McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
American nature writing, black literature, ecocriticism, nineteenth century, slave narratives, Thoreau, Henry David
While existing scholarship has begun to recognize the extensive environmental experience of African Americans during the nineteenth century, black-authored environmental writing from the era is conspicuously scant in studies and anthologies into the present, even in volumes devoted to ecocritically-inflected texts by authors of color. My dissertation argues that contemporary, racially-aligned divides and gaps in environmental discourse have roots in the 1840s and 50s, when the nature writing genre coalesced into its most enduring form in the works of Henry David Thoreau, literary artist turned cultural icon. This key era—during which black Americans were frequently subject to systematic deprivation of literacy, liberty, and agency—is also the period when the American nature writing genre emerged as a definitive fusion of environmental encounter and writing. I contend that there do exist published works from the mid-nineteenth century that include numerous first-person accounts of black eco-actors in intensive relationship with the natural environment, but that these narratives have been rendered invisible as nature writing (and even black writing) because although the experiences were lived and spoken by black environmental actors, they were written down by a white amanuensis. I read Thoreau’s nature writing against a little-studied volume called The Refugee, a contemporaneous collection of first-person narratives by black refugees who fled the United States to settle in the wilderness of Ontario, their accounts recorded by abolitionist Benjamin Drew. Thoreau’s work establishes a tradition of “retreat” values such as voluntary solitude, individualism, separatism, and universality. Retreat values come to have a hegemonic influence on subsequent environmental discourse. The narratives from Thoreau’s black counterparts, however, express a set of “refuge” values that emphasize community, connection, practical experience, and the recognition of inequalities and contingencies. Narratives of refuge work as corrective acts of resistance against the assumptions of easy universality in the white-authored nature retreat. In establishing and fleshing out the dialectical categories of retreat and refuge, this dissertation brings to light black-authored environmental narratives that serve to unsettle, invigorate, and reconstitute the nature writing genre.
Williams, B. P. (2017). Race, Retreat, and Refuge: Black Voices, American Nature Writing, and Ecocritical Exile (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/155