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Reading Modernism in the Sixth Extinction

Reading Modernism in the Sixth Extinction

1914—a year that looms large in modernist studies for many reasons, including the beginning of the First World War, the “Men of 1914” variant of literary modernism, and the publication of landmark works such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in serial form), Tender Buttons, and Des Imagistes—also marks the extinction of the passenger pigeon.[1] Martha, the species endling, died of old age at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1. Her body was immediately frozen in a 300-pound block of ice, before being shipped to the Smithsonian in Washington, where she was skinned, stuffed, and put on display.[2] The coincidence of these events—the death of a species, the birth (arguably at least) of literary modernism—is, at one level, a mere historical coincidence. Yet it is our belief that modernism and extinction are more closely related to one another than has previously been recognized.

Bird on branch, “Martha, a Passenger Pigeon,” Smithsonian Institution Archives
Fig. 1. “Martha, a Passenger Pigeon,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 416, Box 1, Folder 4, 1967,

The disappearance of the passenger pigeon is part of a larger pattern of modern industrialization, colonial expansion, imperialist violence, and Euro-American domination of the nonhuman world that characterizes the “long nineteenth century.”[3] Prior to the arrival of European settlers in North America, Indigenous communities had co-existed with passenger pigeons for thousands of years. As Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi chief and writer, reported, Indigenous people relied on the passenger pigeon as a food source: “Whole tribes would wigwam in the brooding places . . . . Yet, under our manner of securing them, [the birds] continued to increase.”[4] As white frontier settlers pushed west into Indigenous lands, however, they systematically slaughtered the birds and destroyed their habitats, netting and shooting them in the tens of thousands, and even hosting trapshooting contests in which winners killed hundreds or thousands of birds in a single event.[5] The result was that by 1880, what had been “the most abundant land bird on this planet,” its flocks so dense that they blackened the sky, had all but disappeared in the wild (Allen, Pigeon, 170). By 1900, only a few captive specimens remained.

The notion that humans could drive a species to extinction was nothing new; the dodo and the great auk were already known to have been hunted out of existence. But the rapid demise of this common bird was unprecedented. Not only was the passenger pigeon the “most spectacular” extinction of modern times, as Jennifer Price observes, but the scale and speed at which it occurred also made it a spectacularly modern extinction.[6] In 1796, Georges Cuvier, who first established the concept of extinction, had theorized the sudden, catastrophic loss of species, but his explanations were dismissed by nineteenth-century scientists such as Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell, who understood extinction to be a gradual process, as well as a normal and necessary part of evolution.[7] The death of the passenger pigeon posed a major challenge to these gradualist accounts of extinction; though it didn’t vanish overnight in a sudden catastrophe, it certainly felt that way to many. An article in The New York Times expressed the widespread disbelief that a bird that had been so abundant “less than fifteen years ago” could disappear “as suddenly . . . as the snuffing out of a candle,” while in 1913, the hunter turned conservationist William T. Hornaday described the plight of the passenger pigeon as an “alarm call” for the state of “our fast vanishing animal life,” estimating that some species of birds had declined by 75% in the past twenty-five to forty years.[8] These accounts are worth quoting because they suggest that the alarm call of the sixth extinction, in which species are dying out at around 1000 times the normal rate largely due to human activity, has been sounding for longer than we might expect.[9]

As well as enabling us to situate the sixth extinction within a longer historical time span, the story of the passenger pigeon is also useful for thinking about how narratives of past extinctions have helped to frame present-day accounts of biodiversity loss. The centenary of Martha’s death in 2014 resulted in a flurry of exhibitions, books, and articles that situated the passenger pigeon’s demise in the context of the sixth extinction.[10] Project Passenger Pigeon, a global outreach initiative composed of scientists, artists, and conservationists, emphasized the “considerable relevance” of Martha’s story in the “midst of the sixth mass extinction,” arguing that it serves as a “powerful reminder of humanity’s ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches.”[11] Now, as then, Martha’s demise has become an occasion for public mourning, not just of the end of an individual species, but of all animals driven to the brink of extinction by human activity. 

Yet Martha’s ongoing celebrity status also points to some of the limitations of extinction discourse. Commemorations of the individual bird—named after the inaugural First Lady, Martha Washington—have often failed to recognize the direct link between the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the theft of Indigenous lands, or the way that settler violence toward passenger pigeons, buffalo, and other native animals mirrored and cathected violence toward Indigenous people. As Pokagon’s comment on the birds’ continued flourishing alongside Indigenous people makes clear, it was not “humanity” that wiped out Martha’s species; it was white Americans on the charge of Manifest Destiny.[12] Similar claims could be made for other endangered species. As Saskia McCracken demonstrates in her essay for this cluster, tropical bird populations were decimated by the feather trade during the early twentieth century. Rather than condemning the European and American men who ran the trade circuits which made feathers profitable, however, bird protection advocates placed the blame for these species’ threatened extinction on either women consumers or “native” hunters.

