Joshua Schuster knows most would argue environmentalism, at least in its most activist of forms, is a relatively modern concern.
Environmental issues weren’t prominent until the 1960s, when American conservationist Rachel Carson, widely credited for advancing the global environmental movement, published her seminal work, Silent Spring. But, if you look close, you’ll see traces of environmentalism and founding interactions with the environment in Modernist works, said Schuster, an English and Writing Studies professor.
“Modernists love technology and new inventions, and also tend to praise pollution, and cities, urbanism and urban crime as aesthetically interesting, which is not compatible with modern environmentalism. But we can understand why – they loved modernity,” noted Schuster, who specializes in American Literature.
“Environmentalism wasn’t a focus because other things (at the time) became guiding big issues: technology, cultural experimentation, new sexuality, new gender identifications, new racial interactions and also new national formations like fascism and communism and liberal democracy. These were massive issues that impacted literature, but thinking about what was happening to farms and animals, it was there all along; it just lost some of its activist intention.”
Schuster recently published a book, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics, takes a closer look at Modern American Literature and examines the relationships of key modernist writers, poets and musicians to nature, industrial development and pollution. The book has received praise for being one of the definitive works on the relationship between American modernist poetics and the environment. Late last year, it won the inaugural Alanna Bonder Memorial Book Prize from Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada.
“I wanted to understand what was going on between 1900-50 in terms of environmental issues and how people engage with them. I found out it was only uneven or occasional engagement with the environment in American Literature, and then I compared that to someone like Thoreau, who is constantly thinking about environmental issues,” Schuster noted.
In The Ecology of Modernism, he argues this supposed lack of an environmental ethic in Modern American works was not an omission. In fact, it was something the writers and poets of the time were aware of, engaging with the environment in their own unique ways, even if these ways ultimately prevent them from plainly articulating an environmentalist agenda.
Schuster takes a look at the works of poet Marianne Moore, discussing her connection to fables, animals and animal rights. He considers Gertrude Stein and concepts of nature in her avant-garde poetics. He discusses Langston Hughes and looks at early blues music and poetry alongside environmental disasters like floods, droughts and pestilence, which affected black farmers and artists in the American South.
“All of the problems we face today – oil addiction, animal depletion, population numbers and environmental disasters like floods, draughts, etc. – they were all facing the same things 100 years ago, and dealing with them, and actually trying to make new poems and songs in response to them, so it’s important to see how people 100 years ago responded to some of the same issues we have,” Schuster explained.
“I was excited when writing this book – there wasn’t anything on Modernism and the environment; there’s no book – there are essays – but no attempt to make a larger argument about the period. This is the first book to do that. Environmentalism is there in Modernism, just not in the way we expect it to be. We have to read each example carefully to see what they’re responding to and how,” he continued.
“Modernists loved to invent new forms and every new form gave us perspective on new, different issues around environmental change. Gertrude Stein has a poem about the American Midwest and the poem is very flat – so it’s supposed to pattern and feel like you’re (there).”
Schuster has received accolades for The Ecology of Modernism and was even invited to contribute a feature essay on oil and Modernism to the new Edward Burtynsky book, Essential Elements – something he considers a great honour. Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer known for his large format photographs of industrial landscapes, whose work can be seen in more than 50 museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
“He’s a big deal; I’m a small deal. It was very kind of them to involve me and it was a nice chance to write for the book,” Schuster laughed.