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The term ecotone merges the root of “ecology” with the Greek tonos, or tension. In biological sciences it denotes an area of transition between biotic communities. Yet eco-tone might also suggest how artistic expression, in the broadest sense, emerges from tensions that cannot be separated from environments. From the cultural naturalist point of view, the roots of aesthetic experience lie in organic life as such, in the rhythm of need and temporary fulfillment of need in any organism. People need more than food, drink, and sunlight—we require a sense of meaning. Without it, as Richard Wright insisted, we either die or are filled with destructive rage. Underlying ethics, the arts of language are fundamental to how communities shape a sustainable life of meaning, and they have ecological effects. This lecture will trace Frederick Douglass’s emergence into authorship and abolitionist leadership from an ecological point of view, analyzing both his own descriptions of his feelings and actions at pivotal moments of heightened tension and the effect of geographical circumstances on the resources available to him. We think of Douglass’s achievement as primarily political, but underlying the politics and empowering it was an essentially aesthetic process.
George Hutchinson is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture in the English Department at Cornell University, and a Fellow of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. His research has chiefly concerned the racial culture of the United States, particularly in its interracial relations, and African American literature. His books include Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s (2018); In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006); The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (1996); and The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union (1986). He also edited the Penguin Classics edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane (2019), Anita Reynolds’s previously unpublished memoir, American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World (2014), The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (1997), and, with John K. Young, Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850 (2013). His books have been honored by the Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa, the Modern Language Association, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Choice magazine, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, and other venues. He has held fellowships from the NEH and the Guggenheim Foundation.