The focus on Martha’s death also obscures several key experiential aspects of extinction. Extinction is rarely such a singular, knowable event; the death of the last passenger pigeon occurred in captivity under the watchful eye of humans, but there are countless species whose deaths have gone unobserved and thus unmourned. Equally, while speed is one of the most alarming traits of the sixth extinction, like passengers on a high-velocity train, we do not always feel the pace of change. Many of the critically endangered species that we hear about in the news (for Cari in Florida, it tends to be manatees, sea turtles, and Florida panthers, while for Rachel in England, it’s hedgehogs, nightingales, and red squirrels) have been going extinct for what feels like forever, suspended in the ongoingness of that present participle “going.” While we know that the decline of species is occurring at a rate never before seen in human history, our experience of extinction, somewhat paradoxically, often takes the form of a kind of “slow violence” that troubles easy narration. As Rob Nixon argues, because many contemporary forms of environmental destruction occur in ways that are “neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive,” they pose special “representational, narrative, and strategic challenges.”[13] Martha’s death is an easy story to tell, but the sixth extinction is not.

How, then, might modernism help us to grapple with these difficulties? Might its aesthetic innovations—its dizzying perceptual shifts, its enfolded and disrupted temporalities, its movement beyond human-shaped and scaled narratives—be particularly well suited to thinking about the formal, cognitive, and affective challenges posed by the sixth extinction? And might some of its more challenging aspects—its stylistic indeterminacy, its affective coolness, its troubled and troubling complicity with the forces of ecological devastation and colonial violence—help us to navigate some of the more complex and fraught aspects of our current biodiversity crisis? This cluster proposes that reading modernism in the sixth extinction is valuable for a number of reasons. First, it enables us to situate our current biodiversity crisis within a longer historical timespan, allowing us to recover elements of the past in light of present-day environmental concerns. This process of historicization produces uncanny effects as our growing awareness of what may soon be gone shakes up hidden traces of past lives, resurrecting dead things. Second, modernism’s experimental methods—its efforts to break with existing modes of storytelling, as well as its ceaseless striving to make itself and its readers see the world anew—are especially useful for thinking about a hard-to-think-about thing like extinction. And third, the close, albeit uneasy, relationship between Anglo-American modernist writing, in particular, and the forces of modernity means that it can provide a crucial perspective on the cultures of imperialism, capitalism, and extraction that have manufactured our present ecological crisis.

“There Must Still Be Nightingales”

The proliferation of scholarship devoted to modernism and nonhuman life in recent years would seem to suggest an ecosystem that is flourishing rather than fading. The past decade has seen wide-ranging studies of modernism and animal life (Hovanec; Rohman [2009]; Ryan and West), explorations of animals in the work of individual writers (Alt; Bryden; Goldman; Ryan; Schuster; Sultzbach), the examination of a particular creatures such as rats or insects (Ellmann; Murray), as well as accounts of the “biological” (Newman), the “primordial” (Setz), and the “bioaesthetic” (Rohman [2018]) animal.[14] Together these accounts have helped to dispel the notion that modernism is largely devoid of nonhuman life and that the animal “is the very first thing to be ruled out of [its] bounds.”[15] These critical interventions may also be read, in part, as a response to the specter of mass extinction: at the very moment that we are faced with the threat of their loss, animals become increasingly prevalent in the critical as well as the cultural imagination. This curious abundance in the face of absence mirrors a phenomenon that took place during the modernist period. As Akira Mizuta Lippit has argued, at the same time that animals were disappearing from everyday life as a result of technological and social changes and widespread environmental destruction, they began to proliferate in art and media as spectral presences, “a genus of vanishing animals, whose very being is constituted by that state of disappearing.”[16] Under modernity, animals exist in a state of “perpetual vanishing,” functioning as absent presences that attest to present absences (Electric Animal, 1).

The ubiquity of animals in the modernist imagination might therefore be understood as a response to the looming threat of absence—a compensatory drive that seeks to recuperate what it recognizes to be on the brink of disappearance. By the same token, the growth of modernist animal studies may also be the result of a critical optic which seeks to unearth and preserve that which we now recognize to be endangered—a drive akin to Walter Benjamin’s assertion that historical materialism “wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.”[17] Reading modernism in the light of our present age of biodiversity loss shows us how the impending threat of extinction galvanizes the work not just of preservation, but also of recovery, focusing our attention, in the words of T. S. Eliot, not only on “what is dead, but what is already living.”[18]

We see this process of recovery at work in Holly Corfield Carr’s unearthing of the lost bison in the manuscript draft of David Jones’s The Anathemata in her essay for this cluster, as well as her exploration of how Moore’s poem “The Buffalo” renders a vanishing outline in the pigments of the cave painter. Indeed, for several of our contributors, the modernist archive functions as a site of ecological renewal. It enables Alex Goody to bring back the American poet Ruth Lechlitner from the verge of extinction, in turn disclosing a vein of environmental thinking that is suffused with the “red atomic glare” of nuclear war. And as Sean Keck argues in his essay, though archives typically exhibit an anthropocentric impulse to catalogue and preserve what threatens to disappear, the curatorial practice of Marianne Moore allows for the possibility of an “ecocentric archive.” The layering of past and present in a cave, a poem, or an archive seems to demand a mode of understanding that is at once historically informed and sensitive to the strange temporal foldings that bring past and present into close proximity.

