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American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): The Secondary Literature

By Erik Hage

The Secondary Literature

This final section of the essay points to some of the excellent secondary sources on wilderness writing.  The parameters of this essay allow mention of only a handful of titles, but these can serve as a starting point for delving into the secondary literature.  Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology provide invaluable context and historical background.  Also valuable is Hans Huth’s Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes.

In New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing, David Read examines the work of English Colonial writers and how they understood the new land and conveyed a sense of it.  Read devotes chapters to some of the works discussed in this essay.  Louis Wright’s The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607–1763—though not concerned with early writing per se—offers a useful survey of the agrarian society of the day.  Another useful survey is Raymond Stearns’s Science in the British Colonies of America, which earned the author the 1971 National Book Award for the Sciences.  In this volume, Stearns traces scientific knowledge in the colonies from the earliest days of English settlement.  William Cronon looks at this same period in Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, which focuses on how the Europeans’ changes to the land impacted the natural environment and the lives of the original inhabitants.  Last but certainly not least is Daniel Boorstin’s award-winning The Americans: The Colonial Experience, the first volume in his “American experience” trilogy.  (The other titles are The Americans: The National Experience, 1965, and The Americans: The Democratic Experience, 1973.)  This is really a compelling treatment of the entire Colonial experience, though Boorstin does bring science and nature into the discussion.

Moving into the period of early nationhood, Thomas Jefferson is a focal point of the secondary literature.  Daniel Boorstin’s The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson is a good place to start.  In it, Boorstin examines the “Jefferson circle,” exploring the world view of the time.  In Enlightened Republicanism, David Tucker examines Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, discussed earlier in this essay.  Keith Thomson examines Jefferson as scientist in Jefferson’s Shadow, arguing that Notes on the State of Virginia solidified Jefferson’s understanding of natural science and served him in understanding North America as whole.  Likewise, Charles Miller’s Jefferson and Nature describes the president’s desire to cooperate with nature and his understanding of the country’s landscape as part of the bedrock of the young United States.  The Lewis and Clark expedition is the subject of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West and Jerome Steffen’s William Clark: Jeffersonian Man on the Frontier.  Ambrose provides a biography of Lewis but also details the expedition itself, including the scientific discoveries and the contact with Indians, and Steffen provides an in-depth profile of William Clark.

That the secondary literature on Thoreau abounds should come as no surprise.  Robert Richardson Jr.’s biography Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind offers a fine, accessible portrait of the writer against the intellectual backdrop of the nineteenth century.  In A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature, Robert Kuhn McGregor examines Thoreau’s development from naturalist to ecologist.  Lawrence Buell’s  The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture offers a definitive examination of nature as central to the work of American writers.  And in Thoreau and the Sociological Imagination: The Wilds of Society, Shawn Chandler Bingham examines Thoreau as a critic of modern society and the progenitor of what has become environmental sociology.  Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature is the definitive biography of John Muir, whom Worster calls “the greatest forerunner of modern environmentalism.”  Worster describes Muir’s time in Yosemite, his founding of the Sierra Club, and his work on behalf of national parks.  Mark Harvey’s Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act, a biographical study of the primary writer of the Wilderness Act, provides much background not only on how the environmentalist activities culminated in federal protection, but on how the writings of Thoreau and Muir served as a template and inspiration for the act.  Those interested in the desert writers discussed above will want to seek out Esther Lanigan Stineman’s Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick and James Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life.  Cahalan’s book is particularly authoritative, and he paints a balanced, detailed picture of the environmentalist’s work.

In the twenty-first century, wilderness writing has transmuted into writing about the natural world and how to save it from the depredations of humankind—certainly a reasonable shift.  In Deep Things out of Darkness: A History of Natural History, John Anderson provides an engaging account of his early interest in natural history and of the naturalists who paved the way for the modern understanding of ecology.  And in Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement, Daniel Philippon emphasizes language and rhetoric in looking at five individuals whose evocative language came to serve the cause of the environmental movement.  Philippon discusses Theodore Roosevelt (and his concept of “frontier”) and Mabel Osgood (who coined the “garden” metaphor), but also John Muir (and his notion of “park”), Aldo Leopold (“wilderness”), and Edward Abbey (and the metaphor “utopia”).


American writers, from the 1600s onward, have continually found the wilderness a rich subject for nonfiction exploration, and many of these works both affect and reflect citizens’ attitudes toward and relationship to the country’s wildest regions, which, though once pervasive, now exist primarily in protected remnants.  The works have profoundly influenced the conservation and preservation movements and government legislation and activities.  Wilderness writing also represents a distinctly American literature and is arguably the nation’s first and most continually vital literary tradition.  At its best, it is a boldly interdisciplinary form of writing that is ripe for academic discovery and explanation.

Works Cited