Toward a Modern Nature
Scholars of literary modernism rarely consider the American relationship to nature as a central subject of the genre-bending literatures of the early twentieth century. Modernist texts that head back to nature are, by definition, nostalgic and anti-modern. Yet, the American relationship to nature was a key issue of modernity that motivated the reforms of the Progressive Era. Americans conceived of the move back to nature as key to their national progress because nature contact, reformers concluded, could save Americans from the threat of degeneration. In order for nature to serve as an antidote for degeneration, however, it needed to remain a realm of hard facts free of fictions, a eugenic testing ground that could keep Americans mentally and physically fit. Such a construction of nature proved a challenge for America’s emerging modernist poets. Told by their culture to head back to nature for the sake of the nation’s health, they were also told that any poetic approach to the subject, a hallmark of America’s scant literary heritage, could be culturally enervating. Poets needed to create a form of American nature poetry that could cure degeneration rather than cause it. Making nature modern, they made poetry modern as well.
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