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The Midwestern Pastoral

Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland

William Barillas

Publication Year: 2006

Winner of the Midwestern Studies Book Award, The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland relates Midwestern pastoral writers to their local geographies and explains their approaches. William Barrillas treats five important Midwestern pastoralists---Willa Cather, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roethke, James Wright, and Jim Harrison---in separate chapters. He also discusses Jane Smiley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, current U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Paul Gruchow, author of Grass Roots, and others. The Midwestern pastoral is a literary tradition of place and rural experience that celebrates an attachment to land that is mystical as well as practical, based on historical and scientific knowledge as well as personal experience. It is exemplified in poetry, fiction, and essays that expresses an informed love of nature and regional landscapes of the Midwest.Drawing on recent studies in cultural geography, environmental history, and mythology, as well as literary criticism, this book will appeal to students and serious readers, as well as scholars in the growing field of literature and the environment. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: William Barillas is assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is the author of many essays on American literature and the editor of the forthcoming Interior Borderlands: Writings on Latino/a Literature of Chicago and the Midwest.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Front Matter

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pp. i-v


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xv

This is a book about literary place, focused on writers with strong attachments to particular rural landscapes in the American Midwest. Following a general introduction and a chapter on the historical background of midwestern pastoral ideology and literature, I devote separate chapters to five major writers:Willa Cather,Aldo Leopold,Theodore Roethke, James Wright, and Jim Harrison....

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pp. xvii-xxi

This book won the Midwestern Studies Book Award, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature (SSML) and Ohio University Press. As the society’s representative, Edward Watts directed the review of my manuscript; David Sanders, director of the press, saw it through to publication. I extend to them my sincere gratitude and respect. I must recognize two...

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pp. 1-9

With these lines Robert Bly begins “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield,” a poem in Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), his first book and one that celebrates the prairie of the poet’s native Minnesota and other midwestern American landscapes. The speaker’s caution in approaching the willow initially suggests physical awkwardness and feelings of existential absurdity. Hesitation, however, turns to ritual observance, as he circles the tree and comes to dwell in...

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Chapter One. Midwestern Pastoralism

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pp. 11-54

The five writers who concern me emerge not only from literary tradition, but also from a specific geography and history that shaped their ideas about the human estate in nature. This chapter examines the significance of the Midwest in American culture and the long-standing association of the region with pastoral...

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Chapter Two. Willa Cather

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pp. 55-83

The experience of landscape and place pervades the writing of Willa Cather, from her early stories to her late novels. Although she was born in Virginia and lived most of her adult life in eastern cities, Cather is most closely identified with the tallgrass prairie of southeastern Nebraska, the setting of many of her best fictions. Cather’s...

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Chapter Three. Aldo Leopold

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pp. 84-104

The pastoral impulse behind Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels also manifested itself in the life and work of Aldo Leopold (1877–1948), ecologist and essayist. Leopold is best remembered as the author of A Sand County Almanac (1949), a classic of American nature writing primarily noted for the thesis of its capstone essay, “The Land Ethic”: that society needs to expand its ethical boundaries to...

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Chapter Four. Theodore Roethke

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pp. 105-140

In 1948, Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack while fighting a brush fire on his Wisconsin farm.The same year saw the publication of The Lost Son by Theodore Roethke, the volume that secured his reputation as a major American poet. Like Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, published the following year, Roethke’s second book conveys...

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Chapter Five. James Wright

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pp. 141-168

Among Roethke’s students at the University of Washington during the 1950s was James Wright, who remembered his teacher as “a genuine poet . . . one of the chosen ones” (Collected Prose, 155). Later writers have come to think of Wright in similar terms. Born and...

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Chapter Six. Jim Harrison

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pp. 169-205

One important heir to the pastoral tradition of Cather, Leopold, Roethke, and Wright is Jim Harrison, poet,novelist, and essayist. Born in 1937, Harrison spent his childhood on a farm in northern Michigan, a region where he has lived most of his life and where much of his writing is set. As a boy, Harrison spent hours...

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Chapter Seven. Further Views

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pp. 206-225

According to a well-established critical trope, the Midwest and its literature have passed into history, their best days having fled before the homogenizing effects of globalization and mass media. Ronald Weber suggests that these forces put “the Midwest as a place . . . more than ever in danger of vanishing completely...


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pp. 227-239

Works Cited

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pp. 241-250


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pp. 251-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780821442012
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821416600

Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 182530454
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Midwestern Pastoral

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Middle West -- History and criticism.
  • Pastoral literature, American -- History and criticism.
  • Authors, American -- Homes and haunts -- Middle West.
  • Middle West -- In literature.
  • Landscapes in literature.
  • Place (Philosophy) in literature.
  • Middle West -- Intellectual life.
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