Gardens and Machines: American Nature from Transcendentalism to Industrialization

BA Seminar, English Department, University of Zurich, Fall Semester 2021

Contemporary discussions about ecological destruction around the world, and in particular in the United States, could serve as a reminder of how important the concept of nature has been for US literature and culture since its beginnings. Particularly in transcendentalist authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, as well as in the poetry of Walt Whitman nature becomes a key word for American thought in the long 19th century.

Revisiting American Transcendentalism seems more relevant today than ever not only because it puts nature into the foreground but also because it can provide us with a complex argument about possibilities of ecological coexistence: As Leo Marx and more recently David Nye have argued, the transcendentalist concept of nature is not just a mere opposite to the industrial revolution in the United States but rather develops in conjunction and conversation with the rise of industry. In this seminar by looking at different texts, but also at images and music, as well as by drawing connections to contemporary filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt or James Benning we want find ways to think beyond simple binary oppositions about the conjunctions of nature and technology. Picking up on our looking at different media this seminar will also deploy new hybrid learning tools such as video essays as new media to combine the technological with the sustainable.


24.9. Introduction – Ursula K. Le Guin „Vaster Than Empires and More Slow“ (1971)* 

1.10. Godfrey Reggio: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

8.10. David Nye: American Technological Sublime (Excerpts)*

22.10. Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass (1855-1892) (Excerpts)*

29.10. Discussing our own field recording experiments 

5.11. Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854) (Excerpts)* 

12.11. James Benning: EL VALLEY CENTRO (1999)

26.11. Margaret Fuller: Summer on the Lakes (1843) (Excerpts)* 

3.12. Kelly Reichardt: FIRST COW (2019)

10.12. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature (1836)*

17.12. Discussing our own audiovisual experiments

All texts marked with * will be made available. All other texts and films must be purchased individually. Please note that the syllabus may be subject to change !

Requirements for successfully completing the seminar:

– paper (or audiovisual video essay with written dossier) (80%) + learning portfolio (20%) – The learning portfolio consists in two experimental research objects

1) an audio field recording in which you stage a passage from Whitman in a natural aural setting (max 3 min)
2) a video note in which you present a central argument of this seminar in audiovisual form (max 3 min)

More details concerning these experiments will be given in class.