Visions of the Land: Science, Literature, and the American Environment from the Era of Exploration to the Age of Ecology

Michael Bryson describes his book as “a meditation on the capacity of using science to live well within nature” (p. ix). It examines texts that span approximately 130 years of American environmental history, “from the apex of scientific exploration of North America in the mid-nineteenth century to the advent of the contemporary environmental movement in the 1960s” (p. xi). The book is organized into three parts, beginning with accounts of exploring expeditions by the explorer-scientists John Charles Frémont and Richard Byrd, moving to representations and assessments of scientific management of nature by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and John Wesley Powell, and concluding with the ecologically centered critiques of science in the writings of Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rachel Carson, and Loren Eiseley. In other words, Visions of the Land is profoundly interdisciplinary in its intent and largely successful in using a literary-critical methodology to examine the ways “we’ve defined the relations among science, nature, language, and the human community” (p. ix). This book will be valuable to many as a fine example of the practice of ecocriticism. To some, though, it will be most valuable as a model of graceful interdisciplinarity expressed through thoughtful analyses in lucid prose.

In each of the book’s three parts, the works examined in paired chapters are chosen, in part, for their explicit similarities. However, the success of the study turns on Bryson’s explanation of what makes ostensibly similar works notably different. In Part 1, Bryson considers several works by John Charles Frémont, focusing on Frémont’s persona as a heroic scientist-explorer who regards nature as female, distances humanity from nature, and objectifies nature as a resource to be studied, mapped, and used. Bryson reads Richard Byrd’s narrative of Antarctic exploration, Alone, as a counterpoint to Frémont’s in that it presents a portrait of “a transformed and psychologically complex hero-explorer” (p. 34) who relishes the notion of harmonizing with the natural world, questions his own authority as a scientist, and implicitly challenges his own faith and rationality by narrating his struggle to maintain control over his environment.

In Part 2 Bryson reads Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel, Herland, as a multifaceted work that is simultaneously a representation of a scientific utopia, a satire of nineteenth-century American masculinity, and the portrayal of an innovative view of a productive and harmonious human-nature relationship. Bryson particularly observes how Gilman’s utopia is shaped by her faith in human control of nature and her commitment to exerting that dominion through scientific management. In contrast, Bryson sees John Wesley Powell’s 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region as a curiously mixed approach to development of the West, one that advocated both “scientific control of a mechanical nature” (p. 101) and respect for nature’s self-regulating properties and the need to constrain human progress in accordance with environmental limitations, an ecocentric perspective that anticipates later preservationist arguments by John Muir and Aldo Leopold, among others.

Finally, in Part 3, Bryson examines Susan Fenimore Cooper’s 1850 memoir of life in bucolic Cooperstown, Rural Hours, as an expression of Cooper’s proto-ecological vision. Cooper rejects science as a means of objectifying or controlling nature, conceiving of it instead as a system of study that can help humans make moral connections with the outside world. Bryson believes Cooper anticipates the views of both Rachel Carson and Loren Eiseley who, as scientists, find ways to use science as a means to a new biocentric environmental ethic. Bryson even makes the hopeful argument that their writings actually free nature from the loaded nineteenth-century metaphors of “gender and machinery” (p. 158), and in doing so they may open a path for dealing with the current environmental crisis.

Michael Bryson’s Visions of the Land is a must for literature scholars interested in ecocriticism. It should also interest historians and philosophers of science and environmental historians. This clearly written, intelligently argued, and accessible study also should appeal to non-specialists.

Reviewed by Robert Burkholder, associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His recent work is based on teaching literature outdoors in various formats, including through the Penn State Wilderness Literature Field Institute, which he started in 2000 to take students to wilderness preserves to read and discuss writing about wilderness.