About the Course

TalbotOakTreeInWinterHenry Fox Talbot, “Oak Tree in Winter,” Calotype (R) and negative (L); 1842-3; British Library.

About the course:

Since the Greeks, tragic form has given shape to stories of irreversible and unwilled catastrophe. Starting in the Victorian era, the term ecology began to name intricate systemic interactions from which no single phenomena could be extracted without loss. With tragedy and ecology as its coordinating principles, this course in environmental humanities takes the now-irreversible climate catastrophe of our late carbon era as the starting point for surveying the literary history of disaster. How have literary writers of the fossil fuel era imagined system-wide failures, “natural” cataclysms, and calamities that seem to exceed the power of any single individual to alter them? Amid early and more recent premonitions of the world’s end, might literature offer models not just for writing the disaster –but also for thinking beyond it? And could attention to the longer history of our present moment –extending our sense of the contemporary– help us find in the jumbled relics of past thought a resource for action now?

This course will focus primarily on British literature from the Age of Coal, circa 1800 to the present. The work to be considered will be “tragic” only in the broadest sense: we’ll start with theories of that form from Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others, but spin off to survey a variety of genres, modes, and media platforms. We’ll examine pseudo-scientific treatises and geological catalogues of “deep time”; look at poetry, verse drama, film, and the novel. We’ll move from unstaged Romantic plays about utopia to Victorian pastoral elegies, shipwreck poems, and triple-deckers about interconnection; from tiny, handmade books to video games that generate endlessly variable new worlds. Throughout, we will work to see nineteenth century thinking as a resource for engaging the present.