Good Observers of Nature
American Women and the Scientific Study of the Natural World, 1820–1885

Tina Gianquitto

A sophisticated ecocritical study sheds new light on women's writing


"Lucid, nuanced, and engaging, this carefully historicized work represents an important addition to current ecocritical literature. More than a study of nature writing, Good Observers of Nature also contributes to current debates on women's education, the interaction between public and private spheres, and the relationship between science, sentimentalism, and romanticism."
—Karen Kilcup, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

"A fine addition to the growing shelf of books on women in nineteenth-century natural science, with a welcome focus on the United States. In these four fascinating case studies, Gianquitto explores women's evolving responses to shifting concepts of nature, from Linnaeus to Darwin. As natural science challenged fixed notions of home, nation, and religion, each of these women creatively appropriated the language and tools of science to redefine domestic ideology. From home as a fixed moral center, 'home' and 'morality' move apart to become, by century's end, dynamic cocreators in an evolving community where humans are not supreme rulers but responsible partners with nature—a vision that moves women from the margins of science to its center and initiates an environmental ethic that values not remote wild spaces but familiar home places. Scholars of literature, the history of science, and women's studies will all gain much from this well-informed and wide-ranging study."
—Laura Dassow Walls, author of Emerson's Life in Science

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In "Good Observers of Nature" Tina Gianquitto examines nineteenth-century American women's intellectual and aesthetic experiences of nature and investigates the linguistic, perceptual, and scientific systems that were available to women to describe those experiences.

Many women writers of this period used the natural world as a platform for discussing issues of domesticity, education, and the nation. To what extent, asks Gianquitto, did these writers challenge the prevalent sentimental narrative modes (like those used in the popular flower language books) and use scientific terminology to describe the world around them? The book maps the intersections of the main historical and narrative trajectories that inform the answer to this question: the changing literary representations of the natural world in texts produced by women from the 1820s to the 1880s and the developments in science from the Enlightenment to the advent of evolutionary biology. Though Gianquitto considers a range of women's nature writing (botanical manuals, plant catalogs, travel narratives, seasonal journals, scientific essays), she focuses on four writers and their most influential works: Almira Phelps (Familiar Lectures on Botany, 1829), Margaret Fuller (Summer on the Lakes, in 1843), Susan Fenimore Cooper (Rural Hours, 1850), and Mary Treat (Home Studies in Nature, 1885).

From these writings emerges a set of common concerns about the interaction of reason and emotion in the study of nature, the best vocabularies for representing objects in nature (local, scientific, or moral), and the competing systems for ordering the natural world (theological, taxonomic, or aesthetic). This is an illuminating study about the culturally assumed relationship between women, morality, and science.

Page count: 232 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $26.95

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Tina Gianquitto is an assistant professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines.