Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2017

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 08/31/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Rigal, Laura

Second Advisor

Adams, Bluford

First Committee Member

Eckstein, Barbara

Second Committee Member

Diffley, Kathleen

Third Committee Member

Kinsey, Joni


Nature is always cultural. Nature more properly describes various configurations of human and nonhuman entanglement than precultural environments. As such, any narrative that purports to recount the march of civilization simultaneously tells the story of the creation of various kinds of nature. Nature does not recede before human labor and institutions; it takes on different shapes and meanings. Understanding nature this way can help humans build more resilient environmental futures that do not solely benefit specific groups of human beings. This process begins by letting go of outdated and romanticized conceptions of nature and recognizing that social justice is integral to responsible environmentalism. Sound environmental policy necessarily means just social policy, and vice versa.

Hand tools in nineteenth-century American literature help to illustrate this more dynamic conception of nature. More specifically, the axe in the historical romance, the hoe in the village sketch, and the shovel as it figures in the subgenre of sentimental fiction known as “woman’s fiction” not only show how natures are produced, but also alert readers to relationships with the environment—both productive and destructive—that challenge traditional nature-culture binaries. These tool-genre pairings simultaneously chronicle the transformation of environments into different types of nature and participate in that construction.

Chapter One, “Republican Nature: The Axe of Exclusion in the Historical Romance,” demonstrates how masculinist, white-supremacist nature emerges through axe use in the historical fictions of James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, and Catherine Maria Sedgwick. Despite their different approaches—a confrontational conservation ethos in Cooper and a deliberate revisionist Puritan history in the works of Child and Sedgwick—axes in the historical romance construct what I call “republican nature,” which describes environments built by and for white men and closed off to women, Native Americans, and nonnormative domestic arrangements.

Chapter Two, “Westward Hoe: Domestic Nature in the Village Sketch,” examines how village sketch writers challenge the core tenet of domestic ideology: that the home constitutes a separate sphere outside of public life. Caroline Kirkland, Fanny Forester, and Alice Cary show that there never was a clear distinction between women’s work and men’s work, between the private and the public—or between domestic interiors and the nonhuman environment. The resulting “domestic nature” rejects domestic ideology, reveals the interplay between the environment and the home, and suggests alternatives to anthropocentric development and management regimes—a domestic ecology, so to speak.

“Sentimental nature,” the nature theorized in Chapter Three, “Sentimental Nature: Digging for Justice in ‘ Woman’s Fiction,’” also hinges on the inevitable interpenetration of so-called women’s work and the environment—and further adds the dimension of social justice. Maria Susanna Cummins and Louisa May Alcott insist that social justice is impossible without equal access to environmental “goods,” such as clean air and green spaces, and equal protection from environmental “bads,” such as pollution and unsafe living and working conditions. They imagine shovel labor—especially collective shovel labor that brings marginalized people together and puts them into contact with the nonhuman environment—as one means of redressing a host of social ills, including poverty, the exploitation of labor, sexism, and racism. Caroline Lee Hentz attempts to defend slavery by drawing on the tenets of sentimental nature, but she inadvertently constructs a “lachrymose nature” founded on coerced rather than voluntary collaborative shovel labor—and therefore motivated by profits and the desire to discipline working bodies rather than justice.


American Literature, Environmental Criticism, Genre, Hand Tools, Nineteenth Century


viii, 272 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 257-272).


Copyright © 2017 Nicholas P. Cooley

Available for download on Tuesday, August 31, 2021