EARLY ANTHROPOCENE LITERATURE IN BRITAIN, 1750-1884 by Seth H. Reno, Reviewed by Scott Hess
 


EARLY ANTHROPOCENE LITERATURE IN BRITAIN, 1750-1884
By Seth H. Reno
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) xvi + 246 pp.
Reviewed by Scott Hess on 2020-12-19.

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The Anthropocene today is everywhere. It began, according to Seth Reno, in mid-eighteenth-century Britain, as "scientists, poets, and artists collaborated in documenting and articulating a new geological epoch" in which humans had become "a geophysical force of nature" (2). The combination of the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the expansion of global imperial capitalism transformed British environments and society. In response to such changes, Reno argues, "beginning around 1750, British literature registers an early Anthropocene" (7). Writers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may not have been aware of humans' full global impact on climate, but they nevertheless registered a new Anthropocenic awareness by depicting massive human-induced changes to land, water, and atmosphere and by "implicitly collapsing human and geological histories" (8). The book's goal, in documenting these developments, is to "[piece] together a literary history of the early Anthropocene" (7).

Reno divides this vast subject matter into four chapters, corresponding to the classical elements of earth, fire, water, and air. Respectively, these chapters focus on geological, industrial, hydrological, and atmospheric discourses in science, literature, and to a lesser extent the visual arts. For this chapter division Reno takes his cue from Erasmus Darwin's "highly popular scientific poem The Botanic Garden (1791)" (8), which begins with four cantos dedicated to each of the four classical elements and which is cited in three of the book's four main chapters. Ranging from the middle of the eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth and sometimes beyond, each of the book's main chapters takes a roughly chronological approach to its main theme. The Epilogue then links early Anthropocene writing to the twentieth century and modernism.

The book joins a recent outpouring of scholarship on the emergence of Anthropocenic awareness and the close dialogue between literature and science during this period. Such studies, which Reno acknowledges, include Jesse Oak Taylor's The Sky of Our Manufacture (2016), Taylor and Tobias Menely's edited collection Anthropocene Reading (2017), Thomas Ford's Wordsworth and the Poetics of Air (2018), and Noah Heringman's Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology (2004) and Sciences of Antiquity (2013), among many others. While Reno sometimes engages such scholarship, he focuses mainly on primary rather than secondary literature and on specific responses to the Anthropocene rather than an overall theorization of it. By contrast, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz's Shock of the Anthropocene (2015) theorizes the concept of the Anthropocene and the early science of human global impacts much more extensively. Instead of such theorization, Reno surveys the history of various literary and to a less extent artistic responses to environmental change in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, in the context of broad developments in geologic, astronomical, volcanic, hydrological, and atmospheric science. Overall, Reno argues, the literature of the period reveals an incipient awareness of the Anthropocene by collapsing boundaries between human activity and natural systems. The book makes this argument with exemplary concision and clarity, refreshing to find in scholarly prose.

Reno comments directly on two of the book's limitations, its tendency to engage the same sources repeatedly in multiple chapters and its almost exclusive focus on British authors. Defending the latter choice, Reno argues that Britain was "the cradle of the Anthropocene, for it is in eighteenth-century Britain that the capitalist, imperialist, fossil economy emerges, along with the kind of mechanized industrialization that shapes most of the world today. Britain is unique in this sense, as befits the nation where the Industrial Revolution began" (8). This is a somewhat persuasive point, especially since a book of this length cannot hope to survey the vast scope of global literature. The narrowly nationalist focus of the book, however, cannot fully register the global scale of the Anthropocene or support Reno's claims for the development of new global awareness during the period. This difficulty exemplifies the limitations of literary periodicity, as currently defined in narrowly nationalist traditions, to grapple with the inherently transnational scope of the Anthropocene. Besides restricting itself almost entirely to British writers, the book largely highlights writings about Britain (and mainly England) rather than about other parts of the British empire. Given its claims for the importance of British imperialism in fostering global systems awareness, the book could have engaged more with writings from other parts of the world. As a contrasting example, Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (2014) offers a much more global and multi-disciplinary approach to the emergence of Anthropocenic awareness in the period.

Reno also tends to understate the transnational and often global scope of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science. While paying due attention to the Comte de Buffon, he treats few other non-British scientists at any length. The massive impact on British writers of Alexander von Humboldt and his global travels, for example, seems crucial to the book's subject matter, but Humboldt is mentioned only in passing in a single sentence.

To be fair, the narrow focus on British scientists, writers, and artists is perhaps necessitated by the scope of the book, whose four chapters could each be readily expanded into a separate volume. The book does engage with a broad range of British writers, spanning from canonical authors such as Blake, Byron, the Wordsworths, Dickens, and Tennyson to many more obscure ones. Surveying Anthropocene-related themes in those texts in relation to an overview of contemporaneous scientific, social, and environmental developments, Reno valuably documents the development of Anthropocenic awareness in Britain during his focus period.