To read modernism in the sixth extinction, then, is to adopt a bifocal perspective, in which our near vision is afforded a kind of critical distance, and in which a seemingly remote past is revealed to be far nearer to our present moment than we might expect.[19] Many of the essays in this cluster allow us, in the words of our contributor David Hollingshead, “to see the present moment . . . from the perspective of a past that has never disappeared.” Hollingshead’s own essay identifies startling continuities between the “domestic ecology” of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s day and the twenty-first-century discourse of autoimmunity, which is often predicated on the notion of an endangered microbiome. David Shackleton, meanwhile, finds that H. G. Wells’s utopian novels anticipate the risk management visions of contemporary speculative fiction and environmental policy. And Shalini Sengupta identifies a “folded temporality” in the notions of extinction and survival more widely. Her essay draws attention to Bhanu Kapil’s work, including Humanimal, a 2009 prose poem that “shuttle[s] between colonial and postcolonial time.” Each of these pieces enacts, methodologically or thematically, a kind of temporal overlap between past and present, suggesting a strange persistence of modernism.

The essays in this cluster also demonstrate that the aesthetic features of modernism, forged in an era of world-historical catastrophe, have a particular relevance to the challenge of reading and writing extinction. Though not all of the literature that thinks with extinction in creative ways can or should be affixed with the label “modernist,” we propose that the sixth extinction can effect a reframing of modernist literature—redrawing its boundaries to include contemporary poets such as Bhanu Kapil, for whom the idea of extinction prompts a particularly modernist response. Sengupta’s essay reclaims and revises the notion of modernist difficulty in relation to Kapil, drawing on the work of the postcolonial thinker Édouard Glissant to reframe difficulty as a form of entanglement that requires openness to the other. Ria Banerjee, meanwhile, argues that modernism’s affective resistance, including its willingness to invite vagueness, boredom, and anxiety, are useful for teaching and studying environmental crisis. And Corfield Carr, in her essay on David Jones and other visual artists, proposes that post-impressionism and abstraction represent an aesthetic response to the discovery of the caves of Lascaux, with their records of extinct animals and peoples. Together, these essays demonstrate that modernist literature has a special capacity to help us grapple with the epistemic and experiential challenges of the sixth extinction. Indeed, understood in all of its resonances—from the cultural to the ecological to the metaphorical—these essays suggest that extinction may even be a defining concern of modernism.

To read modernism in the sixth extinction is also to help shift the critical conversation beyond ideas of conservation, which have tended to focus on small-scale engagements with local places—typically by white Western subjects—towards an awareness of the unfolding of environmental issues on a global scale.[20] Recent years have seen an interrogation of the colonialist and extractivist ideologies underpinning the early-twentieth century conservation movement and other “modern” forms of environmentalism.[21] A similar charge has been levelled against the “Anthropocene,” a term used to describe our current geological age, in which human activity has become the leading cause of environmental change. According to Kathryn Yusoff, the Anthropocene harbours a “racial blindness . . . that permeates its comfortable suppositions and its imaginaries of the planetary” (A Billion Black Anthropocenes, xii). Modernist writing provides ample evidence of this racial insensitivity: as McCracken argues in her essay for this cluster, Virginia Woolf’s response to the plumage trade bill suggests a simultaneous resistance to, and complicity within a humanist imperial discourse. Shackleton’s essay, meanwhile, reflects on H. G. Wells’s eerily prescient prediction that by the 1950s American conservationism “will have converged into a systematic exploitation of the limitless wealth of our planet”; yet it also shows that Wells’s utopias, like contemporary ecomodernist visions of a “good Anthropocene,” rely on a technocratic elitism that “assign[s] blame for environmental damage to the entire species rather than specific groups of humans.” Without dismissing either the important work that has been conducted into modernist writers’ engagement with conservation, or the value of critical discussions surrounding the Anthropocene, we believe that the concept of the sixth extinction may offer a different vantage point. Though it is one that will likely have its own limitations, our belief is that the sixth extinction can serve to usefully defamiliarize these perspectives, foregrounding the unequal effects of ecological catastrophe across different species and human groups.

Reading modernist texts in the shadow of the sixth extinction can help us to think about the possibilities as well as the limitations of literature in responding to what Gene Ray calls the “accelerating reduction of life” that marks the “terminal sum” of modernity’s ceaseless logic of expansion and accumulation.[22] Scholars working in extinction studies have frequently argued for the importance of storytelling for biodiversity politics, but its proponents have mostly favored anthropological methods of storytelling over literary-critical ones.[23] Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, for instance, describe the chapters of their book Extinction Studies as “extinction stories,” writing: “Our commitment to the storytelling mode is based on the fact that . . . stories can allow multiple meanings to travel alongside one another.”[24] Yet as Ursula K. Heise  rightly points out, narratives of extinction have also tended to “rely on the genre templates of elegy and tragedy to portray well-adapted animal species at risk or those that have already vanished through no fault of their own” (Imagining Extinction, 14).

