The Botanical Imagination of Naturalist Literature in the Americas
This project analyses the relationship between botanical imagery and settler identity in trans-American naturalist fiction written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since the earliest days of European exploration in the New World natural scientists have surveyed American flora and produced botanical illustrations. These illustrations were part of an emerging scientific empiricism which sought to classify the natural world, the roots of which recent scholarship has located in Spanish America. This project goes a step further by demonstrating that colonial visualisations of flora had an afterlife in literary works of naturalism throughout the Americas around the turn of the century. The botanical metaphors found in these novels are a significant form of imagery for Euro-Americans and the creole elite, and reading them within this context contributes to our understanding of how American colonial histories continued to shape settler mindsets and inform conceptions of national identity in this period. In retracing the origins of botanical imagery, this project also realigns the dominant understanding of literary naturalism as a movement. Naturalism of the Americas is widely understood as directly modelled on the works of French novelist Émile Zola. However, the era of scientific development (driven by such travellers to the Americas as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin) which shaped Zola’s ideas were themselves the products of colonial encounters in the New World. Therefore, whilst American forms of literary naturalism may have their immediate origins in Zola, tracing Zola’s origins inevitably leads us back to the Americas. By reading the botanical metaphors present in naturalist fiction alongside earlier colonial uses of botanical imagery, this research rejects the implication that such imagery was part of a linear transmission of European ideas, suggesting instead that the botanical imagination of American literary naturalism is part of a much longer history of transcontinental exchanges.