Sowards on Dorman, 'A Word for Nature: Four Pioneering Environmental Advocates, 1845-1913'

Robert L. Dorman
Adam M. Sowards

Robert L. Dorman. A Word for Nature: Four Pioneering Environmental Advocates, 1845-1913. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xvi + 256 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4699-5; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2396-5.

Reviewed by Adam M. Sowards (Department of History, Arizona State University) Published on H-SHGAPE (April, 1999)

Lessons in History and Nature

Searching the fountainhead of a given movement promises to reveal important hopes and fears, tensions and ambiguities, successes and failures. This study of four nineteenth-century environmental intellectuals successfully unveils their various personal and political circumstances and unravels their legacies and lessons. Early conservationists formed their ideas within multiple cultural, religious, scientific, economic, and political contexts, making the question of origins complex but central to scholars interested in locating continuity and change between early and latter-day environmental thinkers. Robert L. Dorman's recent effort investigates the lives of four important environmentalists--George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), John Muir (1838-1914), and John Wesley Powell (1834-1902).

Dorman's account combines biography, cultural history, and literary analysis to consider the various nineteenth-century contexts in which each of these individuals formed and expressed their notions about proper human-nature relationships. He finds that Marsh and Thoreau engaged primarily in intellectual pursuits to determine what nature is and how humans might best relate to it using neo-Whiggish and Romantic ideas, respectively. Muir and Powell, in contrast, worked to institutionalize a conservationist ethic in government bureaucracies during the Gilded Age and Progressive era. Dorman structures his book around profiles for each character and concludes with what he sees as a central lesson each figure left for future debates over environmentalism.

Dorman argues that Marsh revised his father's Whig political economy after recognizing that the legacy of centuries of human occupation in New England was a degraded landscape. New Englanders worked against, not with, nature's processes. These lessons of incongruity were reinforced when Marsh served as a diplomat in the Mediterranean region, where the ancient geography was so thoroughly humanized. In his magisterial work, Man and Nature, or the Earth as Modified by Human Action (1864), Marsh argued for a "restoration of nature's harmonies through the agency of human cultivation (p. 31)." He concluded that statist intervention, as done in Europe, would be unacceptable in the United States, so in a neo-Whiggish turn, Marsh hoped for the emergence of an "enlightened self-interest" in which everyone would tend their own land as a "co-worker of nature."

If Marsh rooted his ideas in political economy and wide observation, Thoreau preferred a detached philosophical approach in his beloved Concord, Massachusetts. The outward circumstances of Thoreau's early life in Concord resembled Marsh's Vermont, but Thoreau's inward influences were Transcendentalism, America's version of Romanticism. In Thoreau, this intellectual temper, as Dorman explains it, encouraged people to integrate their personal experiences with the world and then express those ideas. Thoreau learned to find freedom and the wild in everyday, cultivated landscapes such as near Concord. So one might experience the wild in forbidding places such as in the largely uninhabited Maine Woods or one might locate, through personal reflection, the essence of the wild in cultivated places. Dorman maintains that Thoreau teaches modern Americans to maintain a balance of wild and rural landscapes, as well as one's philosophical outlook, to counter the megalopolis.

Although Muir often is depicted as a latter-day Transcendentalist who extended the lessons Thoreau propounded, Dorman correctly qualifies this interpretation. As Dorman points out, Muir believed that humans were "sinful, prideful, and fallen," quite unlike Transcendentalists, who believed that there was divine potential in all individuals (p. 118). For Muir, God was evident in the wilderness, and within nature humans might be made to learn proper Christian humility. In his numerous popular writings that worked to publicize and institutionalize wilderness, such as The Mountains of California (1894), Muir transformed nature from something dangerous and forbidding into something pleasant and safe for middle-class consumption. If Victorian and Progressive Americans would embrace God in nature, they might be redeemed and in the process wilderness would be saved. Dorman indicates that using this argument of innate sinfulness in a country shifting perceptibly to the religious right might protect environmental values today (p. 221).

Dorman turns finally and with approval to Powell. After his numerous private- and government-sponsored expeditions in the West, Powell emerged as a national figure advocating regional planning. This idea, made most popular by his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), argued that land ought to be divided according to watersheds, and the human economy that developed in any given region should follow nature's economy--an idea reminiscent of Marsh's "co-worker." For the American West that meant the federal government must reform land laws and encourage a more communitarian settlement pattern and economy. In pushing his plans from his position as the founder and Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Powell faced the Gilded Age political system at every turn and proved incapable of achieving his goals. Still, Dorman and others laud Powell's vision and efforts for long-term regional planning.[1]

The central problem with this study is an uncertain competition between various forms and themes. It is unclear whether A Word for Nature hopes to be four short biographies, a study of the evolution of environmental thinking, or a meditation on the context in which several environmentalists emerged. Symptomatic of this problem is the unsettled structure. According to the title the beginning date of this study, 1845, corresponds to the date Thoreau began his sojourn at Walden Pond, but Marsh is the first character discussed. Muir also precedes Powell, although the ending date, 1913, refers to the failed attempt to prevent the Hetch Hetchy valley from being dammed. Dorman succeeds well in placing Muir in the Progressive era, but he then backtracks to contextualize Powell within the Gilded Age. The apparent reason for this disjunction seems to be Dorman's preference for Powell's brand of regional planning. Thus, while one of the book's strength's is placing the individuals within a context, the overall structure of the volume undermines his efforts to clarify the nature and development of that context. One might approach this book with high expectations, for the characters in A Word for Nature remain central to early American environmental thinking. Unfortunately, it breaks little new ground and largely reiterates, in somewhat different terms, material already familiar to environmental historians or historians of the 19th century. The monograph has some utility for classroom use, for it is relatively short, has broad coverage, details an important topic, and uses engaging figures. It may prove somewhat difficult, however, for students who have a limited familiarity with these subjects, since the book sometimes presumes a fairly detailed knowledge of certain subjects. Those who have not read Walden or The Mountains of California, for instance, may feel lost in the wilderness without a guide.

Dorman is, perhaps, more successful in reaching another audience. As environmental questions continue to be part of political, cultural, and historical debates, it remains imperative that the participants in such discussions understand the past. A Word for Nature offers a strong reminder of that and provides provocative historical lessons from famous American thinkers.


[1]. Dorman's interest in and preference for regional planning can be found in his first book, The Revolt of the Provinces: The Regionalist Movement in America, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). For other favorable accounts of Powell, see Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1953; New York: Penguin Books, 1992); and Donald Worster, An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 1-30.

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