American Georgics

American Georgics: Economy and Environment in American Literature, 1580-1864

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    American Georgics
    Book Description:

    In classical terms the georgic celebrates the working landscape, cultivated to become fruitful and prosperous, in contrast to the idealized or fanciful landscapes of the pastoral. Arguing that economic considerations must become central to any understanding of the human community's engagement with the natural environment, Timothy Sweet identifies a distinct literary mode he calls the American georgic. Offering a fresh approach to ecocritical and environmentally-oriented literary studies, Sweet traces the history of the American georgic from its origins in late sixteenth-century English literature promoting the colonization of the Americas through the mid-nineteenth century, ending with George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature (1864), the foundational text in the conservationist movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0318-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    “The earth . . . has a certain magnetism in it, by which it attracts the salt, power, or virtue (call it either) which gives it life, and is the logic of all the labor and stir we keep about it, to sustain us.”¹ So writes Henry David Thoreau in the “Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, quoting the seventeenth-century English agricultural writer John Evelyn. That logic—the magnetism that draws labor from us as we draw sustenance from the earth—is the subject of this book. It is, as Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond indicated, at once simple and complex, according...

  4. Chapter 1 Economy and Environment in Sixteenth-Century Promotional Literature
    (pp. 12-28)

    We owe the first recorded moment of ecological insight in British North America to Stephen Parmenius, intended chronicler of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s ill-fated second voyage of 1583.¹ Gilbert, hoping to establish a colony in what is now New England, stopped off for provisions at St.John’s harbor, Newfoundland, where an international fishing fleet had made its base. According to the terms of his patent, Gilbert took possession of the territory on which the fishermen had established drying stations and let these lands back to them as his tenants. Anxious to search for ores and other resources that could support a colony,...

  5. Chapter 2 “God Sells Us All Things for Our Labour”: John Smith’s Generall Historie
    (pp. 29-49)

    In 1588, Thomas Hariot claimed that Virginia naturally produced “Silkewormes faire and great, as bigge as our ordinary Walnuts.”¹ Following the program set out by Hakluyt’s “Discourse of Western Planting” and other such promotional texts, he went on to assess the possibilities for commodity offered by these silkworms:

    Although it hath not bene our hap to have found such plenty, as elsewhere to be in the countrey we have heard of, yet seeing that the countrey doth naturally breed and nourish them, there is no doubt that if arte be added in planting of Mulberie trees, and others, fit for...

  6. Chapter 3 “Wonder-Working Providence” of the Market
    (pp. 50-73)

    In New England’s Prospect (1635), William Wood makes a curious, nostalgic claim about the English environment. Evaluating the “Suitableness” of New England’s climate for “English Bodies,” he argues that “both summer and winter is more commended of the English there than the summer-winters, and winter-summers of England. And who is there that could not wish that England’s climate were as it hath been in quondam times: colder in winter and hotter in summer? Or who will condemn that which is as England hath been?”¹ Over the course of this climatic change, English bodies have evidently remained the same, so that...

  7. Chapter 4 “Admirable Oeconomy”: Robert Beverley’s Calculus of Compensation
    (pp. 74-96)

    Near the end of The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley pauses to remark that

    the admirable Oeconomy of the Beavers, deserves to be particularly remember’d. They cohabit in one House, are incorporated in a regular Form of Government, something like Monarchy, and have over them a Superintendent, which the Indians call Pericu. He leads them out to their several lmployments, which consist in Felling of Trees, biting off the Branches, and cutting them into certain lengths, suitable to the business they design them for, all which they perform with their Teeth. When this is done, the...

  8. Chapter 5 Ideologies of Farming: Crèvecoeur, Jefferson, Rush, and Brown
    (pp. 97-121)

    On the eve of the American Revolution, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s farmer James of Pennsylvania explained the sociopolitical structure of the American colonies to his English correspondent:

    Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory, communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which...

  9. Chapter 6 Cherokee “Improvements” and the Removal Debate
    (pp. 122-152)

    In an era that saw forced or coerced removals of many indigenous Americans from their homelands, the Cherokees’ was the only case to gain a large measure of white support. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, although generally unconcerned over the fate of indigenous peoples, wrote a letter of protest to President Martin Van Buren asking, “Will the American government steal? Will it lie? Will it kill?”¹ A key to the Cherokees’ enlistment of white support was their ability to tap into an American discourse that identified the rural as a site, source, and refuge of civic virtue. This discourse of...

  10. Chapter 7 “Co-Workers with Nature”: Cooper, Thoreau, and Marsh
    (pp. 153-176)

    For Americans unfamiliar with the Cherokee georgic, Removal could be written off as yet one more instance of the inevitable disappearance of a primitive mode of life. Robert Beverley had much earlier described a loss of “Native Pleasures” resulting from colonization and had proposed a calculus of compensation in which a georgic society, through diversified economic engagement with the natural environment uniting beauty and use, might hope to repair the loss. Differing valuations of this loss are registered in our literature as early as the conflict between Thomas Morton and the Plymouth colonists. In New English Canaan (1637), Morton found...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 177-202)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 203-214)
  13. Index
    (pp. 215-222)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 223-223)