There is, of course, much to grieve in the flood of deaths that are more than individual deaths, and in “the abrupt termination of a whole way of life, a mode of being that will never again be born or hatched into our world” (Rose, van Dooren, and Chrulew, “Introduction,” 9). And yet, as writers and scholars have noted, mourning the extinct or the going-extinct can also be a mode of resignation or even complicity. As Aldo Leopold reflects in his essay “On a Monument to the [Passenger] Pigeon” (1946): “[b]ecause our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.”[25] Scholars working in Indigenous and postcolonial studies have done important work in uncovering an ideological sleight of hand that frames extinction as a lamentable yet largely unavoidable outcome of Western progress. Philip Deloria, for instance, has exposed the violence inherent in the “vanishing Indian” discourse, while Patrick Brantlinger has shown that nineteenth-century imperialism created a widespread consensus that the extinction of native peoples around the world would be a sad but inevitable outcome of development.[26] These imperial discourses adopt a stance of mourning while using a social-Darwinist framework to obscure the violence necessary to enforce these “vanishings.” Ecocritical scholars such as Heise, Timothy Morton, and Nicole Seymour have likewise begun to question the usefulness of elegy, which, in Morton’s words, “kills nature for a second time, before it has fully happened for the first time,” and which thus “works as much against ecology as for it.”[27]

By contrast, modernism tends not to present a response to animal death that is characterized by mourning, nor one which is even necessarily elegiac. Rarely do we find a sentimental attitude towards nonhuman life displayed in modernist texts; rather, they are often marked by a degree of ambivalence, irony, or even outright hostility. One may think, for instance, of the “dispassionate” response of members of the Ramsay family to a dying mackerel in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), which lies “kicking on the floor” with “blood on its gills,” or of the perverse enjoyment that D. H. Lawrence takes in killing creatures that have slighted him in some way: blood-sucking mosquitoes, pesky porcupines.[28] The writing of Ruth Lechlitner also offers a case in point; her poetry, Goody’s essay shows us, expresses an ironic detachment from the “new word: ‘Ecology’” and the notion of “America’s Greening.” As Douglas Mao has argued: “even where modernist writing most strongly entertains the claims of the non-human or seems most averse to treating humanity as the measure of all things, it tends to keep people at the center of the picture and exhibits only a limited attraction to premises like those undergirding deep ecology.”[29] And yet, Mao goes on to suggest, the unfeeling attitude often displayed by modernist writers towards nonhuman creatures—what he terms its “colder eye”—offers no easy comfort or solutions to the mess that some human beings have made of the world, but instead keeps the limited, and often self-centered perspective displayed by humans towards other life forms in play (Mao, “Our Last September,” 48).

An instance of this “colder eye” can be found in Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “I Hear You Say So” (1945). Set in Regent’s Park a week after V.E. Day, it narrates the response of several individuals to the song of a nightingale. At first glance, this elegiac bird functions as a symbol of collective grief in the face of another mass mortality event, with its “piercing” notes serving to reawaken a society numbed by the traumatic events of the conflict.[30] Bowen’s use of an animal figure to gesture toward the horrors of war and genocide is not unique among modernist texts. In a reading of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957), Adorno suggests that Hamm and Clov’s killing of a flea with insect powder points to “the genocidal camps” of World War II, adding that: “Insecticide . . . becomes the final product of the domination of nature, which destroys itself.”[31] Insofar as it is already engaged in a struggle to comprehend, and find a means of representing, the loss of human life an unimaginable scale—be it in response to the Second World War, or any of the human atrocities that occurred during the twentieth century—modernist writing appears especially alert to the possibility of extinction.

In Bowen’s story, however, the nightingale’s presence may be read not only as response to human loss. A common presence in London parks up until the late nineteenth century, by the mid-twentieth century nightingales were an increasingly rare phenomenon. In May 1933, a live concert of nightingale song was aired by the BBC in order to raise public awareness of their declining numbers. The popularity of this event was such that live nightingale song was broadcast annually until 1942 (when it was interrupted by the sounds of an aerial bombardment and had to be aborted).[32]

At the time that Bowen wrote this story, then, people were much more likely to have heard the nightingale on the radio than in real life, and in a nod to this phenomenon, the first person who hears its distinctive song, a young man called Fred, says to his lover Violet: “Listen, they got a nightingale on the wireless!” (“I Hear You Say So,” 752).  Having disappeared from the daily soundscape of London, the nightingale can only be experienced as something mediated and unreal. For those walking in the park, it seems to come from another world: “It sang from a planet, beyond experience, drawing out longings, sending them back again frozen, piercing, not again to be borne” (753).

