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Writing Nature in Cold War American Literature$

Sarah Daw

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474430029

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474430029.001.0001

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Conclusion: ‘Know that the earth will madonna the Bomb’

Conclusion: ‘Know that the earth will madonna the Bomb’

(p.205) Conclusion: ‘Know that the earth will madonna the Bomb’
Writing Nature in Cold War American Literature

Sarah Daw

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The book’s concluding chapter begins with an ecocritical reading Gregory Corso’s 1958 poem ‘Bomb’. The conclusion then reflects on the book’s contributions to the fields of Cold War literary criticism and ecocriticism. As part of the book’s re-evaluation of the significance of the Cold War period to contemporary ecocritical debate, this chapter also develops the book’s argument that Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring (1962) should be viewed as one of a growing number of American texts written after 1945 that present an interdependent, ecological vision of the human’s relationship to its environment.

Keywords:   Gregory Corso, Bomb, Cold War, Ecocriticism, Silent Spring

  • O spring Bomb
  • Come with thy gown of dynamite green
  • Unmenace Nature’s inviolate eye1

Gregory Corso, ‘Bomb’

In these lines from the Beat poet Gregory Corso’s 1958 poem ‘Bomb’, Corso describes the nuclear bomb as a part of Nature, rather than presenting it as synonymous with the human’s conquest of the natural world. The poem depicts Nature as an ecological system that at once contains and defies the nuclear threat. Corso’s choice of ‘inviolate’ establishes a strength and resistance at the core of the poem’s vision of Nature, while the bomb’s ‘gown of dynamite green’ implies that the nuclear bomb either originates in Nature, or has been deliberately adorned in order to appear as if it had a ‘natural’ origin. The poem therefore suggests that the bomb is a part of Nature, or that it is being passed off as such. The reading that the bomb’s origin lies within Nature is further encouraged by the address ‘O spring Bomb’. The association of spring with the birth of new life hints that the bomb has been born out of Nature, as part of the season of birth, while the reference to the cyclical timeframe of the four seasons contributes to the poem’s wider depiction of Nature as expansive enough to contain the nuclear. Corso firmly establishes this image of Nature as the Bomb’s progenitor later in the poem, through the biblical and prophetic: ‘Know that the earth will madonna the Bomb’. The poem therefore goes as far as to (p.206) provocatively depict the ‘earth’ as the mother of the nuclear bomb, while also portraying the bomb as a part of an expansive, ecological system of Nature.

Corso’s presentation of the nuclear as both originating from, and contained within, an infinite ecology, constitutes a consummate exemplification of Timothy Morton’s ‘dark ecology’. The poem’s location of the nuclear within an ecological Nature also echoes those depictions of the ‘anti-ecological’ nuclear bomb as contained and neutralised within an infinite ecology that characterise the work of the writers discussed in each of my chapters. This ecocritical reading of Corso’s work is both facilitated and contextualised by knowledge of the ecological presentations of Nature in the work of Corso’s contemporary Cold War writers. The wider significance of the ecological portrayal of Nature that ‘Bomb’ displays is therefore only fully visible when the poem is read in the context of this study’s appraisal of representations of Nature within early Cold War American texts.

In line with this intellectual context, the preceding chapters illuminate the presence of similarly ecological depictions of Nature within other Cold War literary texts. They also allow for comparisons to be drawn between the depictions of ecology in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and in the American literature that is contemporaneous with it. When Carson’s text is reconsidered in the context of this study’s analysis, a number of parallels emerge between Silent Spring and earlier Cold War writing. Carson’s portrayal of Nature in Silent Spring is both complex and difficult to characterise, as a number of critics have previously identified. Hannes Bergthaller, in particular, has argued that Carson was aware of the bifurcation of the Romantic conception of Nature and the scientific understanding of the term at mid-century, and that she indicated this increasingly problematic tension at the heart of the term in her correspondence. In a 1958 letter to Dorothy Freeman, for example, Carson declares that it is ‘worse than useless’ to ‘go on repeating the old “eternal verities” that are no more eternal than the hills of the poets’. She then goes on to assert that it is time ‘someone wrote of Life in the light of the truth as it now appears to us’.2 However, Bergthaller ultimately suggests that in Silent Spring, Carson ‘doubles down on [the use of] the normative concept of nature’ and insists on its (p.207) ‘continuing universal validity’.3 I argue that Carson’s presentation of Nature is slightly more radical than Bergthaller’s analysis suggests, although she also undoubtedly employs her contemporary society’s ‘normative’ or ‘Romantic’ concept of Nature throughout Silent Spring in order to strengthen the book’s broad appeal, and its persuasive power.4

