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American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): Home

By Erik Hage


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Choice (volume 53 | number 6).


The year 2014 marked the fiftieth  anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which established a federal preservation system and denoted wilderness as “an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and as an area “retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation.”  A half century later, the contact between civilization and wilderness remains a vital area of study—one best negotiated through writing that explores the relationships between the US’s wildest spaces and individuals, communities, and society in general.

Publications about the US wilderness stretch back to earliest English Colonial contact with the New World.  This literature evolved through Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, the writings of Thoreau’s philosophical descendent John Muir, and the work of a host of men and women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Reflecting on attitudes about the US’s most natural and wildest spaces, these works have contributed to views on conservation and preservation and to the place of humans in the natural environment.

As an interdisciplinary form, wilderness writing is a form of nonfiction prose that merges emotion with empirical observation and that intertwines strands such as literature, science, natural history, philosophy, and theology with little regard for the lines and distinctions between those disciplines.  These works tend to move beyond a simple celebration of the aesthetic aspects of the natural world—though they are that—and endeavor (post-Thoreau) to present an environmental ethic (conservation and/or preservation) favoring an ecocentric rather than an anthropocentric perspective.

Moreover, wilderness writing needs to be distinguished from the larger field of “nature writing,” in that wilderness writing emerges from contact with the rawest, least trammeled, and wildest natural places, whether that contact be Lewis and Clark’s journey across the continent in the early 1800s (as recorded in their voluminous journals), Thoreau’s three expeditions into the Maine interior in the mid-1800s, Muir’s explorations of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska in the late 1800s, or Mary Austin Hunter’s immersion in the remote desert landscape of Owens Valley after the turn of the twentieth century.  Because this essay focuses on wilderness texts, many writers occupied with tamer nature or the natural world in general—for example, Susan Fenimore Cooper and John Burroughs—are not part of the discussion.

Most of this essay is concerned with primary texts based on wilderness contact, but the essay concludes with a section devoted to a few of the many secondary sources that engage the works of these writers and/or explore cultural and societal perceptions of wilderness.  These works look not just at the notion of a once-pervasive US wilderness, which now exists largely in the federally protected remnants of the National Park System, but also at the philosophical foundations of the “wilderness” concept and the evolution of a land ethic—conservation and preservation ideals—and how earlier writers contributed to this.

A word about the works cited: many of the older titles discussed here have appeared in numerous editions since their original publication.  Wherever possible, we have cited the original publisher and publication date; readers should look for recent editions, be they print or online.

Erik Hage is the chair of the department of liberal studies at the State University of New York at Cobleskill and an associate professor of journalism, communication, and English.  A widely published critic and writer, he is the author of The Melville-Hawthorne Connection: A Study of the Literary Friendship (2014), Cormac McCarthy: A Literary Companion (2010), and The Words and Music of Van Morrison (2009).

Works Cited