B.U. Bridge

The Power of Liberal Arts in the Classroom, a conference hosted by SED's Center for School Improvement, on May 2

Week of 25 April 2003· Vol. VI, No. 30

Current IssueIn the NewsCalendarClassified AdsArchive

Search the Bridge

Mailing List

Contact Us


Of nature and man
BU hosts international ecocriticism conference

By David J. Craig

Adam Sweeting Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Adam Sweeting Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


New Englanders might be surprised to learn that Adam Sweeting’s forthcoming book Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History of Indian Summer is the first lengthy treatise on the symbolic use in American literature of that mysterious autumnal weather phenomenon.

Sweeting, a CGS associate professor of humanities and rhetoric, who is among a new group of environmentally conscious cultural critics, or ecocritics, says it is not really that surprising. Scholars of art and literature, he says, have traditionally contemplated the natural world merely as a setting, as a scenic backdrop against which important themes in art unfold. Sweeting and fellow ecocritics, in contrast, place the natural world at the center of the action: Beneath the Second Sun (University of New Hampshire Art Gallery, 2003) not only traces references to Indian summer in 19th-century American literature and painting, but it explores how artists like Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson experienced and were inspired by the weather, and even explains the science behind it.

From June 3 to 7, Sweeting will host the most important figures in ecocriticism at BU for the fifth biennial conference of their flagship professional organization, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Featured speakers will include Leo Marx, an MIT professor emeritus, who is a primary architect of the field of American studies, Lawrence Buell, chairman of the Harvard English department and an authority on Thoreau, Edward O. Wilson, an internationally renowned Harvard entomologist and two-time Pulitzer prize–winning author, and Grace Paley, the critically acclaimed author of the short story collections Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Later the Same Day. About 500 scholars from 15 nations are expected to participate.

The interdisciplinary conference will include eight plenary sessions, as well as dozens of roundtable discussions and professional workshops on topics such as the future direction of nature writing, writing about urban environments, ecocriticism and Native American literature, environmental approaches to American studies, globalization and environmental justice, ecocritical theory, teaching environmental studies in high school, and understanding the legacy of slavery on the American landscape.

The events should be of particular interest to scholars and students of environmental studies, English, and American studies, Sweeting says, but he and fellow conference organizers have made a conscious effort to attract hard scientists as well. “One of the goals of ecocriticism is to break down barriers between the humanities and the sciences, and in fact, ecocritics tend to have a fairly firm grasp of evolutionary and other scientific processes,” he says. “We want to have a broad spectrum of people at our conference because as a scholar that helps you get out of the little bubble of your own specialty. It’s easy to forget that there are people talking about the same issues you’re interested in but coming at it from different angles, from completely different fields.”

Nature in peril

Ecocriticism, which took root largely among literary critics and American studies scholars in the mid-1990s, is not a new critical theory so much as an ethical and moral academic approach: ecocritics are united by the conviction that nature is in peril and that they can effect change by describing the physical environment’s role in art. In the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader (University of Georgia Press, 1996), an anthology that helped define the young field, editor Cheryll Glotfelty, an English professor at the University of Nevada–Reno, calls upon scholars to contribute to a new type of “literary studies in an age of environmental crisis.”

Just as questions of gender and race “were brought to the foreground of literary criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, for very appropriate and justified reasons, ecocritics now argue that the earth needs to be in that discussion,” Sweeting says. “We want to understand how the physical environment — which can include urban settings as well as the natural world — is fundamental to the human experience, how it situates us politically, socially, and emotionally. We believe that if you read an author carefully, the environment becomes an integral part of the narrative and that you can see how it shapes characters and their actions.”

Sweeting, whose reputation in ecocriticism was established with his 1996 book Reading Houses and Building Books: Andrew Jackson Downing and the Architecture of Popular Antebellum Literature, 1835–1855, says he was inspired to write Beneath the Second Sun upon discovering that the modern concept of Indian summer largely was invented by 19th-century American authors. And poring over Dickinson’s early poems and contemporaneous Massachusetts weather records, he realized that the poet had had plenty of help from Mother Nature in fleshing out the concept — in the autumn of 1859, the year she devoted herself seriously to writing, the November sun shone down hazily on New England’s brightly colored leaves for several days, causing temperatures to spike into the 80s.

Possibly “the most beautiful fall of the entire century” didn’t please Dickinson at all, Sweeting argues in his book, but it provided her with extraordinary inspiration. “She found it a particularly jarring time of year, I think precisely because it was such a sudden and a sharp break in the weather,” Sweeting says. “It sort of underscored the coming of winter for her. And all her poetry, of course, is about sudden emotional breaks, and there are about 20 poems that while never using the term Indian summer, clearly draw on imagery related to what for her was this very off-putting time of year.”

For more information about the ASLE conference or about ecocriticism, visit www.asle.umn.edu or call Adam Sweeting at 358-0299.


25 April 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations