Briefly, on Eco-crit and texts we teach… (thanks Maria)

My wonderful colleague Maria Trafford recently spoke at a TEDx event in school. Her central idea, in an evening focused on ‘Earth’, was that English Teachers can save the planet.

Towards the end she talks of looking for ways in which the Earth and Humanity could have a ‘shared interest’. This got me thinking even more about the Eco-Crit approaches to some of the texts I teach.

I have written much on Butterworth’s Jerusalem here, with some specific material on this area here. It made me think.

One of the great strengths of this platy is the endless ambivalence we have towards Johnny Byron. Usually we focus on his role as drug-sealer or saviour to the children and protector or abuser of Phaedra, but to do so exclusively distracts from his role as saviour and protector of the forest  – of nature and the Earth. We need to recall that he is being evicted to allow the building of a housing estate which will require the deforestation and concretization of the natural world every bit as drastically as the actions in the Amazon Rain Forest are having on the environment. As ever in this play, Butterworth presents a microcosm of a wider view. I am not saying that the piece is written as a response to the destruction of the environment by big-business throughout the world, but we should see Johnny in this light. Besides, it ties in with his echoes of Pagan deities such as The Green Man or even Pan.  Johnny is the voice of reason in this play, when read in this way. He can relate the world of 2009 to the world which came before – the mythological world of giants and the sense of nature being much bigger than modern sensibilities wish to understand. Read with this slant, then the ending of the play is not about Johnny but about Nature – about the wonder of the smell of wild garlic, or the glimpse of golden antlers in the dawn sun. It is the Fawcetts of this world who are destroying it. They are the villains, not Johnny. The Pastoral is  a look back to a Golden Age – an age which modernization destroys.

And just maybe the giants will come to its rescue.

Similarly, just as the original pioneers of US expansion worked with the land to enable their survival, the settlers who moved after them and created the towns, politics, legal systems, business leaders and religious organisations began to take from the land and not to care about replacement. We see this in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in his depiction of the wilderness and the serene vastness of the Mississippi – and his creation of the raft as a sort of pre-lapsarian Eden into which come the Duke and Dauphin in contrast to the mechanised rape of the land which typified his era -the Gilded Age – as railways were laid to all corners of the continent. The idea can then be followed to the Valley of Ashes in Gatsby.

This dustbowl lies between Manhattan and the soured Eden of the Eggs.  It is the dumping ground for all the trash which pours from both and is an area which has been allowed to rot as a price for developing the ‘brave new world’ of the business centre on the island – skyscrapers and hellish basement bars alike. The wealthy who flit through the pages bear it no thought – they mostly avoid it by travelling by train, apart from Tom who has used it as the source of one of his extra-marital liaisons.  Yet Wilson has tried to thrive there and Michaelis (possibly the only decent character in the book) also tries to do so. When Wilson shoots Gatsby it is almost as though the Valley of Ashes is taking a futile shot at the mechanism of wealth driven anti-environmentalism which is big business. Sadly, though, it is futile – it is the Buchanans and their ilk who cause this devastation and they escape scott-free to move back to the mid-West and no doubt continue their destruction of the land. Fitzgerald ends the book with a glance at the possibilities which the original Dutch settlers might have hoped for. It is clear that whatever this pure American Dream was, it is now so tainted by the direction taken by the country that such purity will never be seen again.

So let’s not ignore it. Eco-Crit should be up there with any critical theory we espouse -Marxist, Feminist, Queer, Post-Modern. We owe it to our students to be advocates of this way of regarding the texts we read.

Thanks Maria.