A Place for Humility examines the links between Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetic projects within the context of developing nineteenth-century environmental thought.
Dickinson and Whitman developed their environmentally suggestive poetics at roughly the same historical moment, a time when a major shift occurred in their culture’s general view of the natural world. Precisely when they achieved poetic maturity, an existing countervoice to America’s dominant attitude toward nature was gaining strength; as Max Oelschlaeger observed, “a shift transpired from viewing wild nature as merely a valuable resource [...] and obstacle [...] toward a conception of wilderness as an end in its own right and an endangered species in need of preservation” (The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology 4). This book examines Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetry in conjunction with this important change in environmental perception, and explores the links between their poetic projects in the context of nineteenth-century environmental thought from the perspective of a modern ecological awareness that makes such a reading possible. It argues that both Dickinson’s and Whitman’s poetry participate in this shift in different but related ways, and that this interlocking involvement with their culture’s growing environmental sensibilities constitutes an important connection between their disparate bodies of work. There may be few direct links between Dickinson’s “letter to the World” (Fr519) and Whitman’s “language experiment” (American Primer vii), but through a web of environmentally oriented discourses, their poetry engages in a cultural conversation about the natural world and the possibilities and limitations of writing about it—a conversation in which their thematic and formal choices meet on a number of levels.