The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology
Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
© 2011 The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 105–107, Spring 2011
How to Cite
RAILSBACK, B. (2011), The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology. Steinbeck Review, 8: 105–107. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-6087.2011.01143.x
- Issue published online: 14 JUN 2011
- Article first published online: 14 JUN 2011
2007, Universitas Ostraviensis ,
Most often, a book of literary criticism is valuable because it digs deep into the work of an author or an artistic movement and reveals well-proven assertions or stunning analysis. Occasionally, another approach is equally useful for different reasons: the 10,000-foot view that quickly sweeps a lot of ground and raises a variety of useful questions. The latter approach, the one taken by Petr Kopecky in The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology is excellent for students at work in the university library or advanced literature courses and the interested scholar who is launching into a new subject. The shaky thesis of Kopecky's book, that somehow the geography of California naturally inspired an environmental ethos that became deep ecology, doesn't matter so much here; indeed, the author himself concludes the book with some doubt of his thesis: “This section will at last (dis)prove the validity of the very title of this book” (167). What does matter is the author's fine summary of the development of deep ecology in and through the works of John Muir, Mary Hunter Austin, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck, and Gary Snyder. Kopecky also succeeds in clearly positioning deep ecology in the wider field of ecocriticism.
Clarity is the virtue in Kopecky's book, and this is why it is so suitable as an excellent introduction for students and scholars. The author's prose style is remarkably straight forward and the organization, in numbered sections as one might find in a textbook, is precise and perfect for later reference. Chapter 1 presents a quick overview of the state of ecocriticism and the goals of the book (an important one being the extension of Arne Naess's belief that artists and writers have been most influential proponents of deep ecology when they express themselves in art rather than “professional philosophy”[16). The second chapter asserts that the “island” of California, with its unique geology and rich biodiversity, “constitutes a significant and unique literary region”; of course, other regions in the United States—Appalachia, for example—could make similar claims in regard to environmental literature or even deep ecology (35). Chapter 3 presents the useful but at times maddeningly brief and simplistic “bio(geo)graphies” of the five writers; the section on Mary Hunter Austin in particular is of interest while the section on John Steinbeck is too succinct (perhaps because the author assumes he is already well known). Chapter 4, “The Platform of Deep Ecology and its Literary Foundations,” is a very useful and interesting examination of deep ecology through the lens of the five authors under study. This discussion is richly continued in the most thorough chapter of the book, “The Common Ground: Ingredients of Deep Ecological Writing.” Chapter 6, perhaps the thinnest one of the book, briefly discusses the interrelations and possible influences among the five authors and attempts to “elucidate the role each of the writers played in the formation and formulation of a philosophy supportive of the deep ecology movement” (163). In the book's conclusion, Kopecky ties his arguments together well and makes a statement worth remembering and exploring:
Of primary importance for the ecocentric perspective of the authors was their willingness and ability to adopt and creatively adapt the latest scientific findings and the wisdom of ancient and non-Western cultures. As a result, they moved away from the somewhat simplified and subjective treatment of the relationship between humans and nature as it had been practiced by English Romantics and American Transcendentalists. (178)
Like a great essay in Resources for American Literary Study (RALS), The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology creates a thoughtful context that raises excellent questions—many of them worthy of much more exploration than Kopecky could afford in his book. If California is one place in the world that has been a kind of crucible for ecocritical writing and art, where are the others? Does Kopecky's assertion of the importance of geology for the development of writers in the deep ecology band work? What role do the other sciences play for particular authors in the ecocritical movement? Why, even in ecocritical studies, do Mary Hunter Austin, Robinson Jeffers, and John Steinbeck continue to be marginalized? Was Steinbeck as influenced by Robinson Jeffers as Kopecky asserts? In the framework of deep ecology that Kopecky has so well-constructed, who are other authors under the influence of California that we might include?
This book raises more questions than it answers, but only because its scope is so wide and its pages too few. Petr Kopecky has created an excellent jumping-off point for the thoughtful reader, student, or scholar. He gives us the 10,000-foot view and invites us to dive down to ground level. Before reading Kopecky's book, I don't believe I have encountered a work of literary criticism that I thought was too spare or where I wanted more pages. Given what Petr Kopecky attempts, the importance of his subject, the clarity of his purpose, and the abundance of questions he raises, The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology is a fine read that certainly belongs in university libraries and would be especially useful in advanced undergraduate or in graduate courses devoted to ecocriticism or California writers.