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The Literature of Climate Change

This PhD student studies literary trends during the 1930s Dust Bowl, and now
October 31, 2018

How does our literature reflect contemporary anxiety over anthropogenic (human-created) climate change? Doctoral student Christopher Bowman received a Department of English Research Grant last summer to explore this topic, which he has chosen to focus on for his dissertation.

What sparked your interest in your research topic?

My preliminary exams last fall were designed to look at contemporary fiction responding to climate change (often cleverly referred to as “cli-fi”) in the context of a broader history of American writers confronting anthropogenic environmental degradation in their work.

After my exams, I sat down with my advisor, Professor Dan Philippon, and we talked about the ways in which we could envision a coherent project developing around these interests. These conversations were immensely generative, and with feedback from other members in my committee, including English Professors Nate Mills and Christopher Pexa, and Professor Charlotte Melin (German, Scandinavian & Dutch), I further refined the scope and direction of this project to focus on events from two specific time periods: the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s and the past few decades, as climate change has accelerated. The working title of my dissertation is "Climate Change of Mind: Revisiting Dust Bowl Narratives in a Time of Anthropogenic Climate Change."

"In my dissertation, I
propose new—or,
perhaps 'old'—ways of
portraying and interpreting
climatological change."

What work and travel did the research grant make possible for you?

This grant allowed me to visit a number of institutions in California that have strong archival collections related to John Steinbeck and the Dust Bowl, including the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the Stanford University Archives, and the National Archives location in San Bruno. The materials that I studied at these institutions clarified Steinbeck’s mindset in the late 1930s, as he worked on projects that culminated in The Grapes of Wrath. I was also able to research that novel's reception among migrant families similar to those it portrayed.
 
My research trip overlapped with the National Steinbeck Center’s annual Steinbeck Festival, so in addition to spending time at each of these archives, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the Center’s (former) director Susan Shillinglaw; archivist Lisa Josephs; and other scholars currently writing about Steinbeck—all of whom were genuinely supportive of my research.


It was invaluable to understand the historical context in which writers in the late 1930s, such as Steinbeck and Sanora Babb, wrote, and how their personal experiences within this ecological crisis played major roles in the conception and production of their respective novels.

Moreover, what I learned will also influence my chapters on contemporary climate fiction, as I propose new—or, perhaps “old”—ways of portraying and interpreting climatological change.