Unsettled and Unsettling Nature: The Ecogothic in American Literature Before 1900 (NeMLA 2021) (NeMLA 2021)
Organization: Northeast Modern Language Association
Event: NeMLA 2021
As Dawn Keetley and Matthew Wynn Sivils remark in their introduction to Ecogothic in Nineteenth Century American Literature (2018), “the dominant American relationship with nature . . . has always been unsettling” with the Gothic “sewn into the very warp and woof of American literature” (1). Andrew Smith and William Hughes remark that the ecogothic “explores gothic through ecocriticism” (Ecogothic 2013). A second look at most American texts uncovers relationships with and anxieties surrounding “settled” and “unsettled” land while underscoring early American literature’s fascination with chronicles of “ecological dead zones” like deserts, prairies, open oceans, and polar regions (Smith and Hughes).
This panel seeks to coalesce a body of work which investigates the Ecogothic in American literature before 1900: letters, slave narratives, novels, and travel journals which foreground nature as protagonist. The panel aims to investigate how writers of early America invoked the Gothic to describe their wild environs as well as the natural spaces becoming trampled by progress and exploration. It will interrogate the relationship between texts written by primarily white European settlers who invoked Gothic tropes to describe encounters with the land and texts written by indigenous people, enslaved people, and newer immigrant communities which chronicle their fraught experiences in these same spaces. Papers that explore the land, gardens, and forests of America haunted by the “ghosts” of colonialism and slavery are encouraged, as are those that examine nature’s revenge on polar exploration, westward expansion, and sea voyages.
A study of the ecogothic in American literature reminds us that ecological concerns go back to the earliest days of the nation. As our world faces incredible challenges to global ecosystems due to humans’ impact on nature, literature and literary studies have an obligation to communicate these concerns to the public and inspire action on behalf of nature.