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Aaron Sachs Sachs2013

Associate Professor
Director of Undergraduate Studies

Office: 350 McGraw Hall
Phone: (607) 255-1978
Fax: (607) 255-0469

Office Hours: Monday: 11:45-12:45 and Wednesday: 2:30-3:30, or by appointment

Research and Teaching Interests

My general focus is on nature and culture: I wander through parks, cemeteries, and wilderness areas (often with my kids), stare at landscape paintings and photographs, and re-read Thoreau, all in an effort to figure out how ideas about nature have changed over time and how those changes have mattered in the western world. Currently (2013-14) I’m investigating the environmental dimensions of modern consciousness, through a study of Herman Melville and the 20th-century urban theorist Lewis Mumford, who participated actively in the rediscovery of Melville in the 1920s. Both of these writers explored the trauma of radically transformed environments and environmental relationships, trying to cope with the hum of machinery, the reek of coal smoke, and the taste of mass-produced food, and hoping to construct alternative ways of living that would hearken back to earlier eras.

My primary appointment is in the History department, but my Ph.D. is in American Studies, and I remain fully committed to interdisciplinary approaches. In my graduate teaching, I work with students not only in History but also in English, Science and Technology Studies, History of Architecture, City and Regional Planning, and Natural Resources. On the undergraduate level, I teach courses ranging from an overview of environmental history to seminars on consumerism, the American West, the meanings of wilderness, and the road trip in American culture. Often I come back to intellectual traditions of dissent.

Another strong interest is in creative writing, and I happily serve as the faculty sponsor of a radical underground organization called Historians Are Writers, which brings together Cornell graduate students who believe that academic writing can actually be moving on a deeply human level. I also seek to support innovative history writing through a book series at Yale University Press, called New Directions in Narrative History (John Demos and I are the co-editors).

At Cornell, I’m also the founder and coordinator of the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST), which holds lunchtime events on campus and also sponsors evening sessions where we discuss relevant books and articles that we’ve read in common. And I’m delighted to be a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a member of the center’s Faculty Advisory Board.

Links: Historians Are Writers and CREST (Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics)

On Leave 2013-14, at the Charles Warren Center, Harvard University.


Fall 2014:
HIST 3450
Cultural and Intellectual Life of 19th Century Americans Syllabus
Spring 2015:
HIST 2581
Environmental History
HIST 6000
Graduate Research Seminar


Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 2004
A.B. in History and Literature, Harvard University, 1992

Recent Publications and Awards


Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (Yale U. Press, January 2013).

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking, 2006).

"American Arcadia: Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nineteenth-Century Landscape Tradition," Environmental History 15 (April 2010), 206-35.

"Letters to a Tenured Historian: Imagining History as Creative Nonfiction—or Maybe even Poetry,"” Rethinking History 14 (March 2010), 5-38.

"Special Topics in Calamity History: A Review of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth," Reviews in American History, Vol. 35 (Sept. 2007).

“Civil Rights in the Field: Carey McWilliams as a Public-Interest Historian and Social Ecologist,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 73 (May 2004).

“The Ultimate ‘Other’: Post-Colonialism and Alexander von Humboldt’s Ecological Relationship with Nature,” History and Theory, Theme Issue on the Environment, Vol. 42, December, 2003.

“Virtual Ecology: A Brief Environmental History of Silicon Valley,” World Watch, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1999).


Faculty Fellowship, Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Harvard University (focal theme: The Environment and the American Past), 2013-14.

Award for Excellence in the Teaching, Advising, and Mentoring of Graduate and Professional Students, Cornell University, May 2013.

Named a “Most Influential Professor,” Merrill Presidential Scholarship Program, Cornell University, May 2013.

Robert and Helen Appel Fellowship for Humanists and Social Scientists (for merit in teaching and research), Cornell University, 2010.

Faculty Fellowship, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, 2008-09.

Peterson (Short-Term) Fellowship, American Antiquarian Society, 2007-08.

Named a "Top Young Historian" by the History News Network, March, 2007.

Honorable Mention, Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in U.S. History, Organization of American Historians, 2007.

Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellowship, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2006-7. 

John Addison Porter Prize (for dissertation), Yale University, 2005. 

George Washington Egleston Historical Prize (for dissertation), Yale University, 2005. 

Prize Teaching Fellowship, Yale University, 2003-4.

Mrs. Giles Whiting Dissertation Fellowship, 2003-4.

Graduate Affiliate Fellowship, Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, 2003-4.

Huntington Library Research Fellowship, 2001-2.

Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders Research Grant, Yale University, 2001-2.

Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education, 1998-2002.

Project Censored Award in U.S. journalism, for an article on Nigerian playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1998.