Combining conversations with these women with their writing, Hogg describes and analyzes the ways they both embrace and challenge traditional notions of place and identity. Drawing on ethnographic research, composition theory, literacy studies, and regionalism, Hogg demonstrates how these women use literacy to evoke and sustain a sense of place and heritage for members of the community, to educate the citizens of Paxton, and to nourish themselves as learners, readers, and writers. Hogg relies as much on the older women, whom she richly portrays, as on interdisciplinary sources in considering how rural culture is created and sustained.
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About the Author
Charlotte Hogg is an assistant professor of English at Texas Christian University. She has published articles in Great Plains Quarterly and Western American Literature, and creative nonfiction and fiction in The Southeast Review and Clackamas Literary Review.
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From the Garden ClubRural Women Writing Community
By Charlotte Hogg
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLandscapes of Literacy
Shortly after I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, in the mid-1990s to begin work on my master's degree at Oregon State University, I began watching the TV show Northern Exposure. It had just started running in syndication, and it became my 11 p.m. ritual every weeknight. The show is about a doctor from New York who agrees to work five years in Alaska to pay off his medical school debt. He is assigned to a town of a few hundred and brings with him assumptions about the rural people in Alaska, namely the notion that they are unsophisticated and less intelligent and reasonable than he is.
I couldn't stop watching this show, partly because it was simply a good program-winning Emmy awards and much critical acclaim-and partly because Northern Exposure was filmed only a few hours from my new home in Oregon. The setting that once seemed so exotic was now the backdrop of my daily life. Though fiction, this nightly ritual helped me acclimate to my new space, where the place and people were strangers. It was my first time living outside of the Great Plains.
Some time later, after living back in Nebraska for a few years, I discovered that the A&E network was airing Northern Exposure reruns. I began watching again, moving my lunchtime to 1 p.m. so I could see the show. And I realized as I watchedthe town subvert the New York doctor through an oxymoronic blend of common sense and magical realism that this was the only example I could remember in which rural people on television were more complicated than the stereotype. These characters were wise not by urban standards of efficiency but through intuition and their knowledge of place. Their behaviors and beliefs reflected their particular culture, a mix of Native and frontier ideologies. It is no wonder I was drawn to this show where rural was not deficient, where it was the New Yorker who displayed the most naiveté.
When I look back at my time living in Oregon, I see that in conjunction with my Northern Exposure ritual I was facing issues of defining my home place as well as tensions between rural and urban that I had not considered before. Not entirely unlike the doctor on the TV show, kindhearted people in Oregon made many assumptions about me and my home place of Nebraska when I met them. Countless people acted as if I'd reached Eden, implying shortly after I moved there that surely I wouldn't be going back now that I'd reached the coast.
And it was beautiful there. In the first few months I lived there, I took a walk in a forest outside Corvallis with two new friends. It was raining when we drove out of town, but once we were underneath the branches, the rain couldn't reach us easily. I had never been enveloped by trees like this; I didn't know what kind they were. The moss, different shades of green-some startlingly bright on that wet day-and odd-shaped leaves and branches left me feeling as though I were in a Dr. Seuss book. Hiking was one of my favorite things about living in Oregon. I grew to like walking to school in the rain, leaves like soggy cereal under my feet.
While I immersed myself in my new place as best I could, it never felt right. On the drive to Oregon the mountains felt claustrophobic. (I later learned that my grandma described her first train trip to Oregon decades before in nearly that exact way.) On the map of the country in my mind's eye, I was on the edge, and I felt precarious somehow, away from the middle where I'd been able to see the sky and the grass.
Of course, much more was different than the landscape and actual physical place. What I remember, ironically, are the stereotypical markers-more VW vans than I'd ever seen, a multitude of coffeehouses, and vegetarian menus. And people assumed I loved beef and Husker football, which I do. They were right, but I was still rankled, because those facts came with deeper assumptions, that I'd never been to a gay bar or that I came from a farm, just as what I saw gave way to assumptions about the new culture I witnessed. I kept finding myself wanting to say, "Wait. This is more complicated than it looks. I do come from a conservative state, but during the Reagan years it had two Democratic senators when Bob Kerrey was governor, and we were the first state to have two women running for governor against each other." But that sounded defensive.