Fred’s mishearing anticipates an event that took place in central London in 2019, organized by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion. In a nod to the Vera Lynn song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (another haunting refrain of the Second World War), audiences gathered in Berkeley Square in London to listen to a recording of this rare songbird. 

Poster for Extinction Rebellion gathering
Fig. 2. Extinction Rebellion, The Nest Collective, and Singing With Nightingales, “Extinction Rebellion: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” event announcement, Facebook, April 29, 2019,

“Nightingales,” the organizers explained, “are a poster child for disappearing species,” adding that this action constituted “a rewilding of song and nature into London’s private owned and managed urban spaces.”[33] Yet while Extinction Rebellion’s nightingale recording appears designed to evoke a pathos that would translate into meaningful social and political action, the response to the real nightingale in “I Hear You Say So” is somewhat subdued. When the couple realize that the sound of the nightingale is coming from nearby trees, rather than the wireless, their reaction verges on indifference:

She said: “Funny if you and me heard a nightingale.”

“You and me don’t look for that sort of thing. It may have been all very well for them in the past.”

“Still, there must still be nightingales, or they couldn’t have put one on the wireless.”

“I didn’t say they’d died out; I said they don’t come round. Why should they? They can’t sell us anything.” (“I Hear You Say So,” 752)

The couple’s unfeelingness towards the nightingale suggests a form of compassion fatigue, in which their capacity to sympathize with the plight of another species has been exhausted by their own struggle for survival. Still reeling from the events of a war that is only just behind them, they find that the nightingale’s song threatens to stir up feelings that they are not ready to face: “He was right,” thinks Violet in response to its song; “we’re not made for this; we can’t take it” (753). Crucially, though, the couple’s remarks signal an awareness of extinction that fails to rouse their sympathies. Their inability to imagine the bird’s value other than in pecuniary terms (“They can’t sell us anything”) suggests an internalisation of the capitalist logic that has contributed to the nightingale’s disappearance. 

The couple’s muted response also tells us something about the difficulty of apprehending the threat of extinction as real and tangible, especially when the entities in question have become assimilated into the cultural landscape in ways that make it difficult to register their absence. In her cultural history of the nightingale, Bethan Roberts wonders whether the creature’s iconic cultural status may have impeded efforts to conserve it, arguing that “the ‘real’ bird has been obscured . . . by myriad associations, symbols, metaphors and myths.”[34] Bowen’s story hints at the disjuncture between the cultural plenitude and the material scarcity of the nightingale towards the end of the tale, when a young grieving widow stands in the middle of her room listening to it  “with profound happiness”:

It had woken her. Soon its last note dropped: to her disappointment it sang—or she heard it singing—no more that night. Disjected lines of poetry, invocations, came flooding into her mind. I cannot see what flowers are at my feet. She looked down at the carpet, wondering if a secret were in its pattern. Naturally, it was too dark to see. (“I Hear You Say So,” 757)

As the nightingale falls silent, the young widow is reminded of Keats’s famous ode to this “light-winged Dryad of the trees.”[35] Troubled by the creature’s disappearance, her mind seeks to fill the void with poetry; here too, there is an attempted “rewilding” of song. The passage attests to the strengthening of the cultural imagination in the face of disappearing life forms, as the threat of disappearance releases a “flood” of poetic images. And yet these “disjected” fragments of verse provide uneasy consolation in the face of loss; like the nightingale, they resemble the last notes of an “immortal bird” which is fading out of earshot (Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”). The text denies its readers any hope of narrative resolution, epistemological certainty, or artistic solace, ending instead on a note of darkness, both literal and hermeneutic. Yet this inconclusiveness, we suggest, may be useful in keeping our minds focused on the problem at hand; like the young widow, “we cannot see,” but we are encouraged to keep “wondering.” 

Of course, Bowen was in the dark about the full extent of the nightingale’s decline: over the past fifty years, its numbers have decreased by 90% (Roberts, Nightingale, 89). Yet her writing—particularly the various “extinct” scenes of her wartime fiction—exhibits a form of premonitory awareness that may be useful for us in our present moment.[36] In reading Bowen’s intimation of the rarity and near obsolescence of the nightingale, we find something akin to the epistemological reversal that Jesse Matz recognizes in impressionism, which stakes significant “meaning on the barest glimpse and the minimal intuition,” a form of “rudimentary awareness” from which “something substantial emerges.”[37] Might it be the case that modernism’s faint intimation of extinction can bring us to an understanding that full or total awareness forecloses? As Cari has written elsewhere, modernism’s knowledge of the sixth extinction takes the form of “occasional glimmers”: writers “knew that something called nature was threatened by something called modernization. But they could not foresee the acres of Canadian boreal forest cut down to mine the tar sands beneath it, the shorebirds covered in spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the caves littered with dead bats in New York” (Hovanec, Animal Subjects, 203). By contrast, our present awareness of the plight of global ecosystems worldwide can be overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. Reading modernism in the sixth extinction, then, might allow for a form of distance, both critical and emotional, from a future that is at once unthinkable and already present.

