The emergence of American nature writing, 1860-1909: John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, and Houghton, Mifflin and Company
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This project traces the history of the production and reception of American nature writing between 1860 and 1909. It diverges from contemporary approaches to the genre by examining the essays of John Burroughs, John Muir, and their peers not as records of heartfelt encounters with the natural world, but rather as works that were written, published, and sold for profit, and that reached readers only after having passed through the book and magazine trades. By taking this unorthodox approach, I revise commonly held assumptions about the nature writing’s emergence at the end of the nineteenth century. First, I challenge the notion that the genre became an increasingly prominent feature in American literary culture primarily because readers were concerned about the natural world. Building on recent work by Lawrence Buell, I show that nature writing emerged also through the efforts of several elite literary institutions whose influence strongly determined its form, its audience, and the cultural capital it represented. Second, I show that Burroughs, not Henry David Thoreau, was the instrumental figure in the genre’s history before 1900. Only as Burroughs gained national prominence in the 1870s and 1880s did the importance of both Thoreau and nature writing become increasingly well defined. Finally, I show that nature writing has played a more varied and significant role in American literary culture than is generally assumed. At the turn of the twentieth century, the genre participated in numerous and sometimes conflicting cultural discourses: not only the emergence of the conservation movement, but also the reification of what Santayana termed the “genteel tradition,” the emergence of a decidedly middlebrow culture, the articulation of New England’s regional identity, and the definition of a generally “American” identity that purported to speak for all parts of the expanding nation. The internal contradictions are obvious; their existence is hardly surprising. Then, as now, nature writing served a range of people and institutions in multiple ways.