Bad Land Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction
Publication Year: 2010
At the core of this nuanced book is the question that ecocritics have been debating for decades: what is the relationship between aesthetics and activism, between art and community? By using a pastoral lens to examine ten fictional narratives that chronicle the dialogue between human culture and nonhuman nature on the Great Plains, Matthew Cella explores literary treatments of a succession of abrupt cultural transitions from the Euroamerican conquest of the “Indian wilderness” in the nineteenth century to the Buffalo Commons phenomenon in the twentieth. By charting the shifting meaning of land use and biocultural change in the region, he posits this bad land—the arid West—as a crucible for the development of the human imagination.
Each chapter deals closely with two novels that chronicle the same crisis within the Plains community. Cella highlights, for example, how Willa Cather reconciles her persistent romanticism with a growing disillusionment about the future of rural Nebraska, how Tillie Olsen and Frederick Manfred approach the tragedy of the Dust Bowl with strikingly similar visions, and how Annie Proulx and Thomas King use the return of the buffalo as the centerpiece of a revised mythology of the Plains as a palimpsest defined by layers of change and response. By illuminating these fictional quests for wholeness on the Great Plains, Cella leads us to understand the intricate interdependency of people and the places they inhabit.
Cella uses the term “pastoralism” in its broadest sense to mean a mode of thinking that probes the relationship between nature and culture: a discourse concerned with human engagement—material and nonmaterial—with the nonhuman community. In all ten novels discussed in this book, pastoral experience—the encounter with the Beautiful—leads to a renewed understanding of the integral connection between human and nonhuman communities. Propelling this tradition of bad land pastoralism are an underlying faith in the beauty of wholeness that comes from inhabiting a continuously changing biocultural landscape and a recognition of the inevitability of change. The power of story and language to shape the direction of that change gives literary pastoralism the potential to support an alternative series of ideals based not on escape but on stewardship: community, continuity, and commitment.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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Foreword by Wayne Franklin
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Introduction: Biocultural Change and Literary Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction
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Within the realm of literary studies, the word pastoral is likely to conjure up a series of related experiences revolving around the process of escaping: retreat, renew, refresh, and—sometimes—return. Whether it is Huck Finn “lighting out for the territories” of the trans- Mississippi west, Nick Adams fishing the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Penin-...
1. (Un)settling the Indian Wilderness: Tribal Pastoralism in Cooper’s The Prairie and Welch’s Fools Crow
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As a period of significant transition and transformation on the Great Plains, the Euroamerican conquest of tribal lands in the West provides a logical starting point from which to begin a discussion concerning the discursive power of bad land pastoralism. An examination of frontier contact from a land- use perspective illustrates the ways in which pastoralism may be employed to make sense of the cultural and ecological consequences of the major biocultural shift precipitated by the arrival...
2. Pastoralism and Enclosure: Marriage and Illegitimate Children on the Range-FarmFrontier in Eaton’s Cattle and Richter’s Sea of Grass
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In some ancient wilderness, so the story goes, two brothers— one a herdsman and the other a tiller of the soil—made offerings to their god. This god looked favorably upon Brother Herder’s offering and in turn rejected the humble fruits of Brother Farmer’s labor. Indignant and envious in the face of this slight, Brother Farmer went out into the fields the next day and murdered his competition. Needless to say, this act did not help his cause in the eyes of his god.
3. Harmonious Fields and Wild Prairies: Transcendental Pastoralism in Willa Cather’s Nebraska Novels
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The homesteading success of Angella Loring and Nettie Day in Eaton’s Cattle provides a microcosmic expression of a broader bioregional and literary phenomenon that is most readily associated with Willa Cather. Indeed, Cather certainly warrants special attention here, as her Nebraska fiction provides a comprehensive literary record of the profound changes wrought upon the Plains by the Euroamerican homesteaders and road makers of the West.
4. Patches of Green and Fields of Dust: Dust Bowl Pastoralism in Olsen’s Yonnondio and Manfred’s The Golden Bowl
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The human and ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl as a land- event throws into relief the ambivalent heritage of land use on the Great Plains and provides a catalyst for renewed and revised articulations of bad land pastoralism.1 In many ways, the Dust Bowl is the consummate “bad land” event. It is a dramatic human and environmental tragedy that simultaneously registers the dusty reality of what is there and exposes, through its loss, the romantic fantasy concerning what might have been. As attempts to rectify the gap between the reality and the fantasy, bad land pastorals dramatize moments of transition that beg questions about what it means to adapt to and inhabit a place. To
5. Healing the Wounds of History: Buffalo Commons Pastoralism in Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole and King’s Truth and Bright Water
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In 1987, Frank and Deborah Popper, a Rutgers- based couple, published their Buffalo Commons proposal as a response to what they saw as a reemerging crisis on the Great Plains that involved massive depopulation from rural counties and continued ecological devastation brought on by the cumulative effects of centuries of drought, overgrazing, and over- irrigating. Their proposal called for the transformation of a large portion of the Great Plains, particularly those counties most in distress, into a federally owned and managed park where the prairies could be restored and the buffalo could roam again.1
Epilogue: Pastoral Art and the Beautiful
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As a wealthy “famous Indian artist,” Monroe Swimmer can afford to bypass economic considerations when he uses his land for artistic purposes, and he is therefore free to ignore the financial pressures and temptations that haunt those whose livelihood depends upon making the land produce. Assessing the practical value of Monroe’s restoration project thus ...
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Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2010
Series Title: American Land & Life