Professor of English and Environmental Studies and the Benjamin Waite Professor of the English Language William Stowe has only a few weeks left at Wesleyan before he retires. During his time here, he has pursued his interest in the intersection between nature and literature. He has also gained a fondness for his colleagues and students, who gathered on April 18 at Downey House for a scholarly panel organized in his honor.
During the panel, called “Green English: Nature and the Literary Humanities,” Stowe discussed some of his own studies and introduced the three speakers, all of whom teach in the English Department and have engaged in scholarly work connecting literature to the environment. The Argus sat down with Professor Stowe to talk about the classes he has taught here, his plans for retirement, and the field of ecocriticism.
The Argus: So, what’s on your bookshelf?
William Stowe: What’s on my bookshelf is actually right over there—that’s the active stuff. [He points to a table in a corner of his office with a large selection of books on it.] That book, called “Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition” [by Aaron Sachs], is a wonderful new book. He’s a historian, but he’s writing in this new style, so that it’s half personal and half research-based. It’s a memoir; it begins being about a cemetery and about the way that the cemeteries were designed in the early 19th century to be pastoral settings. But then it’s also about his own experiences of death in his family history. So it’s a really interesting new kind of history.
A: So it’s a type of creative nonfiction.
WS: Yes—but published by Yale University Press. It’s first-rank academic publishing, but with this new mode.
A: That ties in with the class you’re teaching this semester, “American Pastoral.” Can you tell me more about that class?
WS: Well, I’ve been teaching it for a long time. It’s about the relationship between literature and the land. Lately, it’s had two focuses: wilderness and farming. So we spend the first half on wilderness, beginning with the arrival of Europeans, and this year we did also a couple of novels by Native Americans, so we’ve got Christopher Columbus, we’ve got Daniel Boone, and then we’ve got native people in the plains and their reaction to the arrival of the Daniel Boone characters…. For farming, we started with Jefferson talking about the nobility of the farmer, and we’re winding up with Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” talking about food. It’s a great book.
A: Has the class developed over time?
WS: I used to try to do too many different topics, so it’s really come down to these two. It’s also one of the research requirement classes for English majors, so everybody [in the class] has to write a research project. For the next two weeks we have presentations, and then they have to hand in a 20- to 25-page paper. It’s also an American Studies course, so the research projects are not necessarily literary. There was a great one called “The Tea Party as Pastoral.” It was about libertarianism and its claim to represent the fundamental family values of American society, and applying pastoral theory to that is really interesting. Someone wrote about nudism as a form of pastoral. [He laughs.] Everything between those two. People have written about film and music and literature, and there was one the last time I taught it, a few years ago, about the High Line in New York, the longitudinal park. So really, all kinds of things.
A: You talked at the Green English panel about ecocriticism. Can you explain a bit more about that field of study?
WS: Well, it’s about 20 years old now as a recognized discipline, and I think it arose from the concern of literary scholars for—well, I think, two things. It started in part as a reaction against postmodern post-structural theory and social constructivism—the notion that the world was made out of words, and that it was created, in a sense, by discourse.
Ecocritics said, no, it’s actually there. There actually is this material world out there, and it’s something we should take seriously. We should not allow it to be usurped by language. It’s about the interplay between language and the physical—the actual. So there was that theoretical foundation, and then there was the political foundation. People were interested in doing work in their fields of literary criticism that had some application, both in teaching and in writing, to what people perceived more and more as a crisis in the natural world.
A: So is this something you have always been interested in?
WS: Yes, although, as I said, it began developing as a group of people talking to each other about 20 years ago. So I’d been interested in environmentalism, but as a separate thing from my own work—I hadn’t put together the idea that they could work together. It was by coincidence that a friend of mine happened to be the president of this new organization—it was only two years old—and speaking to him, I learned about it, and he said, “Why don’t you come to the conference?” I went to the conference and found, “Aha! These are people thinking about things that I’m really interested in beginning to think about.” So I got into it as it was being conceived.
A: What’s it like working in both areas?
WS: It’s wonderful. I think the College of the Environment is a great innovation here. I’ve worked with students in both the “American Pastoral” and “The Environmental Imagination.” “The Environmental Imagination” is a 100-level couse; it’s an FYS course. It’s the only 100-level course that counts towards the environmental studies major, so I get a lot of first semester students who are interested in the College of the Environment. I’ve lately have had students working on their capstone projects in the College of the Environment, and I’ve worked with the faculty on committees and things. I haven’t—because it hasn’t existed for more than a couple of years—been a part of the think tank or the really intensive engagement [with the College of the Environment].
A: How does Wesleyan stand out from the other places you’ve taught?
WS: It stands out because of the originality of the students. The students are what stand out for sure. They’re not driven in the competitive way that the Yale students definitely are; the Princeton students somewhat less. It’s just so striking. To put that in a more positive way, not only a lack of competitiveness, but willingness to work together—to cooperate.
A: It seemed like the Green English panel was a great way for you to say goodbye as you move toward retirement. How did you go about organizing that?
WS: Well, [Professor of English] Sean McCann asked me if there was something I had in mind that I might want to do that was not just a party but something academic. And I had, actually, had it in mind. I thought first about inviting people from outside who work in this field. I sort of made up a list, and then I thought, why don’t we just do it here, so that we’ll have a future, so that it will actually bring people together who don’t necessarily know that they have things in common?
There happened to be four people in the English department working in related areas, one of whom was away at a conference [the day of the panel]. So the three who were here were very generous with their time and agreed to do this, and you saw the outcome—it was really gratifying.
A: Do you see this area of study continuing to be prevalent at Wesleyan?
WS: Absolutely. [Professor of English and African-American Studies] Lois Brown will be teaching African-American Pastoral next year. [Assistant Professor of English] Marguerite Nguyen—I don’t know if it’s next year, but she has in mind a course on American Pastoral that will be not at all the same as mine, but that will be the next version of it. She’s interested in the relation of minorities to the land, particularly Vietnamese and the Vietnamese influx after the war, and how they were first seen as agriculturalists. It’s a really interesting perspective.
A: So you’ve been focusing primarily on the environment through a literary lens during your time here. Are you also interested in environmental activism?
WS: That’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to in the next stage of my life. Two things, really. There’s a local organization called the Connecticut Forest and Park Association that I’ve been interested in, and they’re part of my retirement plans in the sense that instead of having a retirement gift, I’ve asked that donations be made to them.
There are similar organizations where I’m going, in Princeton, New Jersey, which is where my wife lives. So I’m retiring from here to there, and [I’m] looking forward to working with a group that monitors water quality in the watershed of this part of New Jersey that also has a lot of educational programs for kids that I want to work with.
A: That was actually going to be my next question—what you’re planning to do after you leave here.
WS: Well, that, for sure. I’m also going to a program at Rutgers that trains volunteers to help people with gardening. So it’s a master gardener program that’s a year-long course at Rutgers. You do it, you pay for your books, and that’s it. You’re expected to do volunteer work after you’ve learned what you are going to tell people. So I’m going to do that, too. It’ll certainly be a change.