Writing Ecology in Cold War American Literature
Daw, Sarah Harriet
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
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This thesis examines the function and presentation of “Nature” in American literature written between 1945 and 1971. It argues that the widespread presence of ecological representations of “Nature” within Cold War literature has been critically overlooked, as a result of Cold War literary criticism’s comparatively narrow concentration on the direct effects of political and ideological metanarratives on texts. It uncovers a plethora of ecological portrayals of the relationship between the human and the environment, and reveals the significance of the role played by non-Western and non-Anglocentric philosophies and spiritualties in shaping these presentations. This study is methodologically informed by the most recent developments in the field of ecocriticism, including Scott Knickerbocker’s work on ecopoetics and Timothy Morton’s explorations of the problems associated with the term “Nature”. It finds significant continuities within these ecological portrayals, which suggest that nuclear discourse had an influential effect on the presentation of “Nature” within Cold War literature. This influence is, however, heavily mediated by the role that non-Western and non-Anglocentric philosophies play in writers’ theorisations of relations of interdependence between the human and the environment. Such literary presentations challenge the understanding that the Nuclear Age represents a conquest of “Nature”. Rather, they reveal that a number of Cold War writers present human interdependence within an ecological system, capable of the annihilation of the human, and of the containment of the new nuclear threat. The thesis’s introductory chapter questions the characterisation of Silent Spring (1962) as the founding text of the modern environmental movement. It outlines this study’s intervention into the field of Cold War criticism, detailing its specific ecocritical methodology and engaging with the legacy of Transcendentalism. Chapter One looks at the work of Paul Bowles, with a primary focus on The Sheltering Sky (1949). It demonstrates the centrality of the landscape to the writer’s creative project, and reveals the substantial influence of the Sufi mysticism on Bowles’s presentation of the human’s relationship to the environment. Chapter Two focuses on the work of the New Mexican poet Peggy Pond Church. It establishes the influence of the writer’s familiarity with the Pueblo Native American worldview on her poetic portrayals of the human and the nuclear as interrelated parts within a greater ecological system. It also uncovers similar portrayals within the work of the “father of the atomic bomb”, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The third chapter analyses the effects of Chinese and Japanese literature and thought on the work of J. D. Salinger. It outlines the function of “Nature” in the work of the specific translators that Salinger names, arguing that this translated Taoism substantially informed the ecological vision present across his oeuvre. Chapter Four explores the impact of Simone Weil on the work of Mary McCarthy. It reads Birds of America (1971), demonstrating the governing influence of Weil’s concept of “force” on McCarthy’s presentation of the human as an interdependent part within a powerful ecological system.
PhD in English