Chapter one opens with Ruskin's Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), another keynote text for the book that appears in multiple chapters. Reno claims that Ruskin's identification of a "new kind of atmosphere shaped by industrial pollution, coal smoke, and erratic weather patterns, culminated over one hundred years of climate writing stretching back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution" (1-2). According to Reno, "scientists, poets, and artists collaborated in documenting and articulating a new geological epoch" as "they depicted humanity as a geophysical force of nature" (2). This new awareness, Reno writes, dates from around 1750, the start of what he calls the "Romantic Century" and the date he proposes for the beginning of the Anthropocene. Starting around this time, Reno claims, writers and scientists ushered in a new "conception of Earth as a global system where all nations and ecologies are deeply connected," a recognition that emerged from "the confluence of colonialism, exploration, and the second scientific revolution" (11). This new global awareness is exemplified by Samuel Dunn's 1794 General Map of the World, or Terraqueous Globe with all the New Discoveries and Particulars in the Solar, Starry and Mundane System, frequently reprinted in atlases throughout the nineteenth century.

The chapter also reviews late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century developments in geology and astronomy that generated a newly sublime sense of both "deep space" and "deep time" expressed by writers such as Erasmus Darwin, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. These authors also responded to major changes in agricultural and industrial landscapes. Increasingly recognizing the human capacity to alter nature not only locally but also globally, they began to "imagine the Industrial Revolution as the start of a new geological epoch" (47). Chapter 1 concludes by surveying advances in meteorology and climatology that demonstrated how "industrialization was modifying Britain's terrestrial and atmospheric environments" (52).

Focusing specifically on the Industrial Revolution, Chapter 2 examines the widespread use of geologic and volcanic imagery to "depict industrialization and its effects as a geological force of nature" (76). Often combined with references to classical mythology, these volcanic tropes for industry were at first mainly positive, linking smoke and fire with the production of wealth and the dynamic capacity to "improve" environments. Later in the nineteenth century, however, anti-industrial writers often used hellishly volcanic imagery to represent industrial pollution and the destructive effects of capitalism. A series of major volcanic eruptions, including Laki in 1783, Tambora in 1815, and Krakatoa in 1883, demonstrably altered global climate and reinforced these associations between volcanoes and industry. Writers linked the Krakatoa eruption especially to industrial emissions, signaling new awareness that "the atmospheric effects of industrialization now had global implications" (105).

Turning from volcanoes to water, chapter 3 shows how human activities affected British waterways, especially the Thames and the Tyne. "The literature of rivers and canals," Reno argues, "capture[d] deep-seated anxieties about dramatic environmental change: fears of water access and pollution, of losing one's home, and of existential threats to Britain itself" (124). Such writings registered the effects of industrialization, global trade, and colonialism in generating "the human experience of living in a new geological epoch" (124). Distressed by the transformation of lakes as well as rivers, writers such as William Wordsworth and William Gilpin sought to preserve these bodies of water for both aesthetic beauty and ecosystemic health. Waterways could signal either the degradation or restoration of social and environmental systems. Later in the nineteenth century, Richard Jeffries's After London (1885) imagined the Thames as a polluted emblem of the lapse into barbarism, while William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) envisioned it as a beacon of social and ecological renewal.

Foregrounding industrial fire, smoke, and other forms of atmospheric pollution, chapter 4 explains how such atmospheric effects assumed new cultural meaning as signs of overall human impact on climate. Clouds, for instance, once symbolizing the heavens, were reimagined in the Romantic era as signs of earthly atmosphere, becoming "modes for feeling and thinking about climate" (173). Percy Bysshe Shelley represented clouds as tropes of interconnection between humans and climate, a connection that could lead either to revitalization or disaster. Other Romantic authors, such as Blake, Byron, and Mary Shelley, used disrupted atmospheres to represent a combination of social and ecological disaster, as in Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (1826). By contrast, William and Dorothy Wordsworth tended to represent clouds as signs of hope and ecological awareness, providing "a glimpse into the unfathomable interconnectedness of the planet and the universe" (204). After noting the cloud studies of Turner and Constable, the chapter ends with Dickens's Bleak House (1853) and William Deslile Hay's lesser-known novella, The Doom of the Great City (1880). Both of these texts are said to exemplify the growing "uneasiness, anxiety, and fear associated with anthropogenic climate change" in the second half of the nineteenth century, evoking the "global dread" of the Anthropocene (208-9). Such associations set the stage for Ruskin's Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), which construed altered cloud formations as heralds of the Anthropocene: signs of humans' all-pervasive and degrading impact on the overall atmosphere and environment.

The Epilogue connects this emerging Anthropocenic awareness with the fragmentation, alienation, and sterile polluted environments of much modernist literature. In depecting these conditions, both T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) are said to represent "the chaos and complexity of living in the Anthropocene" (227). A literary history of early Anthropocene writing, Reno argues, reveals significant continuities between nineteenth-century literature and literary modernism.

In documenting the emergence of Anthropocenic awareness from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth, this book offers something valuable: a "glimpse into the origins of contemporary responses to anthropogenic climate change, and to the origins of the Anthropocene concept itself" (235). As Reno states in his opening paragraph, "[t]his is a book about how we got to this point ... Many of the debates and controversies of today surrounding industrialization, pollution, environmentalism, and globalism were already raging then, and while the texts and contexts are different, the root of the problem is the same: how to preserve the planet for future generations when humanity has become a geophysical force of nature" (viii). For those already familiar with recent scholarship on the Anthropocene, this book will not break much new theoretical ground. It does, however, amass a wealth of literary and other cultural evidence across a broad range of Anthropocene-related subjects. In so doing, it convincingly demonstrates the origins of British Anthropocenic awareness from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, when both writers and scientists began to register the impact of humans on global systems and to reconceptualize humanity as itself a geophysical force.

Scott Hess is Professor of English and Environmental Sustainability at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.


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