Throughout Silent Spring, Carson repeatedly reproduces the rhetoric of the Cold War ‘scientific’ American’s domination of Nature, despite her criticism of the dire consequences of this same attitude for the American environment.5 For instance, she states ‘only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species acquired significant power to alter the natural world’, as well as asserting elsewhere that the human’s power over Nature ‘has increased to a disturbing magnitude’ over the course of the twentieth century.6 In addition to these persistent suggestions of human domination and exceptionalism, she also explicitly draws a distinction between nuclear science and Nature, describing the nuclear as ‘an unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom’.7 However, at the same time, Silent Spring contains an overriding and progressive ecological depiction of the human relationship to the environment. Carson repeatedly refers to a structure of ecology that is reminiscent of Morton’s contemporary theorisation of the mesh, describing an ‘ecological web of life’, the ‘interwoven strands’ of which ‘lead from microbes to man’.8 The book contains a notable duality in this respect; persistent depictions of humanity as part of a ‘web of life’, upon which it ultimately depends for its survival, are juxtaposed to, and appear at times to contradict, the rhetoric of human power and ascendancy that Carson evokes elsewhere in the text.9

Carson’s ecological portrayal of Nature as a ‘web of life’ also distinctly echoes those found in the work of the writers covered in this study, all of whom depict Nature as an interdependent, ecological system within which the human, and also often the nuclear, are interdependent parts. However, in some respects, Carson’s presentation of ecology in Silent Spring is significantly less radical than those found in the work of the Cold War writers who preceded her. For example, Carson’s text contains nothing comparable to the ‘dark ecology’ found in the work of Church, McCarthy, Ginsberg (p.208) and Corso, all of whom write ecology as infinitely expansive enough to contain even those elements perceived to be ‘anti-ecological’.10 Conversely, in Carson’s work ‘anti-ecological’ elements such as organophosphates and nuclear radiation are explicitly portrayed as fundamentally ‘unnatural’.11

However, notable parallels can be drawn between the writings of Carson and Church, Oppenheimer and McCarthy, in terms of their attempts to recalibrate the relationship between scientific knowledge and Nature. Silent Spring repeatedly emphasises the dangerous folly inherent in the characterisation of Cold War science as ‘man’ proceeding ‘towards his announced goal of the conquest of Nature’.12 Carson also recasts ‘intelligent’ scientific investigation as the human witnessing and imitating Nature, stating that: ‘where man has been intelligent enough to observe and to emulate nature, he, too, is often rewarded with success’.13 These depictions of Cold War science that explicitly contradict the images of mastery that dominated in the American media at mid-century strongly reflect Oppenheimer’s characterisation of nuclear physics as thriving most when it is ‘inspired and led’ by Nature. Oppenheimer and Carson, as well as literary writers such as Church and McCarthy, therefore openly challenge dominant depictions of Cold War American science as representative of the human’s ultimate ‘conquest’ of Nature. In doing so, these writers variously reimagine nuclear science as having its inspiration or origin within Nature, as demonstrating the power of Nature, and as rediscovering properties of Nature that are already understood within some non-Euro-American philosophical systems such as Pueblo Native American philosophy, Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

