Theses Doctoral

Human/Nature: American Literary Naturalism and the Anthropocene

Polefrone, Phillip Robert

“Human/Nature: American Literary Naturalism and the Anthropocene” examines works of fiction from the genre of American literary naturalism that sought to represent the emergence of the environmental crisis known today as the Anthropocene. Reading works by Jack London, Frank Norris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Charles W. Chesnutt, I show how the genre’s well-known tropes of determinism, atavism, and super-individual scales of narration were used to create narratives across vast scales of space and time, spanning the entire planet as well as multi-epochal stretches of geologic time. This reading expands existing definitions of American literary naturalism through a combination of literary analysis, engagement with contemporary theory, and discussion of the historical context of proto-Anthropocenic theories of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Whereas most earlier understandings of naturalism have focused on human nature as it is determined by environmental conditions, I follow the inverse: the impact of collective human action on the physical environment. Previous definitions of naturalism have only told part of the story of determinism, making it impossible to recognize until now the genre’s unusual capacity to aesthetically capture humanity’s pervasive impact on the planet.

Each of the dissertation’s four chapters focuses on a single author, a single aesthetic strategy, and a single problematic in Anthropocene discourse. My first chapter argues that Jack London’s late work (1906–1916) balanced his attempts to understand the human as a species with a growing interest in sustainable agriculture, resulting in a planetary theorization of environmental destruction through careless cultivation. But London’s human-centered environmental thinking ultimately served his well-known white supremacism, substantiating recent critiques that the Anthropocene’s universalism merely reproduces historical structures of wealth and power. Rather than the human per se, Frank Norris put his focus on finance capitalism in his classic 1901 novel The Octopus, embodying the hybrid human/natural force that he saw expanding over the face of the planet in the figure of the Wheat, a cultivated yet inhuman force that is as much machine as it is nature. I show how Norris turned Joseph LeConte’s proto-Anthropocenic theory of the Psychozoic era (1877) into a Capitalocene aesthetics, a contradictory sublimity in which individuals are both crushed by and feel themselves responsible for the new geologic force transforming the planet. While London and Norris focus on the destructive capacities of human agency, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland takes a utopian approach, depicting a society of women with total control of their environment that anticipates conceptions of a “good Anthropocene.” Gilman built on the theories of sociologist and paleobotanist Lester Ward as well as her own experience in the domestic reform movement to imagine a garden world where the human inhabitants become totally integrated into the non-human background. Yet Gilman’s explicitly eugenic system flattens all heterogeneity of culture, wealth, and power into a homogenous collective. My final chapter builds on the critique of the Anthropocene’s universalism that runs through the preceding chapters by asking whether and how the Anthropocene can be approached with more nuance and less recourse to universals. I find an answer in the stories of Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899) and the theory of the Plantationocene, which sees the sameness of the Anthropocene not as “natural” but as produced by overlapping forms of racial, economic, and biological oppression. Registering this production of homogeneity and its counterforces at once, Chesnutt models what I call Anthropocene heteroglossia, juxtaposing multiple dialects and narrative forms in stories set on a former plantation, depicting heterogeneous social ecologies as they conflict and coexist in markedly anthropogenic environments.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Wenzel, Jennifer Ann
Graham, Thomas Austin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 8, 2020