Environmental Humanities seminar. “American Literature and a Planet on Fire” by John Levi Barnard

Posted on September 29, 2021

29 September 2021 - 17 h 00 min - 18 h 30 min

Environmental Humanities seminar

John Levi Barnard will give a paper entitled “American Literature and a Planet on Fire.”

This talk takes Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire”—about a lone prospector who freezes to death during the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s—as a starting point for the elaboration of an ecocritical method, one that concerns itself less with impacts on particular environments and more with the quotidian things and habits of consumption that generate those impacts in the first place. Moving outward from London’s story to an array of texts and films from across the long twentieth century, I focus on consumable commodities like meat, tobacco, and petroleum, tracing them back to their points of origin—not only through space to distant sites of industrial production, but through time to the longer colonial histories from which American industrialization emerged—as a way of drawing out what Lawrence Buell has called the “environmental unconscious” of these various works and of modern American culture more broadly. In the case of “To Build a Fire,” such attention to what might seem like evocative but extraneous things can help us apprehend the story’s indebtedness not only to the gold rush as historical event, but also to the systems of industrial production and colonial expropriation that made the rush possible in the first place. By attending to both the colonizing nature of the rush and the industrial systems that enabled it, we can see London’s story as a powerful encapsulation of capitalism’s unfolding, over the course of centuries, through the entire “web of life.” In concluding, I argue that this sort of ecocritical reading need not be limited to any canon of environmentally-focused narratives; to the contrary, I make the case that all narratives (and other forms of literary and cultural production) are susceptible to this kind of environmental analysis. 

John Levi Barnard is Assistant Professor of Comparative and World Literature and affiliate faculty with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture (Oxford, 2018), which received honorable mention for the MLA William Sanders Scarborough Prize for outstanding work in African American literary and cultural studies, and his articles have appeared in American LiteratureAmerican Quarterly, and PMLA. His work in the environmental humanities has been awarded the 2016 Annette Kolodny Prize from the Environment and Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association, the Norman Foerster Prize for best essay in the journal American Literature for 2017, and a research fellowship from the National Humanities Center (2020). His current book project traces the interrelated histories of US empire, animal food systems, and mass extinction.