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Lean Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen
Thomas Wolfe's Greener Modernism

Robert Taylor Ensign

An exploration of Thomas Wolfe's fiction from an ecological perspective

In this ecocritical study of Thomas Wolfe's body of fiction, Robert Taylor Ensign explores how the celebrated writer's storytelling is founded on his dramatization—and apprehension—of the natural world's integral presence in human lives. According to Ensign, Wolfe, as ecoconscious as any American nature writer, conveyed a more emotionally vital natural world than did his contemporaries of the 1920s and 1930s. Ensign traces the engagement of Wolfe's characters with the nonhuman world to roots in a Romantic tradition of American literature, as exemplified by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Lean Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen, Ensign contends that Wolfe's attitude toward nature has been obscured by the surface dazzle of his nature-drawn imagery. This approach to Wolfe's work, however, shows how nature provides not only structure, coherence, and integrity for Wolfe's narratives but also a source of stability for his characters amid an otherwise fragmented cultural landscape.

Although Ensign identifies many modernist fictional elements in Wolfe's narratives, he finds that the Romantic depth and emotional intensity of the characters' connection with the natural world challenges the conventional notion that modernist fiction's treatment of the relationship between protagonists and their environments is emotionally flat and detached. Ensign maintains that Wolfe's texts repeatedly suggest that the natural world can arouse the nature within us, evoking emotional responses that can be as uncontrollable as nature itself.

Robert Taylor Ensign earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon and is the director of a mental health program for teenagers. A member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and the Thomas Wolfe Society, Ensign lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

"Robert Taylor Ensign's fresh, text-centered study, while paying due heed to the traditions within which Wolfe worked, teaches us to read (or reread) Wolfe in ways that both enrich our understanding of Wolfe's major works and boost his reputation as a thoughtful artist."—John Idol

"What a treat! This book thoroughly and delightfully opens up Thomas Wolfe's work to a 'green' reading. At the same time, Robert Taylor Ensign demonstrates that the strategies and perspectives of contemporary ecocriticism can expand our understanding and appreciation of other major, modernist authors, including Faulkner, Cather, Steinbeck, Eliot, Frost, Moore, H. D., and Jeffers."—Scott Slovic, editor, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment



book jacket for Lean Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen


6 x 9
168 pages
ISBN 978-1-57003-481-7
hardcover, $34.95s

"I live just outside of Portland, Oregon, today and periodically leave my suburban apartment to seek refuge in the many hiking trails of the Columbia Gorge, which flank the same Columbia River that Woody Guthrie celebrated in song. I'm reminded that Wolfe visited this region in the last summer of his life, and I can't help feeling that he would enjoy my day trips as much as I do …. The measure of his faith in the green world is both inscribed and spiritually rooted in his writing, and while the city matched his intensity, it was nature that gave him back his sanity, as it gives back mine to me."—from Lean Down Your Ear upon the Earth, and Listen

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