"Literature and Environmental Ethical Criticism:
The interest in ethical literary criticism which re-emerged in the 1990s is of particular relevance to the field of ecologically oriented literary criticism. Motivated by a concern for the environment and by the question of how to live an environmentally sound life, its basic goal can be defined as creating knowledge that promotes an environmental ethical stance that in turn triggers processes of environmentally benign social and cultural transformation. The claim – made by moral philosophers and literary critics such as Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty and David Parker – that literary texts can be regarded as a specific mode of moral inquiry because of the imaginative range and formal richness of their language bears a high degree of importance for ecologically oriented literary scholarship. It supports the idea that literary texts which address morally relevant aspects of the human-nature relationship are indispensable sources for a more comprehensive understanding of the human moral experience – more comprehensive in the sense of extending the moral universe towards the inclusion of parts of nonhuman nature or to non-human nature as a whole.
Following a brief introduction into key issues of current ethical literary criticism and into the field of environmental ethics, this essay explores New England regionalist texts by Sarah Orne Jewett as sites of inquiry into environmentally relevant moral issues. Jewett's texts were part of the emergence of American environmentalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. They contributed to the environmentalist discourse as it developed in particular in the activities and publications of movements such as the conservation, preservation and humane movements. Analysis of the environmental ethical dimension of her texts reveals that the sources of the contemporary philosophical discipline of environmental ethics can be understood as reaching far back into literary history.