An old acquaintance: personifying trees to overcome the nature/culture binary

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Gianina Marie Coturri Sorenson (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: My project examines the environmental relationships that Romantic-era historical novels model for readers. Scholars argue that Romantic-era writers established modern environmentalism, but most examine the era’s poetry or essays, neglecting early nineteenth-century fiction, especially genre fiction. I fill this scholarly gap by illuminating how two British and two American novelists’ personified trees and “treeified” people blur the line between human and nonhuman, thus questioning the Enlightenment emphasis on the nature-culture binary. All four authors offer similar models: when some characters interact with trees, they link human and nonhuman, gaining moral and physical power from overcoming the nature-culture binary; when those with political, social, or economic power interact with trees, they emphasize humans’ alienation, and cause environmental, social, and political violence; and when oppressed people interact with trees, they show why certain ancient ways of merging nature and culture no longer function, and demonstrate why certain cultures become “extinct.” Beginning with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I show how the author displays a proto-ecological argument that connects good governance with forests and corrupt governance with dead trees, providing a political argument for government remaining physically connected to the natural world. Exploring Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, I demonstrate that the author’s personification and treeification display that trees enable readers to recognize the Puritanical divide between nature and culture, a divide enabling white settlers to justify horrific violence against Native Americans and the natural world. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, I contend, uses personification and treeification to support the author’s argument that only people invested in conservation should lead the United States and its continued settlement of so-called wilderness. Finally, I analyze Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, showing that the author sees both poetry and science as powerful ways to connect to trees, when characters have a sufficiently stable economic situation. These analyses demonstrate that historical fiction has great power to influence how readers understand and interact with trees and the natural world more broadly. Ultimately, I demonstrate that personification’s anthropocentrism can help raise environmental awareness and clarify why transatlantic ecocritical examinations of genre fiction helps scholars better understand environmentalism’s roots.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2020
Ecocriticism, Historical fiction, Nineteenth century, Novel, Transatlantic
Fiction $y 19th century $x History and criticism
Personification in literature
Trees in literature

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