As we have sought to suggest, modernist writing can help to frame some of the affective and cognitive challenges raised by the sixth extinction, including the ways in which our preoccupation with our own survival can inhibit our ability to engage with the plight of other creatures, as well the struggle of those of us who exist within Western modernity to disentangle ourselves from its destructive outlook. As Anne Raine has previously argued for “In These Times,” modernist texts can help us to grapple with our collusion as Western subjects with the forces of ecological devastation: “Because they are so often perplexing and even objectionable, I think modernist texts may offer both models and occasions . . . for reflecting on how to address our own investment in modernity’s freedoms as well as our entanglement in its deadly legacies of social and ecological injustice, mass extinction, and accelerating climate change; for doing the learning and unlearning we all need to do.”[38] 

Many of the essays in this cluster examine the troubling complicity of modernist writing with the destructive outlooks of capitalist expansion and imperial subjugation. In his reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, Hollingshead argues that Gilman’s seemingly radical exploration of the human subject’s microbial entanglements betrays a form of eugenic thinking that persists to this day, which casts “whiteness as microbially impoverished and in need of revitalization via its immersion in ‘primitive’ environments.” As many of the articles in this cluster aptly demonstrate, reading modernism can help us to uncover certain lingering and harmful assumptions, especially about race, that undergird contemporary ecological thinking. To borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway, these readings “stay with the trouble” rather than ducking the complexities of complicity.[39]

Modernism Facing Extinction

Yet this emphasis on writers’ entanglement with the forces of modernity also points to a limitation of our project. “Reading Modernism in the Sixth Extinction” is predominantly focused on white British and American authors—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, David Jones, Marianne Moore, and Ruth Lechlitner. Bhanu Kapil, a contemporary British-Indian poet, is the only exception. This focus does not mean that white modernist writers have any special claim on ecological thought; rather, it reflects our combined expertise as scholars of Anglo-American modernism, as well as our sense that there is something to be learned from closely examining the literary productions of the cultures most responsible for the sixth extinction. These writers’ representations of extinction offer a view from inside two of the global north countries that are most culpable in bringing the abuses of colonialism, capitalism, and carbon emissions to the rest of the world. Their awareness of extinction and the issues that surround it warrants critical attention, but our critical readings also aim to register the limitations of their perspectives in ways that may help us to recognize, and challenge, some of the insufficiencies of contemporary ecological discourse, particularly around issues of class and race.

It is our belief, moreover, that a fuller understanding of alternatives to this ecocidal regime in the literary imagination requires the study of Indigenous, Black, Latino, and Asian literatures alongside as well as beyond Anglo-American modernism. We would especially direct readers to Deborah Bird Rose’s Wild Dog Dreaming, which shares Aboriginal Australian stories about humans and animals, particularly the endangered dingo; Susan McHugh’s Love in a Time of Slaughters, which analyzes representations of animal deaths and interspecies relationships in contemporary narratives by the Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, the Toareg writer Ibrahim al-Koni, and the Inuit Qikiqtani Truth Commission, among others; and Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself and Bénédicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog, which examine animal figures, respectively, in African American and Black diasporic literatures, with an awareness of the shared precarity of Black and nonhuman life.[40] Bennett, for instance, emphasizes the possibility of finding other, less violent forms of sociality and ecology in Black literature, suggesting that “black thought in the end times, at the End of Man,” might look like “strangers gathered in the Clearing, perhaps, to envisage a new way” (Being Property Once Myself, 13). Ultimately, then, while we think the subject of extinction benefits from a consideration of modernist literature, and that modernist studies itself can, paradoxically, be expanded and repopulated in light of current concerns surrounding biodiversity loss, our belief is that it should not get stuck there. A just ecological imaginary for the earth’s many species will need the insights of many literatures beyond the label of modernism, however expansive the term continues to become.

Our final rationale for this cluster is that we can’t not read modernism in the sixth extinction, because it’s where we are. Today, our reading of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) takes place between bouts of doomscrolling through headlines about the precipitous decline in insect numbers, the millions of animals killed in Australian bushfires, and the selling off of the Amazon rainforest. We cannot help but carry this knowledge into our scholarship and teaching, but in reflecting on this awareness, we join a recent cohort of modernist scholars and teachers looking back at twentieth-century literature through the prism of twenty-first-century concerns. In  “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation,” Megan Quigley notes that her classes “are becoming more, rather than less, riveted by Eliot’s writing . . . . Students born in the 1990s see their own experiences of sexual violence, economic precarity, and racism refracted in Eliot’s fragmented war-torn verse.”[41] Likewise, Raine suggests that ecocritical modernist studies is motivated by the conversations and obligations of the classroom, writing: “I increasingly feel that one thing I can do, if I’m not going to quit my job and campaign full-time for climate action, is to help students develop not just the knowledge but also the courage and compassion they will need to live through the precarious times ahead” (“Modernism, Eco-Anxiety, and the Climate Crisis”).

