Environmental fiction and ecocritism represent new fields in American Canon. While in the past transcendentalists, such as Thoreau, explored an inherent relationship between man and his environment, the study of the nature through the lenses of literature was not embraced wholeheartedly by the world of academia. In fact the field of ecocritism was initially created as result not of a broad scale academic movement, but instead by scholars trying desperately to categorize an increasing body of literature written by activists during the 1960’s called at the time “Nature writing”. Nature writing, which is now a field of literature in is a field of literature in its own right, at this time was characterized by and author taking a journey into the wilderness and chronicles their journey in a personal dialogue (Branch 755). With the rampant rise in activist participating in the Environmentalist movements of the 60’s there was also a rise in nature writings (Douglas 596).
Due to this increase Scholars of the 70’s sought out new ways to classify these works to avoid an overly large category of academic study. In response to Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism (1996 ), a work by William Rueckert’s that advocated for using literature as a lens through which to solve ecological question, scholars began associating works that “study the relationship between literature and the physical environment (Rueckert) as ecocritism. This small step is important to the genre as a whole in that it gave the movement credence, however the movement saw little increase in the 1970’s. Unlike other moments of the 1970’s, such as Marxism and feminism, ecocritism failed to make significant leap forward (Douglas 597).
Cheryll Glotfelty rectified this lack of significant advancement in the 1980’s. In the crowd of political activism that was the 1960’s through 1970’s Rueckert’s work was in large part lost. Glotfelty, a graduate student at the time, rediscovered this work and made argument for its republishing (Glotfelt xv). Republishing Rueckert’s lead to an increased level of awareness of the genre, and a secondary resurgence of ecocritism. When asked about the past of the genre Glotfelty described the disconnected efforts of scholars before this period by saying
“One indication of the disunity of the early efforts is that these critics rarely cited one another’s work; they didn’t know that it existed…Each was a single voice howling in the wilderness.” (Glotfelty xvii)
Glotfelty was ultimately rewarded for her efforts in rejuvenating the genre in 1990 by becoming the first person to hold an academic position as a Professor of Literature and the Environment at the University of Nevada at Reno (Douglas 598). To this day UNR remains the intellectual home of ecocritism.
The biggest change that came to the genre as a whole as it moved into the in the early 1990’s was the attention scholars began to pay to ideas of public perception and the environment. An excellent example of this is found in Kate Soper’s work entitled What Is Nature?. In the work Soper discusses individuals who are “Nature skeptical” Soper states
“Some are ‘nature skeptical’. In part this entails a shared sense of the ways in which ‘nature’ has been used to legitimize gender, sexual and racial norms (so homosexuality has been seen as ‘unnatural’, for example)” (Soper 22)
Soper focuses on a very small portion of what is the genre today in regards to mapping perception, but even considering public perception of nature proves to be an invaluable step for the genre as a whole.
With eccritism expanding now to including ideas of perception the definition of the genre as a whole had to be modified. Scott Slovic provided this new definition in his work The Natural World (1999). In this work he redefined ecocritism as,
“It is the study of explicitly environmental texts by way of any scholarly approach or, conversely, the scrutiny of ecological implications and human-nature relations in any literary text, even texts that seem, at first glance, oblivious of the non-human world. In other words, any conceivable style of scholarship becomes a form of ecocriticism if it is applied to certain kinds of literary works; and, on the other hand, not a single literary work anywhere utterly defies ecocritical interpretation, is off-limits to green reading. (Slovic 1102)”,
This new definition provided the framework for a plethora of new minds to study and develop their ideas for the genres next leap. Academic minds developed the genre into an exponentially stronger field of study. Groups of environmental activist scholars saw this emerging field as an opportunity to achieve environmentally focused goals through literature. At the forefront of this push was Gregg Gerrard and his book Ecocriticism. In this book he suggested authors utilize ecocritism as a means of achieving environmentally focused goals. On this subject Gerrard said,
“Ecocriticism makes it possible to analyze critically the tropes brought into play in environmental debate, and, more tentatively, to predict which will have a desired effect on a specific audience at a given historical juncture” (Gerrard 14)
This work created the first major split in the movement. It created a faction that saw ecocritism as a genre suited towards the mapping of human perception in relation to nature, and yet another faction who wanted to utilize a quickly emerging genre’s influence to motivate environmental change. Ultimately these two groups drove the need for yet another new definition of the movement, one in which both factions can exist and still support the evolution of the genre. This is solved in the “Two phase model” of Lawrence Buell, first introduced is his work The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005).