2008-2009 Theme:
Before Environmentalism

When confronted with the description of a literal dark cloud of air pollution hanging over Coketown in Dickens’s novel Hard Times, many readers are immediately persuaded not only that our current environmental crisis has its roots in the 19th century, but that it was clearly making its appearance in the literature of the day. However, turn the clock back two centuries, to Milton or the 18th century novel, and many of the same readers are remarkably resistant to the notion that the roots of the crisis could possibly reach back so far–at least with respect to such “modern” environmental problems as industrial air pollution. Nonetheless, air pollution, toxic waste, increased urbanization, deforestation, wetland loss, radical changes in land use, and a host of similar environmental issues were surprisingly timely ones in Early Modern England, routinely making their appearance in the literature from 1500-1800. Indeed, by the time Milton was writing Paradise Lost it was already known that respiratory illness from urban air pollution was second only to the Plague as the leading cause of death in London. The 2008-2009 EMC Theme, “Before Environmentalism,” will provide a forum to explore the early modern literary and cultural response to these environmental issues, which gave shape to modern environmentalism.

Each year the Early Modern Center and its affiliates organize a number of exciting courses and events around the yearly theme. Several early modern graduate and undergraduate courses will also be in dialogue with the year’s theme. In addition, the EMC will host a Fall Colloquium, a Winter conference, and the Bliss-Zimmerman Seminar in the Spring–all on the theme “Before Environmentalism.” Speakers will include Jill Casid, Angus Fletcher, Carolyn Merchant, Beth Fowkes Tobin, and Robert N. Watson.

Please visit our “Before Environmentalism” 2009 conference website here.

2008-2009 Events

Theme-Related Courses

Winter 2009

ENGL 231 | Milton and Ecology (Graduate)

Spring 2009

ENGL 10EM | Introduction to Literary Study (Undergraduate)
Examining the poetry, prose, and drama of the Early Modern Period in England, this course will explore the 16th and 17th century understanding of nature, a period in which pastoral literature flourished. As English writers increasingly set their works in rural landscapes, did their understanding of nature evolve? More fundamentally, what did “nature” mean to Early Modern England? Did it mean any one thing? Was it simply a convenient site onto which a culture could project idealized and lost values that contrasted with the vices and insecurities of early modern life? Or did it serve other cultural fantasies? A source of lost origins: the garden as “The Garden of Eden” for example? In the desire to return more fundamentally to this sense of nature, which their literature suggests, was there any way of getting back to nature? Finally, as science advanced in the early seventeenth century, mapping out a project for knowing nature, what new meanings did nature acquire?

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