This consideration of how best to guide a generation of students who are, in large part, coming of age into a less biodiverse, ecologically impoverished world animates our cluster as well. Banerjee’s essay, in particular, examines what it means to teach modernist literature and environmental crisis at a New York City community college. In a year marked by a global pandemic, racist policing, the swelling and suppression of protests, and the continuation of tech surveillance, unjust agricultural systems, and environmental abuses, she and her students find in their classroom discussions of Forster’s “The Machine Stops” a crucial space to come together (even if virtually) and reflect on how these bewildering strands are all connected. The common thread is a feeling of responsibility toward students: yes, we may teach the literature of an earlier era, but to ignore the shattering material conditions that surround and encroach on the classroom increasingly feels like a dereliction of duty.

Among these shattering material conditions, it is difficult to ignore the collapse of academic hiring and what looks to be the likely extinction of modernist studies itself as a hiring field in the near future. The fact that the US job market has posted, at best, single-digit numbers of jobs in modern and contemporary British literature over the past three cycles, with the UK job market not far behind, means that we ourselves are writing as endlings of a sort. Only three years ago, Claire Barber-Stetson warned that beneath the critical exuberance over the expansions of the new modernist studies, the institutional support for literature, languages, and graduate education was in the process of being hollowed out.[42] Though there have been other factors at work, this past year might be seen as the year the ice finally broke, revealing this underlying hollowness for all to see. This dismantling of modernism’s future is especially pertinent for those of us who teach graduate students (What does it mean to train scholars of modernism when literature departments no longer hire them?), but it has a bearing on all of us as practitioners of a field that is currently being driven toward extinction by neoliberal administrative mandates and the defunding of education. As Anna Kornbluh argues, an ecocidal regime and a regimented dismantling of the university are not only the “ruling ideas of our time”; they are also the environment that conditions our work as critics.[43] A further discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this introduction, but if nothing else, the vanishing of modernism as a hiring field should be a reminder that such extinctions are not natural; they are the results of deliberate policy choices.

The question, then, is how to balance a scholarly commitment to historicizing literary texts with a commitment to our students and ourselves to recognize and address the material conditions, including ecological collapse, petro-capitalism, and the disturbing rise of eco-fascism, that shape our work as scholars, teachers, and students. The essays in this cluster respond to this challenge in imaginative, generative ways, demonstrating how paying close attention to modernism’s literary-historical, formal, affective, and socio-political dimensions can enrich our understanding of the sixth extinction, then and now. If, as Keck surmises, Moore’s poetry can issue the imperative “to think more deeply about what is worth saving,” these essays show that there is still much in modernism that we should seek to keep alive.


[1] Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Calder and Boyars, 1967), 249.

[2] Chris Heller, “Martha, the Very Last Passenger Pigeon,” The Atlantic, September 18, 2014,

[3] The phrase is borrowed from Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962).

[4] Simon Pokagon, “The Wild Pigeon of North America,” in The Passenger Pigeon, ed. W. B. Mershon (New York: Outing, 1907), 48–59, 54.

[5] Barbara Allen, Pigeon (London: Reaktion, 2009), 176–77.

[6] Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (London: Basic Books, 1999), 6.

[7] See Gillian Beer, “Darwin and the Uses of Extinction,” in “Darwin and the Evolution of Victorian Studies,” ed. Jonathan Smith, special issue, Victorian Studies 51, no. 2 (2009): 321–31, 332–33; and David Sepkoski, Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 2–4.

[8] New York Times article quoted in Mark Avery, A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its Relevance Today (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 136; William Temple Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation (New York: New York Zoological Society, 1913), vii, viii, 32.

[9] Jurriaan M. de Vos, Lucas N. Joppa, John L. Gittleman, Patrick R. Stephens, and Stuart L. Pimm, “Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction,” Conservation Biology 29, no. 2 (2015): 452–62,

[10] See also Tim Dee, “Martha, My Dear,” Caught by the River, September 1, 2014,

[11] “A Century of Memories and Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon,” Project Passenger Pigeon,

[12] This objection to blaming “humanity” at large for the ecological abuses of particular groups also animates much of the scholarship contesting the term “Anthropocene” and proposing alternatives. See, for example, Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), which argues that the concept Anthropocene “proclaims the language of species life—anthropos” by erasing the “histories of racism” subtending the extractive economy that caused it (4); and Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg’s “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 62–69, which points out, “In the early 21st century, the poorest 45% of the human population accounted for 7% of [carbon dioxide] emissions, while the richest 7% produced 50% . . . . Are these basic facts reconcilable with a view of humankind as the new geological agent?” (64).

[13] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.