This study has suggested that a seismic change in humanity’s relationship to Nature was catalysed by the advent of the Nuclear Age at mid-century, and that this shift caused American writers to reshape literary depictions of the human relationship to Nature almost immediately, and often in surprising ways. It has shown that many American writers responded to the nuclear climate by depicting Nature as an infinite mesh capable of enduring and containing thermonuclear war, and possessing the power and agency to annihilate the human presence. Furthermore, a number of writers present this annihilation of the human in Nature as a positive (p.209) response to the pressures exerted by Cold War American culture. Increasingly material and ‘trans-corporeal’ depictions of the human relationship to the environment also emerge in mid-century literature, and are present to differing degrees in the work of many of the writers surveyed in this study. In her contemporary theorisation of ‘trans-corporeality’, Stacy Alaimo assets that a ‘trans-corporeal’ conception of the human relationship to the environment is a vital critical framework for the twenty-first-century human being.14 However, my chapters suggest that a ‘trans-corporeal’ understanding of the human relationship to Nature is equally vital as an ontological framework, and as a tool of literary analysis, at mid-century.

As my chapters expose, Cold War writers reacted to the advent of the Anthropocene faster than ecocritics have so far imagined. Robert Macfarlane wrote in 2016 of the need for writers to respond to the Anthropocene by finding new ‘vocabularies and narratives […] for the kinds of relation and responsibility in which [twenty-first-century humans] find ourselves entangled’.15 However, as this book has demonstrated, Cold War writers began to reimagine the human relationship to the environment almost immediately after the birth of the Nuclear Age – a moment that will almost certainly also mark the point of origin of the geological Anthropocene.16 Significant to this mid-century reimaging of the human relationship to the environment is the extent to which the white American writers discussed here drew upon non-Euro-American influences as sources of inspiration, while attempting to reconsider the relationship between the human and the environment at the dawn of the Nuclear Age. As a result, non-Euro-American philosophies and spiritualities in translation consistently provide influential frameworks for reimagining the human relationship to the environment. In many cases, these influences have been shown to be instrumental in forming writers’ increasingly ecological depictions of the human place with respect to the more-than-human world. In this respect, the actions of these mid-century writers anticipate the persistent trope that Ramachandra Guha critiques within the deep ecology movement of the late 1980s and 1990s, which saw white American ecocritics (often indiscriminately) draw on, and advocate the ecological credentials of, non-Euro-American philosophies, in a bid to develop a new ‘universal’ ecological thought.17

(p.210) The most substantial difference between the writing of Nature by Cold War writers and the influential nineteenth-century work of the Transcendentalist movement is found in the diminished role of the literary persona in Cold War encounters with Nature. In the Transcendentalist writing of Emerson and Thoreau, Nature, although the focus of literary engagements, is conceived of as both a manifestation of the power of God, and as a vessel for the power and potential of the mind of man; as John Gatta writes: ‘Emerson’s transcendentalism discounted the world’s physicality in favour of an Idealism that regarded nature as a function of human perception’.18 Transcendentalist Nature therefore functions as inspiration and stimulus for the realisation of the potential of the mind of man, and as a symbol of the divine presence of God, in a process that Harold Bloom describes as ‘culminating in self-deification’. Indeed, Bloom goes on to note that ‘Nature […] is rather perversely the wrong word, since Emerson does not mean “nature” in any accepted sense whatsoever. He means Man’.19 Conversely, in Cold War depictions of the relationship between the human and the environment, Nature is presented as an agential, ecological system, of which the human constitutes a small and transitory part. The literary persona has little or no agency within the encounter, which is often presented as culminating in a longed-for annihilation of the human self within an infinite Nature. The threat of the total and imminent destruction of the human species with the advent of thermonuclear war is arguably reflected in this desire for the annihilation of the self through an encounter with Nature. However, although Cold War depictions of Nature differ markedly from Transcendentalist encounters in fundamental ways, Thoreau’s legacy as a countercultural icon nevertheless remained a strong influence on Salinger, Kerouac and McCarthy.

