English, Department of


Date of this Version

December 2007


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy; Major: English. Under the Supervision of Professor Frances W. Kaye.
Lincoln, Nebraska; May, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Lynn Overholt Wake.


E. B. White called Walden his favorite book and found in it “an invitation to life’s dance.” To read White ecocritically is to accept a similar invitation to broaden our environmental imagination. Although one or two of his essays are often anthologized as nature writing, critics have not read White environmentally. While emphasizing White’s three books for children, this dissertation reads across genre lines to examine his lifelong work. Drawing on Laurence Buell’s prismatic term, the study explores how White’s engagement with the natural world contributes to the renewal of our collective environmental imagination. Examining White’s affinity for animals, evident across the spectrum of his work, this study concludes that for White the world is fundamentally inhabited both by humans and non-human animals; his work reflects concern for the habitat of both.

White’s three books for children, considered within a framework of Joseph W. Meeker’s literary ecology, form a bridge connecting children’s literature and ecocriticism. This study presents Stuart Little as a series of place-based adventures and a comedy of survival. In Charlotte’s Web, White’s environmental magnum opus, he presents his biophilic sense of the web of life and invites the animal world to speak for itself, Fern showing the rest of us how to pay attention to other species. A braided story of human and animal habitat, The Trumpet of the Swan continues Stuart’s quest underway at the end of the earlier book.

An initial chapter exploring White’s literary ecology (his childhood in the age of nature study, his early sense of place, and his affinity for animals) also examines representative essays, poems and other writings. Closing the study is a chapter connecting White to the wider web of environmental literature through a focus on the nature of story, an emphasis on animal presence, and an expansive sense of ecocriticism that includes children’s literature. Finding the root of the environmental imagination to be in childhood experience, the study treats each of White’s children’s books in separate chapters