Ecocriticism is broadly committed to making the category of nature as central to the humanities as class, race and gender are at present. Specifically, it addresses the representation of nature in literary texts, and raises questions about the relationship between the human word and the non-human world. As usual, the United States is in the lead here; and all credit must go to academic pioneers such as Cheryll Glotfelty, Lawrence Buell and Robert Pogue Harrison. However, the time has come to celebrate and consolidate developments this side of the Atlantic.
When did ecocriticism begin in the United Kingdom? Obvious answers might be: in Ruskin’s Modern Painters; in 1884, with William Morris’s lecture, ‘Art and Socialism’; in 1973, with Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City; or in 1991, with Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology. We might put things in perspective by saying that, if this last publication seemed at first to be a modest revaluation of the tradition which the others formed, it was decisive in its challenge to the current critical orthodoxy. Above all, it courageously repudiated the ‘grey’ theoretical presumption that ‘There is no such thing as nature.’ Bate put the issue of mimesis back on the academic agenda in the UK. But he did more than that. He explicitly advocated a new kind of commitment: ‘green’ rather than ‘red’ – the latter seeming to him to have become (despite the efforts of Morris) indistinguishable from ‘grey’. Thus, with the new mimesis came a new pragmatics.
However, few would now deny – and Bate was certainly not one of those then wishing to do so – that much of the pioneering scholarship had been done by Williams in the book already mentioned. At first a left Leavisite, and later, by way of his engagement with Marxism, a practitioner of ‘cultural materialism’, he will surely continue to be honoured by all ecocritics as the most articulate spokesperson for ‘socialist ecology’ in the later twentieth century. Williams, it may be said, made the ‘red’ and the ‘green’ still seem compatible. In turn, Williams’s achievement is unthinkable without that of Morris, the effective founder of that movement. And then, we cannot mention Morris, the romantic revolutionary, without recalling the moral repudiation of industrial capitalism made by his mentor Ruskin, who was in turn inspired by Wordsworth himself. Which, of course, only brings us back to Bate, whose canon includes all three of those last names. In his new book, The Song of the Earth (just published), he extends and revises that tradition, just as he reconsiders the nature of mimesis / the mimesis of nature (the emphasis being not so much on representation as revelation).
But to answer our initial question more specifically: though the UK ‘green’ legacy is as rich as that of the US, and though there are key figures and books to be celebrated, the ‘official’ confirmation of a native ecocriticism came with Richard Kerridge and Greg Garrard’s ‘Culture and Environmentalism’ conference, held at Bath Spa University College in July 1998. This brought British academics together (along with longstanding contacts from across both the Atlantic and the Channel) to debate the relationship between ecology and politics, country and city, environment and society, nature and culture, and to celebrate the literature that had negotiated, and was still negotiating, those boundaries. To be more specific still: the first business meeting of the UK branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, organised by Terry Gifford, was held at Bretton Hall College on Saturday 25 September 1999. There it was agreed that the association should have its own publication. Green Letters is the result.