American Studies Seminar

Fall 2023

Water, Land, and Ecology:
Doing Environmental History in Early America

Instructor: Leonard Von Morzé, Associate Professor of English, UMass Boston

Scroll of riverIn an age when we are hyperaware of global warming, we tend to speak of ecological crises in global terms, representing environments through international comparison and webs of interdependency. Yet it is easy to forget how recent this development is, when just two decades ago catastrophes such as pollution were framed with specific attention to immediate contexts. Even the idea of shared national environmental concerns is relatively recent, suggesting that we should pay attention to how writing before the twentieth century reflected a sense of place. In this seminar, we will look at prints, manuscripts, and illustrations from the early American colonies and early republic that articulate such a sense of place. Authors of these texts certainly faced no lack of environmental problems, but these were often tied to spiritual and aesthetic questions. Often such writing had only an indirect relation to political action, because writers at the beginnings of the Anthropocene had considerably less confidence in their ability to control their environments. While ecocritical approaches to cultural history have tended to prioritize land, we will especially consider water which can reinforce and unsettle our sense of place.

We will examine the construction of sewers, canals, and waterworks; forms of oceanic and riparian commerce such as the ice trade; the development of irrigation and river diversion; Indigenous perspectives on water rights; imaginative literature about islands; and the ocean’s economic importance as vehicle of transportation and eventually a source of energy. Materials studied will include illustrations such as harbor views and seafaring maps, but we will also look at travel writing, fiction, and children’s literature that reflect various kinds of ecological awareness. We will also consider how book production, such as paper and ink, reflect developments in environmental history. As we take account of what scholars have called the “blue humanities”–the study of the relationship between land cultures and water–we may find that the inevitable signposts in the development of American ecological consciousness are no longer Emerson’s Nature (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854), but also that we need to write a cultural history better attuned to oceans, rivers, and other waterways.

Len von Morzé is Associate Professor of English, UMass Boston. He is the editor of Cities and the Circulation of Culture in the Atlantic World: From the Early Modern to Modernism (Palgrave, 2017). He is also co-editor of Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown, vol. 2: The Monthly Magazine and Other Writings, 1789-1802.

Working with primary materials in the libraryWHEN AND WHERE
The seminar will meet Friday afternoons, from 2-4 p.m., at the American Antiquarian Society, 185 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Massachusetts.

The 20218 American Studies Seminar class led by Holly JacksonWHO IS ELIGIBLE
The seminar welcomes applications from students enrolled at one of the five participating institutions whose academic record, personal statement, and letter of recommendation indicate a commitment to academic excellence, the ability to work independently, and a sincere interest in the seminar’s subject matter.

Apply Online

Previous American Studies Seminars

2022 We Protect Us: Early American Histories of Mutual Aid and Community Care Britt Rusert
2021 A Second and More Glorious Revolution: Protest and Radical Thought in the Nineteenth-Century United States Holly Jackson
2019 Pirates in Early America Lisa H. Wilson
2018 Early American Transgender Studies Jen Manion
2017 Industrializing Massachusetts: Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester, 1800-1875 Robert Forrant
2016 The Worm in the Apple: Slavery, Emancipation, and Race in Early New Englan Joanne Pope Melish
2015 The North's Civil War: Union and Emancipation Kevin M. Levin
2014 Portraits, Dolls, and Effigies: Humans as Objects in America Caroline Frank
2013 The Nineteenth-Century Networked Nation: The Politics of American Technology, 1776-1876 Daniel Klinghard
2012 Reason, Revival, and Revolution: Religion in America's Founding, 1726-1792 Stephen A. Marini
2011 Dressing Democracy: Clothing and Culture in America Hannah Carlson
2010 History of Sexuality in Early America Sarah Anne Carter
2009 America's Environmental Histories Megan Kate Nelson
2008 "Written by himself... Written by herself" American Life Stories: The Northern United States 1780-1860 Jack Larkin
2007 Captive Histories: Puritan Captivity Narratives and Native Stories from the Era of the Colonial Wars, 1675-1760 Kevin Sweeney
2006 Personal Narratives from the Age of the American Revolution, Or Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times Joseph Cullon
2005 Childhoods Actual and Imagined: New England, 1790-1860 Jack Larkin
2004 Communication in the Early Nation: Literacy and Print in America, 1750-1840 Catherine A. Corman
2003 Imagining the Civil War: Race, Gender and the Popular Culture, 1860-1877 Carolyn J. Lawes
2002 Private Writings: Their Uses and Value for History and Literature Helen R. Deese
2001 Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture in Early America, 1674-1860 Daniel A. Cohen
2000 Romanticism Confronts History: Literary and Material Culture in the United States, 1820-1876 Harvey Green
1999 The Shaping of Historical Memory: Collecting the Artifacts of America's Past, 1790-1840 Barnes Riznik
1998 Seeing America First: Exploration and Imagination in North America, 1500-1900 Gregory H. Nobles
1997 Accounts of the Self: Autobiography and Personal Narrative in Antebellum America Ann Fabian
1996 Revolutionary Narratives: Memory and Desire in Antebellum America Wayne Franklin
1995 Wilderness Views: Nature as Other, Self, and Enterprise in American Culture c.1776-1900 Janice Simon
1994 Children's Books and Childhood Reading in Early America Samuel F. Pickering, Jr.
1993 The Invention of New England in the Nineteenth Century Dona Brown
1992 Little Women and Self-Made Men: Gender in the Nineteenth Century Lee Heller
1991 Slavery and Antislavery in American Civilization, 1820-1861 William W. Freehling
1990 Law and Society in America, 1760-1860 Jonathan M. Chu
1989 Religion in the American Revolution Stephen A. Marini
1988 Health and Health Care in America's Past Philip Cash
1987 The Constitution and the Press, 1787-1788: Popular Culture, Political Opinion, and the Ratification Debates Charles E. Clark
1986 The American Landscape John Conron
1985 Antebellum and Civil War Biography Betty Mitchell
1984 The Lethal Imagination: Perceptions of Western Violence in American Thought, 1850-1900 Robert R. Dykstra
1983 Ethnic America Before the Flood: The Irish and Others Charles Fanning
1982 High Culture, Low Culture: Recreation and Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century America Donald M. Scott
1981 Individual, Family, and Community in Eighteenth-Century New England Ross W. Beales
1980 Community Life in Preindustrial Worcester Kenneth Moynihan, Charles Estus
1979 Popular Culture in Preindustrial America, 1650-1850 David Hall
1978 Literature and Society in Jacksonian America: Writers Confront the Marketplace Stephen Nissenbaum

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