Depicting the nuclear as a ‘part’ of Nature may appear to be ethically unhelpful, in that it may seem to risk naturalising, and thereby encouraging, the use of nuclear bombs. However, as this study has demonstrated, the recalibration of the relationship between the nuclear and Nature within Cold War literary texts is always facilitated by the presence of Nature as an infinite ecology. This new conception of the human and the nuclear as parts of an infinite mesh ‘without a definite center or edge’ serves to diminish the (p.211) power and agency of the human, not to enhance it.20 Such a recalibration therefore challenges the dangerous myth of the twentieth-century American’s ‘mastery’ of Nature. Redressing Euro-American cultural misrepresentations of the human’s size and significance with respect to Nature has never been more critical, as the failure of humanity to understand its relationship to, and reliance on, the environment creates increasingly perilous and uncertain futures. Therefore, against the risk of appearing to ‘naturalise’ nuclear bombs must be set the large and pressing task of countering the misleading impression that cultural depictions of humanity’s dominion over Nature were ubiquitous, and relatively unchallenged, between the years of 1945 and 1971. In this context, highlighting overlooked mid-century American literary portrayals of Nature as an infinite ecology, and of nuclear science as something other than a final conquest of Nature, constitutes a small step in the reappraisal of twentieth-century American cultural ideas of Nature.

In the early Cold War period, American writers struggled to respond to a seismic shift in the human relationship to the environment that was catalysed by the advent of the Nuclear Age. Today, contemporary ecocritics continue to grapple with a similarly elemental shift in the relationship between human and world caused by our growing understanding of anthropogenic climate change. The parallels that exist between these two moments in the development of the Anthropocene mean that Cold War literary representations of Nature will be of a special interest to ecocritics today. As Writing Nature in Cold War American Literature has shown, some Cold War writers were able to balance communicating the imminent threat represented by anthropogenic environmental damage with portrayals of Nature that emphasise humanity’s place within an infinite, ecological structure. As such, the field of contemporary ecocriticism should pay renewed attention to early Cold War depictions of the Anthropocene, as it struggles to combine theorisations of an agential and entangled Nature with broader debates about climate change.


(1.) Gregory Corso, ‘Bomb’, The Happy Birthday of Death (New York: New Directions, 1960), 32–3.

(2.) Rachel Carson qtd in Hannes Bergthaller, ‘“No More Eternal than the Hills of the Poets”: On Rachel Carson, Ecocriticsm, and the Paradox of Nature’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 22(1) (Winter 2015), 9–26, 11.

(4.) See the Introduction in this volume for more detail.

(5.) Peter Middleton, Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 8; David Dietz, Atomic Energy in the Coming Era (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 175.

(6.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin, 2000), 22.

(7.) Ibid. 24.

(8.) Ibid. 79, 74.

(9.) Ibid. 68.

(10.) Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 59.

(12.) Ibid. 87.

(13.) Ibid. 84.

(14.) Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2.

(15.) Robert Macfarlane, ‘Generation Anthropocene: How Humans Have Altered the Planet for Ever’, Guardian (1 April 2016). Accessed 28 December 2017: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever

(17.) Ramachandra Guha, ‘Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique’, Environmental Ethics, 11(1) (Spring 1989), 71–83, 73–83.

(18.) John Gatta, Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion and Environment in American from the Puritans to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 138. A number of ecocritics, including Ashton Nichols, Sharon Cameron and Lawrence Buell, have argued that Thoreau increasingly moves away from an Emersonian influence in his late work. Many of these critics have cited the more empirical style of Thoreau’s late nature writing as evidence that Thoreau can be claimed as an early originator of an ecological vision of the human relation to Nature. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 168–70. However, others, including David Robinson and Sean Ross Meehan, have persuasively argued that the empirical style of Thoreau’s later work does not signify a significant deviation from Emersonian Idealism. See David M. Robinson, Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 177–8; (p.247) Scott Ross Meehan, ‘Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau and the Nature of Metonymy’, Criticism 55(2) (Spring 2013), 299–329, 300–1.

(19.) Harold Bloom, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, updated edn (New York: Chelsea House, 2007), 7.