Edited by John T. Price. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. ix + 352. Map, index. $25.00 paper.
In his introduction to The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, John Price recommends that rather than read randomly among the selections, as one often does with such anthologies, the reader should instead proceed from beginning to end, as if the collection were a novel. I was skeptical. This was just the sort of thing the compiler of an anthology would claim, but how likely was it to be true? Not very, I thought. Yet when attempting to choose a limited number of pieces for class reading, I found it difficult to select from among the many options and ended up assigning the whole book. This anthology does indeed tell a fairly unified, if troubling and still unfinished tale: the story of the tallgrass prairie.
Price is best known for his two volumes of nonfiction personal narratives, Man Killed by Pheasant (2008) and Daddy Long Legs (2013). But he is also a scholar of the literature of the plains and prairies, as exemplified by his earlier book Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004), and so he is well positioned as both author and scholar to compile this anthology.
The Tallgrass Prairie Reader contains primarily works of autobiographical nonfiction. It includes the work of both travelers through the prairie as well as long-time dwellers, including a fair number of indigenous voices. The anthology may surprise some readers (it did me) with the number of well-known authors it contains, such as Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. These celebrated writers are mixed among many writers who were new to me, and will likely be new to most readers, such as Eliza Farnham, William A. Quayle, Winifred M. Van Etten, and Drake Hokanson.
Their diverse voices, spanning various times, tell a surprisingly coherent story. From the perspective of the European settler-colonials, the story is one of initial contact with the prairie, leading to either confusion and disappointment (Edwin James), or wonder and celebration (George Catlin). The volume transitions to narratives of settlement, which shift quite abruptly into narratives of remorse for the loss of the prairie that such settlement enacted (William J. Haddock, Hamlin Garland). Among the Native voices, one hears first a sense of belonging and a celebration of abundance (Black Dog’s version of an Omaha creation story), giving way to displacement, anger, and pain (Francis La Flesche, Zitkala-Ša), but also to an ongoing effort at survivance, adaptation, and renewal (John Joseph Mathews, Louise Erdrich, Lance Foster).
One of the dominant themes of the volume is that even when it was abundant, the tallgrass prairie was too rarely celebrated and appreciated. Now that it is mostly gone, too few people notice or mourn the loss. This, combined with its obvious desirability as farmland, has led to the tallgrass prairie’s ignominious status today as one of the world’s most degraded ecosystems.
All is not quite lost, however. The book concludes with a number of inspiring narratives involving prairie restoration. In order to reestablish the grasslands, however, we must cultivate not just big bluestem and compass plant, essential as that effort is, but also, and more primally, we must cultivate within our communities a tallgrass prairie bioregional identity and consciousness. The Tallgrass Prairie Reader is an essential contribution to that [End Page 315] effort. Anyone concerned about the future survival of the tallgrass prairie should read, and teach, this book.