Upcoming Scholarly Event
Gardens and the Work of Environmental Memory
Professor Lawrence Buell (Harvard University)
Thursday, April 11, 5:30 pm
To register please contact Susannah Italiano.
Gardens and the practice of gardening offer rich and tangled combinations of remembrance and forgetting. These vary according to garden type – aesthetic or utilitarian, public or private, “wild” or “formal,” secular or sacred – and according to the background and motives of the experiencer. Ranging through numerous examples of garden history and garden literature across times and cultures, Professor Buell will take note of some important ways in which gardens can embody or activate environmental memory in the different meanings of that term: personal, folk-collective, national, evolutionary, spiritual. But how closely does a passion for gardens or gardening correlate with environmental stewardship beyond those privileged garden spaces? To what extent does it nurture an “ecological conscience,” a sense of connectedness and accountability to the natural world? To those larger questions of environmental ethics Professor Buell will also suggest some answers.
Lawrence Buell is a Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks from March 18 until April 18. At Harvard, he has taught courses on environmental(ist) literature, American Studies, and history in the nineteenth-century Anglophone world.
Professor Buell (AB, Princeton, PhD, Cornell, both in English), teaches courses in the history of American literature and culture, and has a particular interest in environmental(ist) literature, art, and history in the United States and the Anglophone world at large. The nineteenth century, particularly the antebellum era, is his period of greatest expertise.
He is the author of New England Literary Culture (1986), The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995), Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the United States and Beyond (2001), Emerson (2003), The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), and (forthcoming 2013) The Dream of the Great American Novel. He is co-editor, with Wai Chee Dimock, of Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature (2007).
Writing for an Endangered World won the American Culture Association’s Cawelti Prize for the best book of 2001 in the field of American Cultural Studies; and Emerson won the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for outstanding literary criticism. Professor Buell won the 2007 Modern Language Association Jay Hubbell Award for lifetime contributions to American literary studies.
At Dumbarton Oaks, Professor Buell will be researching how gardens have served in world history, particularly transatlantic history from the colonial era and beyond, as sites of personal and collective memory. This research is part of a book in progress on The Uses and Abuses of Environmental Memory. Professor Buell will give a public lecture on "Gardens and the Work of Environmental Memory" on Thursday, April 11, at 5:30 pm in the Music Room.
An interview with Lawrence Buell
Professor Buell sat down with John Beardsley, Director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, to answer a few questions.
You are known as a pioneer of ecocriticism. What is ecocriticism? How is it different from environmental criticism, or are the terms interchangeable?
“Ecocriticism” was coined in the mid-1990s at about the same time the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was organized, as an umbrella term to designate the then-new movement to identify the distinctive, defining ways that works of literature and literary history have engaged environmental issues and concerns, not only in recent times but throughout history. “Ecocriticism” was and still aspires to be an inclusive project covering different and sometimes conflicting methods of inquiry, literary genres, and historical persuasions. In the early 2000s I proposed “environmental criticism” as a preferable master-term because the “eco” seemed too restrictive to me. It seemed to tie criticism too closely to the life-sciences and to imply a specious division between “built” and “natural” environments. But my general purpose was the same, in the sense of suggesting an inclusive field. In that sense, the two terms or concepts should be seen as synonymous. As a side note: although some have followed my lead, ecocriticism remains the preferred term; and I agree that it has a more catchy ring than the admittedly rather unglamorous-sounding “environmental criticism.”
After what I’ve just said about the expansiveness of the ecocritical movement it should come as no surprise to learn that it is more a concourse than a doctrine, more an inter-discipline than an inquiry that has rested content within literature studies alone. Ecocritics have turned for inspiration to a host of other fields across the human and natural sciences from religion to anthropology to architecture to statistics. Different emphases or fashions have predominated at different points during the movement’s twenty-year history. By the same token, ecocriticism has begun to spread beyond literature across the other expressive arts to theater, film, art history, and music. This scholarly expansion, of course, also attempts to reflect and respond to the work of creative practitioners in all these genres.
As a historian of American literature, how did you come to be involved in ecocriticism?
This story could be told in a way that makes my ecocritical turn (nearly two decades after finishing graduate school) seem either deeply purposeful or almost completely fortuitous. On the one hand, in retrospect I see myself as having been prepared for it from my college years, indeed from my exurban southern Pennsylvania boyhood, by my fondness for the Romantic poets, and for the American Transcendentalists and American nature writers—especially Henry David Thoreau—and by the enthusiasms of my parents, my mother for natural history and my father’s activism in dealing with the threat of runaway suburbanization that he sought to combat as a stalwart for many years on the local planning commission. On the other hand, my research and teaching followed a more or less traditional path until the early 1980s, when I was invited to join the then-infant interdisciplinary environmental studies initiative at my then-venue of Oberlin College by developing a literature and environment course as one of its core offerings in the humanities. The excitement of being part of this new venture, in particular the chance to work closely with a much broader spectrum of students than before, including eager science majors otherwise humanities-averse, made me a permanent convert to ecocriticism first as teacher and then as scholar, all the more so because I realized that the state of literature studies in the early 80s was such as to make it necessary for me to invent a new analytical toolkit for this fledgling movement. Out of all that came The Environmental Imagination (1995) and my more recent ecocritical books.
What brings you to Dumbarton Oaks? In what ways do you find the community conducive to your research?
First and foremost, the opportunity to deepen my sincere but spottily-grounded enthusiasm for garden and landscape history amidst invitingly beautiful surroundings in the company of what I had been given to understand—and rightly!—would be a stimulating and companionable working collective of fellows with varied interests from whom I knew I could learn as well as, I hope, contributing in the process. Beyond that, I can’t emphasize too strongly how refreshing and fruitful it has been for me to be able to find all the pertinent materials readily available in one place, rather than dispersed among a half-dozen branch libraries or squirreled away in an offshore depository as so much of the collection at Harvard is. Last but not least, both my wife Kim, who is here with me, and I are enthusiastic gardeners who relish the opportunity for daily contact with the wonderful gardens of Dumbarton Oaks as the spring comes in.
What role do you see for Dumbarton Oaks in sustaining the ecological values that are central to ecocriticism?
The pursuit of gardening and the experience of immersion in gardens as a visitor have long been crucial pathways for initiating and sustaining intimate contact with the natural world. (Of course the nature, depth, and durability of that contact varies hugely with the disposition of the gardener or gardener-visitor and with the type of garden—“gardens” being a highly elastic category that stretches from tiny vegetable plots to sculpture parks and beyond.). As the world continues to urbanize, the importance of such contact—relative to say, immersion in unspoiled “wilderness” tracts—will surely increase. That in itself ensures an important future for Dumbarton Oaks both as a research facility and as a site for visitors. Beyond that, I have found a number of Dumbarton Oaks’ publications in the garden and landscape area valuable for expanding my own horizons, including and sometimes especially when I happen to disagree with an individual scholar’s position; and I hope that this sector of the publication program will continue to be supported vigorously. But I don’t mean to sound like a single-issue advocate here, of Garden and Landscape at the expense of Dumbarton Oaks’ pre-Columbian and Byzantine commitments. On the contrary, I’ve found that one of the unexpected benefits of being here—one that might perhaps be pursued more systematically—is the challenge of stretching one’s mind to bring into focus how those three disparate domains intersect as well as differ, as in one D.O. collection a dozen years or so ago on the history of Byzantine gardens.