thereof to other members of the class except by permission of the course head.
3. Getting Assistance from TFs and Course Head. We strongly encourage you to consult us as you develop ideas for your paper(s).  We shall be glad to discuss them at any stage in your planning and drafting. TFs will, upon request, read and pre-evaluate portions of paper drafts amounting to no more than 20% of the entire paper, but not entire paper drafts. The reason for this latter restriction is not that we want to avoid work, but that we want to strike a balance between providing helpful assistance and encouraging analytical independence.

B. A More Personal Note.
A detailed syllabus is perforce a quite bureaucratic document. I hope that, notwithstanding, you will find this to be a course that speaks to you in unusual and distinctive ways, and that you will find all of us approachable and genuinely interested in getting to know more about the interests that you bring to the course or develop during it. I sincerely mean what I shall try to emphasize in lecture at the outset: that I hope this will be a course in which students from all classes and all fields of study will feel engaged, stimulated, welcomed.