Book Review

Glacial Prose


Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier

In the insular world of academic publishing, the golden number is five thousand. Sell 5,000 copies of a book, and you’ve succeeded in covering costs while helping along a scholarly career. Selling 5,000 copies of any title isn’t terribly difficult. If you can convince a notable scholar to do a plug, Library Journal will write a capsule review and, bingo, a couple of thousand research libraries will pick up the book as a matter of course. The writer can help out her own cause by assigning the book to a few big survey courses, guaranteeing another thousand or so sales. Throw in the obligatory purchases by specialists in the field, the author’s extended family and friends, and book-obsessed grad students and you’ve hit the 5,000 benchmark faster than the now tenured author can spend her $23 royalty check.

It’s not a system that necessarily encourages great books. Instead, it’s more of a mutual back-scratching arrangement that accepts low paychecks in exchange for secure careers in the exciting world of ideas. Poorly edited, sloppily packaged, and overpriced academic monographs regularly roll off the ivied presses under the assumption (often correct) that nobody is going to read them. For sure, the process has its merits. It does, for example, provide a much-needed refuge for intellectuals, and it allows dry-as-dust but important ideas to find their way into print and make “a contribution” to the field. The problem with this, though, is that every now and then a truly original book–a book that should do more than make a mere contribution to knowledge–fails to bubble up from academe into the popular media, getting diluted by the system’s relentless pursuit of mediocrity.

Susan Kollin’s Nature’s State is such a book. Kollin, an English professor at the University of Montana, puts forth a fascinating and wonderfully counterintuitive argument. In a nutshell, she discovers the origin of American environmentalism in the context of nineteenth-century imperialism. Alaska serves her point well, for it was there that American writers turned to articulate the myth of an unspoiled, completely natural America. This articulation came at a critical cultural moment, as the frontier that had supposedly been renewing the American spirit for over a hundred years was coming to an end. Authors from Jack London to John Muir created both the language and intellectual foundation for modern environmentalism as they portrayed Alaska as an isolated, untarnished wilderness standing in stark contrast to the lower 48. Through their literary efforts to create what amounted to an environmental safety valve for a rapidly industrializing nation, frontier writers contributed to the ongoing, imperialistic project of American nation building. It’s a great argument, primarily because it implicates the tree huggers alongside the loggers, and thus forces liberals to rethink one of their most fundamental assumptions: that nature can and should remain “unspoiled.” Kollin, in essence, forces those of us who want to see the wild, wild world left “pure” to seek sounder justifications for our earnest environmental sentiments.

At the risk of sounding immodest, the above paragraph offers a far more coherent synopsis than anything Kollin herself provides. Nature’s State might present a brilliant thesis, but Kollin’s execution of it is so painfully set in a tired post-structuralist framework that she ultimately undermines her own argument. If the contemporary environmental movement ever needed a coherent reassessment of its fragmented mission, it would be now. Kollin’s ideas certainly have the potential to boost such a project, but chances are that nobody except loyal Texas Observer readers (God bless you all) and a few academics will ever hear of this book. The perfectly legitimate charges that Kollin levels at land preservationists and nature conservationists will thus go unanswered, and the dialogue that might otherwise have strengthened current environmentalist objectives will never take place. No Charlie Rose appearances for Kollin. The Times’ reviewers never touched this book, nor did Salon, The Nation, Slate, The New Republic, or any other media outlet catering to the opinion-making classes. Why?

The question brings us to the confluence of academic publishing and post-structural analysis. Why will this fine argument go unheard? Mainly, language. Post-structuralist thinkers and their editors at academic presses too often nurture hackneyed jargon that could not be more alienating to the non-specialist. Remember: only 5,000. In an absolutely interminable introduction, Kollin reveals herself to be complicit in this silly verbal racket. Land isn’t explored by American writers, it’s “mapped” and “unmapped.” People don’t have conversations, but “discourses.” Scholars don’t analyze a theme, they “decode” or “encode” it. Writers don’t write narratives, they “construct tropes.” One does not make reference to a place or idea, they “foreground” it. (It’s perhaps her most annoying tic; Kollin uses some form of “foreground” no less than six times in the intro alone, and a couple of dozen times throughout the book.) Sentences too often grate rather than flow. Here’s how she encapsulates her argument: “Nature’s State examines how ideas about the environment shape texts about Alaska, and at the same time help constitute Alaska as a text in its own right.” It’s enough to make your head spin. Must we really think about Alaska as a text–whatever that means–in order to grasp Kollin’s critique of environmentalism? Certainly, there are better words that one could use to convey these important ideas.

