Re-discovering Leonard Dubkin, Chicago Urban Nature Writer

As a literary critic, one recognizes the rare privilege in discovering an obscure yet talented writer — whether someone living or from the distant past — and reintroducing that person to a contemporary readership. Such was my opportunity a few years ago when I came across a book by Leonard Dubkin (1905–72) in a used bookstore in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. That serendipitous finding was the seed of a research project on Dubkin, a self-taught naturalist and longtime Chicago journalist, which culminated this month in the publication of my essay, “Empty Lots and Secret Places,” in the Winter 2011 issue of Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment. As I write in the article’s introduction:

Dubkin [was] an urban naturalist and Chicago writer who immersed himself in Chicago’s natural history long before the recent rediscovery of urban environments by literary critics and nature writers. Like the [small city] park that commemorates him, Dubkin has been easy to overlook. Although he penned several books on nature in the city, wrote a widely read nature column for Lerner Newspapers in Chicago for many years, and published frequently in major national newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and New York Times, Dubkin today is a virtual unknown.

Yet the recent resurgence of interest in the environmental issues and history of urban areas in general and the Chicago region in particular makes Dubkin’s work important. His writings are a rich historical document of urban nature as well as a detailed exploration of one person’s engagement with the “wild” elements of the city: plants, birds, insects, mammals, and various representatives of the human population. Dubkin has much to say not just to Chicagoans interested in their city’s environment or to aficionados of nature writing, but to all who are engaged in the conservation, preservation, restoration, and representation of urban nature. He speaks, as well, to city and suburban dwellers who feel alienated from an idealized nature they imagine exists only “out there,” away from urban sprawl and congestion.

Dubkin’s essays and books extol the value of the commonplace and mundane for exploring biological adaptation and ecological complexity, illustrate the rewards of patient observation of and direct experience with natural phenomena, and explore the inescapable interconnection of humanity and nature in the urban landscape.

I frequently teach selections from Dubkin’s books in my humanities seminar at Roosevelt University, and students respond enthusiastically to his work. While my essay is the first scholarly treatment of Dubkin’s work, short excerpts from his books have been included in two recent literary anthologies: Terrell Dixon’s City Wilds: Essays and Stories about Urban Nature (2002) and Joel Greenberg’s Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing (2008). These books not only signal the growing interest in the genre of urban environmental writing, but also illustrate the significance of Dubkin’s work within national literary contexts as well as the environmental history of the Chicago region.

Appreciations and thanks go to Terrell Dixon, professor of English at the University of Houston and colleague in the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, who back in 2005 strongly encouraged me to follow my interest in Dubkin’s writings. Roosevelt University supported my work with a faculty research and professional development leave in the spring of 2007. Last but far from least, Chicago Jewish News journalist and editor Pauline Dubkin Yearwood granted me two interviews and access to a treasure trove of her father’s documents and letters that greatly informed and inspired my research.

This entry was posted in Chicago, Criticism, Literature, Research, Urban ecology. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Re-discovering Leonard Dubkin, Chicago Urban Nature Writer

  1. Larry Howe says:


    Glad to see this in print. As I said when you first presented it to our group, I am very enthusiastic about your work on this project. I hope that this is the first in a series or a step toward a larger work.



  2. Pingback: Professor Mike Bryson Publishes Essay On Leonard Dubkin, Chicago Urban Nature Writer | Sustainability Studies @ Roosevelt University

  3. Pingback: Monday Miscellany « resistance is fertile

  4. Angela Deller says:

    I came across a copy of “The Natural History of a Backyard” while cleaning out my 86-year old mothers house in NJ to prepare for her move to Providence, RI where I live. I have a background in natural resources, and currently have a gardening business in the Providence area which focuses on sustainable gardening practices.
    I couldn’t put the book down once I started reading it! It is absolutely fascinating that he devoted so much time (sometimes in lieu of going to work) to make detailed observations in his tiny little corner of Chicago. And so much fascinating information and discoveries inside. Who nowadays spends that much time watching nature? It seems to me that he is the “Jane Goodall” of the backyard.
    I was going to write a post for my gardening blog on his book, and in the course of checking out information on Dubkin, came across your information. Fabulous! I know his daughter, Pauline was managing editor for the Chicago Jewish News in 2005… you must have seen the article she wrote. Have you tried to get in touch with her to get her memories of “the backyard” experience?
    I look forward to reading more about him in your postings….

    • Michael Bryson says:

      Thank you, Angela, for your note here; and it’s fascinating to me that you came across Dubkin’s book in this fashion. Yes, I know his daughter, Pauline Yearwood, and have read her article. We met for a couple of interviews in the spring of 2007 and she was very gracious in sharing information about her father’s life and work. In fact, I acknowledge her specifically in the article I wrote about his urban nature writing.

  5. Pingback: Bryson Publishes Article on Chicago Journalist-Naturalist « RU College of Professional Studies Blog

  6. Dubkin’s The White Lady is one book which whetted my appetite for learning about the natural world. My grandparents owned this title and I read it more than once while visiting them on long summer vacations as a child. I would dearly love to have a copy, and want to find more of his books.

    • Michael Bryson says:

      Kimberley, thank you for your note about The White Lady. I can see why were you entranced by this book as a kid, since it has inherent appeal to youth and adult alike in its account of Dubkin’s relationship with this albino bat. Interestingly, his daughter Pauline has told me that this is her favorite of all his books.

      Dubkin’s oeuvre is out of print, but you can find used copies of his books on the internet, which is how I got most of mine several years ago. I managed to get decent copies of all of them at fairly reasonable prices.

  7. Pingback: Homepage

Comments are closed.