McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Elaine Frantz Parsons
insects, ecocriticism, Thoreau, Dickinson, Muir
The simultaneous emergence of ecocriticism and cultural entomology has created a critical need for a discussion of the appearance and function of insects as they appear in literature. While nineteenth-century nature writing is frequently examined by ecocritics, very few have chosen to explore how critical writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and John Muir incorporate insects into their work. This study explores three interrelated issues connected to encounters with and explorations of the microscopic and unacknowledged position of insects in nature: first, how insects factor into their growing knowledge about nature and ecology; second, how nature serves as a conduit to or inspiration for spirituality, revealing in its intricate processes the messages of the divine; and third, how insects are important not only for their critical ecological function but also for their symbolic value in suggesting the possibility of a renewed connection and relationship with the natural world and God, either through an awareness of ecological integration, an acknowledgement that all life participates in a joyous celebration of creation and has a right to exist, or a metamorphic process that unites the physical and spiritual in an attempt to transcend earthly experience. The introduction of this dissertation discusses how the evolution of ecocriticism establishes the legitimacy and importance of an insect's "point of view." Chapter one provides a partial "cultural portrait" of insects in the nineteenth century, examining insects in science, agriculture, folklore, fashion, religion, and literature. Chapter two focuses on Thoreau's interpretation of the song of the crickets as a universal choir which nature continually invites humanity to join, on his interest in the reflective eyes of the water-skaters of Walden and their ability to exist between the margins of heaven and earth, and on his fascination with the process of metamorphosis in relation to both insects and human potential. Chapter three explores Dickinson's vision of nature as an interdependent society of insects, animals, and plants, each having an important and unique purpose to fulfill, and her complex attitude toward cocoons and metamorphosis, especially in relation to her fear of death and uncertainly about salvation. Chapter four establishes Muir as a true "lover of nature" who views insects and all other "citizens" of creation as his "brothers," equal members in a creation designed and lovingly maintained by God. Muir is especially interested in bees, attempting to adopt their point of view when he describes the flowers of California and idealizing apiculture as a form of agriculture in harmony with the needs of both nature and humanity.
McTier, R. (2009). "An Insect View of its Plain": Nature and Insects in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Muir (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/916