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Feminists of the Middle Border: Willa Cather, Hamlin Garland, and the Female Land Ethic

From: CEA Critic
Volume 75, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 93-108 | 10.1353/cea.2013.0011

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As children of the region that Hamlin Garland referred to as the “Middle Border”—the agricultural area roughly encompassing Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Nebraska—Garland and Willa Cather were well acquainted with the ways in which nineteenth-century rural life could both inspire artistic achievement and threaten the health and intellectual opportunities of its inhabitants. Some of their most influential works, including Garland’s short story collection Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy” novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), consider this dichotomous relationship with the American West and, more specifically, how women of the late nineteenth century sought to reconcile a desire for autonomy with the drudgery of farm life. Cumulatively, these works highlight the authors’ shared awareness of the cultural limitations imposed by an agricultural lifestyle and suggest a need for increased opportunities for rural women and emphasize the benefits of marital equality. Despite their overlapping feminist agendas, however, the farmer’s daughter of Garland’s stories—a pathetic, endangered figure who surfaces time and time again in his early fiction—repeatedly fails to achieve the self-fulfillment of Cather’s heroines. This trend suggests that Garland was reluctant to imagine the agricultural opportunities available to women of the era or to acknowledge the cultural and practical benefits afforded to women who acquired great knowledge of their natural environments. As a result, Garland compromises his feminist agenda in his repeated depictions of farm women who need to be rescued and in his dismissal of the importance of a land ethic to his characters’ development.

Aldo Leopold famously advocated the land ethic in A Sand County Almanac in 1949, explaining that such an outlook “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” “In short,” Leopold writes, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (171). Garland excludes his female characters from thoughtful, respectful participation in the “land-community” to which they belong while women regionalists, including Cather, were already drawing regularly on women’s investment in the health of, and their relationships to, their rural environments in their prose, prefiguring Leopold in their respect for the natural world and its inhabitants. Acknowledging the absence among Garland’s female farmers of the sort of complex place-relationship that is best summarized by Leopold as one’s land ethic invigorates ecofeminist discourse by injecting an unjustly overlooked regionalist into an eclectic, ongoing discussion of perceptional differences among genders.

This study explores two distinct conceptualizations of women’s attitudes toward their rural environments, and my interest is in these literary impressions rather than in the veracity of Garland’s and Cather’s depictions of women’s life on the frontier. Indeed, my goal is not to support or refute the historical accuracy of their portrayals, for, as Glenda Riley notes, “one can conclude that if any fact is clear about women’s experiences in the West, it is that no entirely persuasive generalization exists regarding those experiences” (326).1 Rather, I hope to draw attention to the differences in Garland’s and Cather’s interpretations of rural women’s experiences, specifically the extent to which they viewed farm life as potentially liberating for women, and to consider the dominant socio-cultural forces that contribute to these incongruous portrayals of farm life, for such an investigation exposes the significance of the land ethic to feminist U.S. literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although a great deal of critical attention has been devoted to the self-sufficiency of Cather’s female protagonists, her environmental ethos, and, more recently, the ways in which these inseparable aspects of her fiction invite ecofeminist consideration,2 Garland’s works have generated comparatively scant attention—both in general and in terms of ecological analysis. Donald Pizer asserts in a recent article on Garland’s 1895 novel, Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly, that critics have tended to ignore dark and unresolved sexual themes in the novel in large part “because Garland...

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