- “It had all become a natural condition”California’s Garden Movement, Land Eugenics, and Naturalization in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland
California contains a vast meanness and a measure of infinite promise, and between these two opposed forces lies a faultline capable of generating cataclysmic stories, poems, art.—Louis Owens
In her utopian classic Herland (1915) Charlotte Perkins Gilman chronicles the adventures of three men—Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings—as they attempt to explore a land forgotten by time and the tribe of women who inhabit this remote location. Flying over the region they will dub Herland, Van explains that the area “appeared to be well forested about the edges, but in the interior there were wide plains, and everywhere park-like meadows and open places” (12). Losing altitude to gain a better view, the men find “a land in a state of perfect cultivation, where even forests looked as if they were cared for; a land that looked like an enormous park, only it was even more evidently an enormous garden” (13). Gilman’s depiction of Herland as a garden is not surprising considering the feminist agenda this novel manifests. Writing during an age where the “separate spheres” dominated men and women’s public and private lives, Gilman looks to gardens as a woman’s domain. As Vera Norwood observes, “The state of the garden mirrored the state of her home as a whole” (123). Thus, the garden became an extension of the domestic space and, for Gilman, the ideal setting by which to forward her feminist ideals and re-imagine a woman’s place within society. [End Page 71]
While the development and articulation of her feminist principles have long dominated Gilman scholarship, within the last fifteen years critics have turned to the intersections her feminism has with the natural world and with constructed places like the garden. For example, Amanda Graham, Janna Knittel, and Susan Stratton locate Herland within environmental and ecofeminist traditions while Lee Schweninger and Alex Shishin examine “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and Herland in light of the ways in which equating gardens with women further inhibits their agency and how Gilman’s socialist politics influence Herland’s utopian economy. Such treatments bring needed attention to the connections between literary naturalism, determinism, and ecology and their influence on Gilman’s philosophical views of how women, nature, and society interact.
This ecocritical and place-based turn in Gilman studies has encouraged other scholars such as Gary Scharnhorst and Jennifer Tuttle to chart how the American West and California, in particular, influence Herland’s cultural and physical landscapes. In a forthcoming publication, these critics observe that “Herland is not conventionally interpreted in relation to the US West; as a utopia, after all, the story is set ‘no place’—by definition in an imaginary locale.” However, as Jean Pfaelzer reminds us, “utopian fiction is also, and unavoidably, realistic. Its fictional rendering of political history derives from the author’s analysis of the origins of the contemporary social malaise” (15). Recognizing this relationship between the imaginary and the real, Scharnhorst and Tuttle trace Gilman’s affinity for California, the greater American West, and the Western genre to argue that “recovering the western identification that runs through so much of Gilman’s work, and recognizing the centrality of the West—particularly California—to her vision for social reform, provides an interpretive context that demands we rethink our critical framework for Herland.” To reorient our understanding of this novel, they look to San Francisco’s hosting of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as the template for Herland’s utopia and assert that “Gilman mobilized the fair’s eugenicist, imperialist discourses to advance her own vision of social reform, rejecting the prevailing Herculean model for one favoring white women’s central role.” For these scholars the exposition’s idyllic representation of the nation’s expanding global influence encourages [End Page 72] Gilman to imagine a new world order, one that eschews patriarchy and casts women as the protagonists of progress.1
Building on the work Scharnhorst and Tuttle initiate with their reorientation of Herland as a western and California-based text as well as...