I was surprised at my resistance to people's assumptions about Nebraska, since I had carried similar ones for years, having convinced myself when I moved to western Nebraska as a preteen that I could never be cool living there. Paxton was just getting cable in the early '80s, and MTV told me all teenagers saw INXS or Wham! in concert and wore clothes like Madonna's. I was convinced I was missing out. When I shopped at the closest mall, thirty-five miles away in North Platte, I pored over outfits at Maurice's that wouldn't mark me as a hick. During a trip across the state to Lincoln for a speech contest, I purchased a Swatch, which I could not find where I lived.
I believed what I was told-and the messages implied in what I wasn't told and didn't hear-about the place where I lived. I didn't hear from anyone that it was a place to invest in, to stay for. When I moved to Paxton, a town of fewer than six hundred people, from Fargo, North Dakota, a place much larger and therefore more cosmopolitan (at least, at age eleven it seemed so), I didn't know there was anything to value about such a place, and I knew that after I moved east to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) I would probably leave for a city like Minneapolis or Denver. Moving to Oregon for graduate school was more or less following that path. I was getting out as I'd imagined and others had imagined for me. It was what my father had done (though he'd come full circle and returned to Paxton, a fact I ignored at the time).
But when I got to Oregon things were not what I expected. I started thinking more and more about where I came from than the place I had come to. Shortly after I arrived at Oregon State, I started teaching-assistant training led by Chris Anderson. In the first-year course, we used the anthology he and Lex Runciman edited, A Forest of Voices: Reading and Writing the Environment. The environmentally themed book had a section entitled "Spirit of Place," where I first read excerpts of work by Kathleen Norris ("The Beautiful Places"), Gretel Ehrlich ("The Solace of Open Spaces"), Mary Clearman Blew ("The Sow in the River"), and Scott Russell Sanders ("Settling Down"). While my composition class was discussing logging and spotted owls, giving more nuance to where I'd moved, I was also reading and assigning texts about place that resonated for me. Norris writes about finding the beauty of South Dakota, and Ehrlich discusses the notion that where we are from shapes who we are, describing how the people she met when she moved to Wyoming were as silent as the open country around her. Sanders addresses the U.S. mentality in which moving means getting ahead and the devaluing of staying in one place. He writes, "Committing yourself to a place does not guarantee that you will become wise, but neither does it guarantee that you will become parochial" (331-32). Then he adds, "How can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you travel the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge" (332). I thought about my grandma, who had lived all of her life in and around Paxton, Nebraska. I thought about her son, my dad, and how he'd moved from Paxton to college in Lincoln, to Minnesota, the Dakotas, and then back to Paxton before settling in Lincoln. He came from the generation after the shift to urban had been completed, where opportunities were found elsewhere, away from the Plains. I thought of myself, who never thought it would be okay to stay in Nebraska, to really stay and invest in one place. Movement was seen as progress. My high school class of sixteen is divided into two categories: those who left and those who stayed; and behind these categories are assumptions about class, education, and success, whether accurate or not.
My second and last year at Oregon, I wrote my thesis in the upstairs loft of the duplex I shared with a friend from graduate school. During that year I began to enjoy the rhythm of rain as I wrote. The trees in the backyard were as high as my window, and the grass was green in January. I researched my home in western Nebraska, the railroad, authors I knew and many more who were new to me who wrote from or about the Great Plains. I applied to the PhD program back in Nebraska. One of the last courses I took at OSU was Literacy, Composition, and Literature, and I wrote about how my grandma was educated in a country school in the early 1900s near Paxton. I now look at the final paper for that class as prewriting for realizing this book project. My thesis became a collection of essays on my sense of place growing up in rural western Nebraska. When I'd come home to Nebraska for winter and summer breaks, I'd noticed more of my surroundings, now that I had another landscape to compare it with and against. Mostly, I began to consider how my place is constructed by outsiders as well as by those who know the place well.
