Turning nature into essays
: the epistemological and poetic function of the nature essay

  • Simone Schroder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The topic of this doctoral thesis is the nature essay: a literary form that became widely used in European literature around 1800 and continues to flourish in times of ecological crisis. Blending natural history discourse, essayistic thought patterns, personal anecdotes, and lyrical descriptions, nature essays are hybrid literary texts. Their authors have often been writers with a background in science. As interdis-cursive agents they move swiftly between different knowledge formations. This equips them with a unique potential in the context of ecology. Essayistic narrators can grasp the interdisciplinary character of environmental issues because they have the ability to combine different types of knowledge. They can be encyclopae¬dic fact mongers, metaphysical ramblers and ethical counsellors. More often than not they are all in one person. Where nature essays were taken into consideration so far they were mostly discussed together with other nature-oriented nonfiction forms under the label ‘nature writing’. This study proposes a different approach in that it insists that the nature essay has to be understood as a literary form in its own right. It explores canonical works of nature writing, such as Thoreau’s Walden, often for the first time as nature essays by discussing them alongside other typical examples of this genre tradition. In order to better understand the discursive impact of this form, I frame my discussion in the context of ecocritical theory. This means that I analyse my corpus of texts with regard to the ways in which writers depict the relationships between human and nonhuman spheres. Putting a particular focus on Germanic and An-glophone literature, the present thesis investigates central paradigms in the evolu-tion of nature essay writing. It covers a time period that stretches from its roots in late eighteenth-century natural history discourse to the present, identifying key epistemological, formal, and thematic patterns of this literary form the importance of which so far has been rather neglected by literary criticism.
Date of Award26 Apr 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorAxel Goodbody (Supervisor), Nina Parish (Supervisor) & Richard Kerridge (Supervisor)


  • ecocriticism
  • Comparative literature
  • Nature writing
  • Essay theory

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