Sustainability: An American Literary History

What is sustainability? And how has American literature shaped our understanding of this concept, in ways both surprising and disturbing? This interactive program begins with a discussion of current ideas about sustainability. Then, we will go back in time to examine Thomas Jefferson's vision of American agricultural abundance, which he contrasted with an overpopulated and under-resourced Europe. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers such as Walt Whitman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman drew on Jefferson's agrarian vision to respond to sustainability crises of their time. But in so doing, they depicted selective breeding and racial "improvement" as the solution to population crises and the path to agricultural plenty. We will explore this particularly eugenic conception of sustainability and discuss what new or different versions of sustainability might prove more useful in our current moment.