Except for those two years in Oregon, I have spent my life in and around the Plains. I was born in Minneapolis, lived in Fargo, North Dakota, through elementary school, spent a summer in Watertown, South Dakota, and then lived in Paxton, Nebraska, from sixth grade until I left for college at UNL. When I left Oregon I returned to Nebraska for graduate school, despite my ambivalence about academia, despite the generous offer by a prominent woman in my field to write me letters for good composition programs across the country, and despite the lack of funding I received for the program at UNL. Normally very indecisive, I saw only one option: I would return to Lincoln, where my parents now lived, and move into their basement for graduate school to save expenses. I knew some perceived this as the "safe" route to take, and in some ways it was: I was close to family again and had kept my residency for cheaper tuition, as if somehow I'd known all along I'd move home. But I was also interrupting the expectation of flight expected of Plains students. I was coming back to the landlocked middle.
In a survey taken in the early 1980s of historians of the American West, the majority of the respondents chose Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains as the most important book, noting that current texts still follow the format of his work (Lamar 25). The Great Plains, published in 1931, is problematic on many levels-ignoring ethnic populations on the Plains and much of the history involving the removal of American Indians from the region, for instance-but for all its faults, it serves as an example of a thorough study in defining a region historically and geographically. Frederick Luebke, a Great Plains scholar, explains, "The Great Plains exists in the minds of persons even minimally knowledgeable about the United States.... Where or what the Great Plains is may be unclear, but the term unquestionably evokes an image of a huge area in the west-central part of the United States.... It is commonly perceived as an agricultural or pastoral region of vast distances and few people" (27). The Plains may be familiar as a regional marker in the way Luebke describes, but, paradoxically, people outside the region don't think very much about the Great Plains. It's the "flyover" part of the country, a place to go through (or usually over) rather than a destination.
As geographer James R. Shortridge explains, "Plains people, with their small populations, have never had much control over how others have seen them. The possibilities for distortion, misunderstanding, and general mythmaking are enormous" (115). The opinions of outsiders have long influenced people living on the Plains. Take, as the most well-known example, the controversial idea of the Buffalo Commons offered in the 1980s by two East Coast scholars, Frank and Deborah Popper, in which they argue that the Plains proper (from the ninety-eighth meridian to the foothills of the Rockies) be converted back to a large national parkland where native grasses and species abound, given that rural population is on the decline. The Poppers' ideas demonstrate how the difference between being an outsider and an insider has great relevance in one's daily life on the Plains. Being an insider with outsiders' views overlaying the region means having little voice in national concerns (despite prevalent images of Plains farmers during farm crises) or having the state ranked low in a survey that asks vacationers for best travel spots in the country. Kansas was last, and also at the bottom were Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. South Dakota, with the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, is much higher on the list.
People writing about this relationship between insiders and outsiders on the Plains refer to the region's "inferiority complex." Historian Howard Lamar explains that "two of North Dakota's most prominent historians ... have noted that between 1915 and 1945 the state's population developed a negative image of themselves and their state. Its citizens also resented, as any rural population would, the image of the farmer as a backward, uneducated hayseed whose problems were largely his own fault" (30). Regarding North Dakotans and Kansans, Lamar argues, "For a regionalist, then, it would make sense to focus on the drought and depression decade not so much in terms of the New Deal programs but in terms of a region developing a heightened self-consciousness due to an outside force symbolizing threat and change" (34). Instead, many outsiders describe the reactions of Plains people as just another symptom of the parochial and anti-intellectual lives of rural populations in the middle of America.
The United States has not quite known what to do with the Great Plains since it made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Plains were dubbed the "Great American Desert" in 1830 by cartographer and explorer Stephen Long. Whites decided the land was useless and labeled much of the Plains "Indian Territory," yet they needed to traverse roughly a thousand miles through it to get to the West Coast, where there were trees, natural resources, and finally gold (Allen 208). It was decided that the Plains needed to be settled, in part to resolve the "Indian problem" and in part as an attempt by both the North and the South to add free or slave states, respectively. Some tribes on the Plains were used to being relocated after prior displacements when areas further east were settled; the land was opened up for settlement, augmented by the Homestead Act. At this time, railroads and other companies were touting the land in the Great Plains as a garden, struggling to dispel the notion of the open land as a desert. With the fortune of rainy seasons coincidentally in conjunction with the motto "Rain follows the plow," the land was settled by those from the Midwest and by European immigrants. At a time when the country was still rural, the Great Plains received national attention for its wonderfully fertile farmland, at least until the next drought.
Excerpted from From the Garden Club by Charlotte Hogg Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press . Excerpted by permission.
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