[14] Caroline Hovanec, Animal Subjects: Literature, Zoology, and British Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Carrie Rohman, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Derek Ryan and Mark West, “Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism,” special issue, Twentieth-Century Literature 61, no. 3 (2015); Christina Alt, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Mary Bryden, Beckett and Animals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Jane Goldman, “‘Ce chien est à moi’: Virginia Woolf and the Signifying Dog,” Woolf Studies Annual 13 (2007): 49–86; Derek Ryan, “Katherine Mansfield’s Animal Aesthetics,” Modern Fiction Studies 64, no. 1 (2018), 27–51; Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015) (see especially chapter 1 on Marianne Moore); Kelly Sultzbach, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) (see especially chapter 3 on Auden); Maud Ellman, The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud (Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2010), 14–34; Rachel Murray, The Modernist Exoskeleton: Insects, War, Literary Form (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); Daniel Aureliano Newman, Modernist Life Histories: Biological Theory and the Experimental Bildungsroman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019); Cathryn Setz, Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019); Carrie Rohman, Choreographies of the Living: Bioaesthetics in Literature, Art, and Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[15] Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion, 2000), 20.

[16] Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 3.

[17] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 253–64, 255.

[18] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company 1932), 3–11, 11.

[19] Our approach is in keeping with several recent studies, which have sought to situate our present moment of environmental crisis within a longer historical timeframe. As Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer point out, “the carbon-saturated atmosphere we breathe today is, in both metaphorical and brutely chemical senses, the atmosphere” of the Victorians, who instituted the fossil fuel and imperial economies we still inhabit. That air also unites us with the modernists. Hensley and Steer, “Introduction: Ecological Formalism; or, Love Among the Ruins,” in Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire, ed. Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 1–17, 3.

[20] Important work has been undertaken in this area in the past few years. See Andrew Kalaidjian, Exhausted Ecologies: Modernism and Environmental Recovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[21] See Dorceta Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray, “Introduction: Why Latinx Environmentalisms?,” in Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial, ed. Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray (Temple University Press, 2019), 1–20.

[22] Gene Ray, “Resisting Extinction: Standing Rock, Eco-Genocide, and Survival,” South as a State of Mind 9 (2017),

[23] Two exceptions are Ursula K. Heise’s Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016) and Susan McHugh’s Love in a Time of Slaughters: Human-Animal Stories Against Genocide and Extinction (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019).

[24] Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, “Introduction: Telling Extinction Stories,” in Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, ed. Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 1–17, 3.

[25] Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon” (1946), rpt. in BirdWatching, October 2, 2018,

[26] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 64–65, 90–91; Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[27] Timothy Morton, “The Dark Ecology of Elegy,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (Oxford University Press, 2010), 251–271, 255, 256. Heise, in Imagining Extinction, suggests that while mourning has played an important role in environmental ethics, comedy might be a more enabling form than elegy for the ecological imagination (50). And Nicole Seymour, in Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), champions absurdity and irony as affective alternatives to the sentimentality and sanctimoniousness of mainstream environmental politics. For an important and persuasive defense of elegy, however, see Jesse Oak Taylor, “Mourning Species: In Memoriam in an Age of Extinction,” in Ecological Form, 42–62, which argues that elegy remains vital because it brings into being new publics (59).

[28] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 139; see D. H. Lawrence, “The Mosquito” (1923), Poetry Foundation,, and “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine” (1925), (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963).

[29] Douglas Mao, “Our Last September: Climate Change in Modernist Time,” in The Contemporaneity of Modernism: Literature, Media, Culture, ed. Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges (New York: Routledge, 2016), 31–48, 45.

[30] Elizabeth Bowen, “I Hear You Say So,” in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 751–57, 753.

[31] Theodor Adorno, “Trying to Understand Endgame,” trans. Michael T. Jones, New German Critique 26 (1982): 119–50, 145.

[32] Iain Logie Baird, “Capturing the Song of the Nightingale,” Science Museum Group Journal 4 (2015),

[33] Zoe Blackler, “An Impossible Ending, as Nightingales Return to Berkeley Square,” Extinction Rebellion, April 21, 2020,

[34] Bethan Roberts, Nightingale (London: Reaktion, 2021), 3.

[35] John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” Poetry Foundation,

[36] Elizabeth Bowen, “In the Square,” in Collected Stories, 609–15, 609.

[37] Jesse Matz, Lasting Impressions: The Legacies of Impressionism in Contemporary Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 230.

[38] Anne Raine, “Modernism, Eco-Anxiety, and the Climate Crisis,” In These Times (blog), Modernism/Modernity Print Plus 4, cycle 3 (2019),

[39] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[40] Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); McHugh, Love in a Time of Slaughters; Joshua Bennett, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020); Bénédicte Boisseron, Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[41] Megan Quigley, “#MeToo, Eliot, and Modernist Scholarship,” in “#MeToo and Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity Print Plus 5, cycle 2 (2020),

[42] Claire Barber-Stetson, “Modern Insecurities, or, Living on the Edge,” in “Modernism’s Contemporary Affects,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 3, cycle 4 (2018), Barber-Stetson further suggests the rise of global modernisms is bound up with neoliberal patterns including the defunding of comparative literature, the contracting job market for literature PhDs, and an increasing precarity for graduate students and early career scholars, who are expected to do ever more with ever fewer resources.

[43] Anna Kornbluh, “Extinct Critique,” South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 4 (2020): 767–77, 771.