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Natural Reading: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom

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My research examines racialized notions of nature and naturalness in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and literary criticism. Drawing on recent work in ecocriticism, critical race studies, and the history of reading, I argue that American Transcendentalists developed a practice of reading nature modeled on what they understood to be the linguistic practices of indigenous Americans, encompassed in Thoreau’s phrase “the eloquent savage.” Early twentieth-century American writers then repurposed the idea of a language emanating spontaneously from the environment to help establish the foundations of modern literary criticism. By tracing how they did so, I show that the discipline they founded was one rooted in racial exclusion. Starting in the antebellum era, traversing the rise of literary studies in the early twentieth century, and concluding in the 1930s with the consolidation of the modern university, my project historicizes the uses of nature and the natural in both American literature and the disciplinary formation of literary studies. My project argues that the conflation of nature and race assumed by antebellum writers served the New Agrarians as the basis of a literary canon whose quality emerged from its writers’ close and racially privileged relationship to nature. In this way, my project illuminates previously hidden aspects of the discourses that helped forge the discipline of literary studies. By arguing for the centrality of naturalized race and racialized nature to the literary history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, my project suggests for American Studies and the Environmental Humanities the importance of attending not only to the ideas about nature transmitted by American literature, but the conditions under which naturalized and implicitly racialized notions of the literary emerged in the first place.

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This item is under embargo until December 14, 2023.