What’s especially frustrating about Kollin’s stilted prose is that it often breaks free and undergoes a sudden transformation, becoming at once vibrant and mellifluous. It’s as if the author stepped out of the seminar room to confront a national audience of intelligent non-specialists and began speaking plain old English. When this happens, her analysis moves ahead with exciting insights. Consider the conclusion to her chapter “Border Fictions”:

In the stories and novels by early-twentieth-century frontier writers, the project of claiming new territory through Alaska helps recast expansion as an environmental act. The geographical oversights and the language of ecology that enable these authors to claim foreign land as U.S. terrain operate as part of a larger tendency among writers south of the border to blur, erase, or otherwise dismantle national boundaries…This use of environmental rhetoric becomes a way of greenwashing expansion.

OK, so it’s not John McPhee, but it’s at least refreshingly free of the awkward academic verbiage that, on the whole, makes this book something that one must endure rather than enjoy.

Another trendy academic convention that Kollin unfortunately follows is the decision to exclusively highlight gender as an exclusive analytical category, rather than including it as one element in a more complex matrix of historical development. Instead of placing the frontier writers Margaret Murie and Lois Crisler alongside John Muir and Jack London, Kollin shunts them into a separate chapter, explaining that they worked “to carve out a space where white women could claim their own adventures.” Like the male frontier writers, these women, we learn, “played a crucial role in drawing Alaska into the nation’s imagined community.” They too “contributed to the myth of Alaska.” They too “didn’t concern themselves with the fate of the region’s indigenous populations.” They too were complicit in a kind of environmental imperialism. In other words, they didn’t do anything essentially different from their male colleagues. All of which leaves Kollin to conclude that “not all women have been regarded as appropriate green housekeepers in the history of U.S. environmentalism.” Hey, just like the boys! Such a deflated, intellectually vapid assessment obscures the sad fact that, in the trenches of academic publishing, gender is perhaps the finest ammunition. And when you can load it up with something as cutting edge as “environmental history,” you’re able to coin a buzzword that will make academics wiggle with glee: “ecofeminist.” Five thousand will be a piece of cake.

Finally, why, according to academic conventions, does everything have to be “constructed”? To be sure, there’s great merit in this popular tool of cultural analysis. For the past 20 or so years, for example, scholars have done amazing things with the construction of race and gender to expose the historical fallacies of these seemingly natural categories. Does Kollin go too far in applying the same tool to nature? “I use the term wilderness,” she writes, “to speak of a socially constructed space that says more about the making of a Euro-American self than it does about any actual geographical landscape.” Call me a simple soul, but when London, on the banks of the Yukon, recalls, “on every hand stretched the forest primeval,” and describes “unknown trails and chartless wildernesses,” I tend to buy his view of geographical reality for what it was: an opinion that, compared to the lower 48, this place was pretty raw. While it’s important to recognize that natives viewed the Yukon much differently (something Kollin doesn’t elaborate until the last chapter), I’m not so sure that conceptualizing Alaska as a “shifting signifier” really helps us do that. Again, not to be a simpleton, but I too read Into the Wild–and, well, that place was pretty wild. Maybe, in other words, we need to see London as more than “a Euro-American self” and recognize that even white guys on the frontier negotiate a variety of perspectives.

These criticisms, it must be noted, apply not just to Nature’s State, but to literally thousands of titles that have dropped off academic presses over the past 10 years. The goofy jargon, the premise that the whole wide world is a vast “text,” the fetishization of “social construction,” the exclusive attention to gender–all conspire to encode a constructed discourse that perpetuates the hegemony of sordid academic tropes that serve to exclude the Other–a disenfranchised entity known as clean prose. Or something like that. Really, though, the fact that Kollin’s book indulges in such conventional academic habits is especially frustrating because her argument has such fine potential. So, despite its many faults, you wouldn’t be wasting your time if you slogged through this deceptively short book. Might I suggest, though, for a more artful presentation of Kollin’s well-chosen themes, that you pick up a stack of James McMurtry CDs, kick back, crack a cold one, close your eyes, and just listen to his language. It’d be worth the few extra bucks, and McMurtry, I can assure you, never uses the word “foreground.”

James McWilliams lives in Austin, where he awaits the next Great Paradigm Shift.