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Saturday, June 10 • 9:30am - 9:50am
Fossil-Fueled Fictions: Teaching the Energy Humanities in Contemporary American Literature

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Approaches to teaching the energy humanities in contemporary American literary studies courses have thus far coalesced around a nascent canon of coal-smeared and oil-soaked texts, spanning from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) to Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead (1931) to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). In this talk, I will provide a practical outline for teaching an energy humanities-focused contemporary American literature survey—one which begins with these foundational texts but swiftly moves to encompass a far broader range of poetry and prose, entangled less obviously (but no less profoundly) with modern ecologies of energy extraction.

Ecocritic Stephanie Lemenager has suggested that novels of the “American century” are, without exception, inextricably intertwined with the material realities of “petromodernity.” Accordingly, I will propose that through an introduction to theoretical and historical frameworks like Lemenager’s (as well as those outlined by Imre Szeman, Dominic Boyer, Timothy Mitchell, and others), students can come to read twentieth-century novels as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) through an energy humanist lens, and can thereafter begin to trace the reverberations of fossil energy through modern American literature and culture. The pedagogical approach I outline will suggest that fossil energy—and its sublimated networks of extraction inflected by issues of labor, environment, race, gender, and capital—are omnipresent in contemporary American literature, not only in select novels that engage explicitly with the topic. As such, I propose that by positioning a broad range of twentieth-century novels within an energy humanist context, students can critically consider the relatively invisible ways that fossil energy became embedded in modern American subjectivity and came to constitute the material basis of life as we know it—and, at the culmination of the course, can begin to imagine more sustainable and equitable futures.


Megan Elizabeth Cole

PhD Candidate, University of California, Irvine

Saturday June 10, 2023 9:30am - 9:50am EDT
PS 406 (Design Center)