Nearly everywhere on earth, sand is principally made up of one element—in some places silica, in others limestone. Ninety percent of a grain is almost always just one of those two elements. But the other 10 percent is the percentage with a difference—the percentage that, in its difference, matters—the percentage that can tell us something about the history of a place.—Vanessa Agard-Jones
Can you describe that vast and holy desert, a desert that is so old that it once was the sea? No, you can’t. But does that stop you? Never.—Michael Cobb
But you have not known what force resides in the mindless things until you have known a desert wind.—Mary Austin
“There was no change in the character of the desert,” observes the narrator near the end of Frank Norris’s McTeague. “Always the same measureless leagues of white-hot alkali stretched away toward the horizon on every hand” (236). Just a few sentences later, the narrator describes the “horrible desolation” of Death Valley, where “not a rock, not a stone” interrupts “the monotony of the ground” (236). In almost every paragraph in McTeague’s final chapters, the narrator notes the desert’s refusal to cultivate life and deliver topographical diversity, and at times Norris seems to go out of his way to emphasize the stasis of this region: “on the face of the desert not a grain of sand was in motion” (232). Not a one. However, Norris’s [End Page 175] desert may be more complicated—and more erotic—than what appears “on the face.” Despite its harshness, its relentless invariability, Norris also depicts the desert as uneven, “dazzling,” and shimmering with the “glitter of sand and sky” (236). How is it that the desert can simultaneously contain all these contradictory characteristics? In one passage, we are told that the landscape is both “flat” and marked by “low mounds”; in yet another passage, the “dazzling surface” of the desert instantaneously fades into oblivion (236). An indeterminate landscape that occupies both eastern California and southwestern Nevada, Norris’s Death Valley is a generative “something—something or other,” to use McTeague’s recurrent utterance, that cannot be reduced to binary systems of classification (226). It is this mesmerizing “something” of the American West that simultaneously propels and frustrates McTeague, just as it did countless individuals who “looked westward for the fulfillment of American promises” in the second half of the nineteenth century (Packard 1). But unlike cowboys, outlaws, miners, prospectors, artists, writers, and others who wandered these regions before him, McTeague looks eastward from the western edge of the nation in hopes of finding his sandy wilderness.
However, McTeague’s unpredictable Death Valley is a different kind of wilderness than what John P. O’Grady playfully refers to as the “holiday side of the wild” depicted by other nineteenth-century writers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. In Pilgrims to the Wild, O’Grady uses words including “recreational,” “privileged,” and even “dilettantish” to describe environmental writing born from the nineteenth century’s burgeoning conservation movement, a movement that aimed to preserve the nation’s wilderness areas for future use (125). In such writing, “wilderness” is synonymous not with desert lands, but with the “forested, well-watered landscapes” of New England, coastal California, and the American Northwest (125). Rooted in anxieties “leveled at cities…, urbanization, industrialization, and environmental contamination (not to mention immigration),” Theodore Roosevelt’s wilderness ethos defined the wild spaces of the American West as “elite and remote” corrective zones where Anglo-Saxon men could seek refuge from modern urban influences (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 13, 14). Urban anxieties, when combined with the perceived threat of an increasingly feminine [End Page 176] national identity, culminated in what Denise Cruz has called “the hypermasculine discourse of westward-moving imperialism” (488). This growing interest in the (gendered) West contributed to the federal management of wilderness spaces under the designation of national parks, beginning with Yellowstone in 1872. According to Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, editors...