Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing

ffcoverlgIn 1844, Lydia Sigourney asserted, “Man’s warfare on the trees is terrible.” Like Sigourney many American women of her day engaged with such issues as sustainability, resource wars, globalization, voluntary simplicity, Christian ecology, and environmental justice. Illuminating the foundations for contemporary women’s environmental writing, Fallen Forests shows how their nineteenth-century predecessors marshaled powerful affective, ethical, and spiritual resources to chastise, educate, and motivate readers to engage in positive social change.

Fallen Forests contributes to scholarship in American women’s writing, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, and feminist rhetoric, expanding the literary, historical, and theoretical grounds for some of today’s most pressing environmental debates. Karen L. Kilcup rejects prior critical emphases on sentimentalism to show how women writers have drawn on their literary emotional intelligence to raise readers’ consciousness about social and environmental issues. She also critiques ecocriticism’s idealizing tendency, which has elided women’s complicity in agendas that depart from today’s environmental orthodoxies.

Unlike previous ecocritical works, Fallen Forests includes marginalized texts by African American, Native American, Mexican American, working-class, and non-Protestant women. Kilcup also enlarges ecocriticism’s genre foundations, showing how Cherokee oratory, travel writing, slave narrative, diary, polemic, sketches, novels, poetry, and exposé intervene in important environmental debates.


Praise for Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924:

“Beautifully written, meticulously researched, and brilliantly argued, Fallen Forests is a major contribution to ecocriticism and to the study of nineteenth-century American women writers more broadly. Karen Kilcup’s impressive expertise animates this engaging, original analysis of how canonical and noncanonical American women writers’ acts of environmental representation were profoundly shaped by class, as well as by gender and race. A remarkably dexterous and insightful work of ecocritical scholarship.”

–Michael P. Branch, editor of Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden

“Karen Kilcup’s career as a noted scholar of American women’s writings is on full display in this book. Analyzing the works of nineteenth-century women writers from diverse racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, Kilcup illuminates these writers’ complex, often conflicting interactions with the natural world. An invaluable resource for a wide range of students and scholars.”

–Tina Gianquitto, author of “Good Observers of Nature”: American Women and the Scientific Study of the Natural World, 1820-1885

“Unprecedented in its refusal to adhere to narrow understandings of environmental experience, Fallen Forests forges an ambitious reconsideration of environmental writing in the early United States. Kilcup unearths a wide range of women’s early engagement in issues central to environmental justice. She pursues authors’ labor status, physical ability, spiritual affiliation, and geographical location alongside critical historical events, including the early resource wars that accompanied EuroAmerican settlement of western lands, the influence of social standards that propelled the fashion industry and conspicuous consumption, and the complex relation between bodies, cultural beliefs, and geography that informed Native and Mexican American land claims. Welcome and timely, Fallen Forests reveals early America’s engagement with issues that continue to grip the nation’s environmental injustices.”

–Rochelle L. Johnson, author of Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America’s Aesthetics of Alienation

“An ambitious book, Fallen Forests attends to ‘unsettling’ texts, hybrid genres, and ‘taxonomical complexity’ in a way that enlarges the fields of study with which it intersects. Kilcup’s lucid prose is a pleasure to read. . . . The best work in American studies urges scholars in a range of disciplines to conceive of familiar topics—in this case, topics like consumption, embodiment, emotion, agency, gender, and resource wars—in more complex ways. Kilcup’s work does exactly this.”

Journal of American Studies (UK)

“Kilcup’s work of literary criticism is intentionally expansive, aiming to broaden narrow conceptualizations of ‘environmental literature’ and to counteract what she sees as an idealizing tendency in much ecocriticism Encompassing the vast sprawl of the long nineteenth century—temporal, geographic, cultural, and even formal—Kilcup’s study is impressive in its range.”

Women’s Review of Books

“By opening up the study of environmental writing to include nineteenth-century works by women of diverse race, class, and ethnic backgrounds, in genres that include oratory, as-told-to texts, maternal sermons, advice writing, autobiographical novels, a domestic servant’s diary, poetry, and hybrid genres, Kilcup illuminates women’s embodied relationships to the environment and examines how their gendered rhetoric—rhetorica—participated in environmental debates in their time and prepared the ground for a later generation of activist women rhetors working toward reformist goals. . . . Kilcup’s writing is refreshingly clear; her close readings are perceptive and sensitive to context; and the book’s scholarship is impeccable. . . . In addition to its valuable contributions to ecocriticism and feminist rhetoric, Fallen Forests will be a wonderful resource for teachers, introducing understudied texts that, as Kilcup deftly shows, link meaningfully to pressing contemporary issues.”

American Literary Realism

“Through Kilcup’s admirable ‘capacious and flexible’ approach to analyzing women’s rhetoric, she argues for quite radical refigurings of traditional understandings of both sentimental literature and literary ecocriticism. . . . Through its integrative treatments of race, religion, ethnicity, and labor alongside topics such as deforestation, extractive consumption, and environmental justice, Fallen Forests invites readers to recognize that much literary scholarship persists in maintaining an ideological divide between nature and culture, world and society, and universe and meaning. . . . This volume consistently proves itself most valuable . . . not only for its contributions to the continued work of recovering—and understanding the historical context of—nineteenth-century women’s writing, but also for its unbending insistence on a more encompassing conception of the human relationship to nature and environment than the one that dominated scholarship for more than a century.”

Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature

“Kilcup’s authors form intriguing, often-provocative constellations of different perspectives, ideologies, and rhetorical strategies. In effect, Kilcup presents a richly varied portrait of women’s environmental writing as the United States became a continental empire.”

Journal of American History

“In this wide-ranging, deeply insightful book Kilcup both extends and challenges current thinking about American women’s writings about the environment in the long 19th century. . . . Adding to the field of rhetorica, or women’s rhetoric, this book makes a valuable contribution to making ‘audible’ many now-forgotten women’s voices.


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