Literary ecology and the fiction of American postmodernism

Coughran, Christopher John (2005). Literary ecology and the fiction of American postmodernism PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Coughran, Christopher John
Thesis Title Literary ecology and the fiction of American postmodernism
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2005
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Ruth M. Blair
Total pages 259
Collection year 2005
Language eng
Subjects L
420203 North American
751001 Languages and literature
Formatted abstract

The topic of this thesis is pastoral representation in American fiction of the late twentieth century. The thesis explores the ideological and ethical implications of the ambiguous imperative "to grow" (one of the root meanings of our word "nature") as evidenced by a select corpus of works that includes novels by Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Gilbert Sorrentino, Don DeLillo, and, especially, Thomas Pynchon. The argument is that Pynchon's novels afford evidence of an extensive reworking, troping, or "turning over" of the pastoral tradition in America. In particular, Pynchon's writing connects discourses of postmodernism and ecology (among others) in ways that draw critical attention to America's pastoral and other inheritances.


The novels explored in the thesis illuminate Frederick Karl's observation of post-WWII American fiction generally, that "the awareness of the loss of Eden, or the wasting of it, and the compulsive need to regain even the sense of it lead to terrible conflicts in American thinking and particular narrative forms" (7). The turning over of the idea of America as "nature's nation" yields strange fruit: bittersweet ambiguities, environmental tocsins and self-reflexive jeremiads, "fables of subversion" (Weisenburger) and cautionary tales of co-optation. Gravity's Rainbow, for example, is at once both an experimental and a traditional fiction, and as such serves as a brilliant metonym for the scripted performance of a national culture marked by internal contradictions. The writing of America, Geoff Ward observes, is "massively inclusive, but dissident and adversarial; obsessive, full of violence, yet pearled with nostalgia and sentiment; addicted to the new, but condemned to repetition; a mirror for its own culture of self-replication, but hybrid by nature; Paradise, but Paradise™”(9). Many of the novels explored during the course of this thesis crisscross this spectrum of possibilities. In virtually every case, it would seem that no matter how intense or insightful the American novelist's gaze, and for all their satire, the "paradoxes of pastoral-worship" generate a fiction and forms of narrative subjectivity which remain both schizophrenic and, to a surprising extent, "loyally American" (Karl48).


Both the suburban lawn and the wilderness preserve attest to the sociological and ecological ramifications of the Arcadian fantasy in America. Other examples, pivotal to the present study, include the US space program and the tangential "Biosphere 2" experiment. The thesis offers readings of such extra-literary "pastorals" in order to demonstrate that discourses of “postmodernism" and "ecology" are not intrinsically antithetical (as partisans from either camp are wont to suggest), but that on the contrary, postmodernism and ecology converge in an emergent discourse of "the new American garden''-with unsettling social and ecological implications.


Pastoral, this thesis maintains, is not of merely academic interest; neither can the extent of its significations be restricted to a carefully circumscribed literary audience. Nevertheless, an extant discourse of the American garden returns us, properly, to the domain of language, with a view to its inherent polysemy; and to the fictional writing of America, with its panoply of voices attesting to immanent complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy. The thesis aims to demonstrate how, in the face of existential dangers posed by a late-modern "risk society," the pastoral form continues to thrive, mutate and adapt.

Keyword Pastoral literature, American
Postmodernism (Literature) -- United States

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar
Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:41:14 EST