Lawrence Buell

by Benjamin Bakker

Lawrence Buell

                Lawrence Buell was born in 1939 in a city and state unknown. Not much is known about his childhood or adolescence, although after he was born his parents lived in Malvern, Pennsylvania. His mother was a well-known cartoonist who created the cartoon Little LuLu. He was obviously a very smart man because eventually he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University in 1961 before earning his Ph.D from Cornell University in 1966. After his studies were through, Mr. Buell became a professor at Oberlin College before moving on to the same job at Harvard University in 1990.

Lawrence has held many posts at Harvard, including the College Dean of Undergraduate Education from 1992-96, and that lead to him being part of the first class of Harvard College Professorships, which is a now-annual award “created to recognize those especially dedicated to undergraduate teaching” at Harvard. Said Buell on the importance of the award: “To be recognized publicly for what one considers inherently most important in one’s professional life is by no means to be taken for granted, and I am very grateful…Never during my eight years at Harvard have I taught an undergraduate course that I didn’t enjoy teaching.” The award comes with support in the form of a semester paid leave, commensurate summer pay, or money to advance the recipient’s scholarly work.  Buell also eventually chaired the the Department of English and American Literature and Languages, and he is on the graduate committee for degrees in the study of American Civilization. He is currently the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard.

A large part of Buell’s professorship is the importance he puts on undergraduate studies. He is such an important factor in it that the Boston Globe and Harvard Crimson have previously asked for commentary on the matter. Buell puts such a large focus on the undergraduate part of studies that he consistently put more importance on it that other professors at larger universities. He was a main proponent in the idea of open, walk-in office hours for students.


1973: Literary Transcendentalism

1986: New England Literary Culture

1995: The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Harvard Press)

2001: Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the United States and Beyond (Harvard Press)

2003: Emerson (Harvard Press)

2005: The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination

2006: The American Transcendentalists (Editor)

2007: Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature

Much of his writing has lead to him becoming one of the leading authorities on Ecocriticism, as he is widely called “the pioneer” of Ecocriticism. His most widely acclaimed book is Emerson, which was published on the eve of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 200th birthday. This book went on to win the Brooks-Warren Award, an award given to outstanding literary criticism.


2001: John G. Cawelti Award for best book in the field of American Culture Studies (Writing For An Endangered World)

2003: Warren-Brooks Award for outstanding literary criticism (Emerson)

2007: Jay Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies

Some of the courses Lawrence teaches at Harvard include history of American Culture and Literature, and he has an interest in “environmentalist discourses, issues of cultural nationalism, and comparatist approaches to American Literary Study.” His area of expertise is the 19th century, particularly the antebellum era. The antebellum era in the United States refers to the pre-Civil War era, most specifically after the American Revolution and after the establishment of the U.S. as a soverign state.


1) (Faculty Page at Harvard)

2) (A review of The Future of Environmental Criticism)

3) (Video of him talking about his most recent work)

4) (His mother’s cartoon series)

5) (Buy his books)

6) (Ecocriticism page)

Discussion Questions

1)      In reference to his book The Future of Environmental Criticism, Buell claims that he uses that term instead of Ecocriticism as a way to use “strategic ambiguity” which distances his work from a “cartoon image” of the field “no longer applicable today, if indeed it really ever was.” What do you suppose he means when talking about the “cartoon image” of Ecocriticism?

2)      In the beginning of Chapter 5 on page 128, Buell lists four challenges that face environmental criticism. The fourth challenge he lists is “the challenge of establishing the significance beyond the academy.” Then on page 132, he poses the question of “how much will environmental criticism in literary studies matter to those outside its own disciplinary cloister, let alone to the lay world outside the academy?’ He states that teachers are doing an “exemplary” job in “breaking down classroom walls to send students into the field.” Do you agree with his statement? Or do you think that more could be done?

3)      In Chapter 2 on page 56, Buell states that “science fiction has taken a long time to win much respect from academic critics, including ecocritics.” He says that the reason is because some people think of it as “pop stuff,” not serious stuff. Why do you suppose that is? Does it even matter if science fiction gains the respect of ecocritics and others alike? What are some of the possible connections between science fiction and ecocriticism?


About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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