In addition to featuring writers such as Ole Edvart Rölvaag, Willa Cather, and John Neihardt, who address the epic stories of the past, Great Plains Literature also includes contemporary writers such as Louis Erdrich, Kent Haruf, Ted Kooser, Rilla Askew, N. Scott Momaday, and Margaret Laurence. This literature encompasses a history of courage and violence, aggrandizement and aggression, triumph and terror. It can help readers understand better how today’s threats to the environment, clashes with Native people, struggling small towns, and rural migration to the cities reflect the same forces that were important in the past.
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Under Spacious Skies
I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea.
— Spanish explorer, Coronado, 1541
One of the most beloved patriotic songs of the United States, "America the Beautiful," paints this iconic image of the nation:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
In 1893 the expansive view of the Great Plains from atop the "purple mountain," Pikes Peak, inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write the poem that became the lyrics of "America the Beautiful." This Wellesley College English professor with a summer teaching job at Colorado College took a train across the "amber waves of grain" of Kansas to Colorado Springs and climbed Pikes Peak, the pink granite mountain dotted with blue columbine flowers. This description of the Great Plains is sung so often that the actual reference is largely lost in the rote performance.
Despite being enshrined in our national hymn to America's majestic landscape, many people don't much care for "spacious skies" and "amber waves of grain." In contemporary parlance, this landscape is sometimes dismissed as "the flyover zone." The irony of the reverence for the images in the song and the disregard for the actual view is emblematic of the misunderstandings and mixed messages about the history and culture of the real place. For some, the region is just empty space where nothing much ever happens.
Yet four things stand out in American history as defining experiences whose impact continues to shape the culture today: the American Revolution; slavery and the Civil War; the settling of the frontier; and the conquering of the Indian nations. Two of these, the settling of the frontier and the conquering of the Indian nations, played out their most dramatic chapters on the Great Plains. In Canadian history, the westward movement into the plains and the defeat of French interests in the Seven Years' War (1754–63), known in the United States as the French and Indian War, are important defining episodes that influenced Canadian development, including relations with the indigenous people. The region holds within its history and cultures some of the nation's most bitter and inspiring stories of triumph and betrayal, democracy and intolerance, wealth and poverty. Canadian history is not as violent as American, and Canada generally had less destructive relations with First Nations people than did the United States. The ironies of the region, however, were there from the beginning: the expanse of "free" land that required the removal of the people who already lived there; the marketing of the arid prairie as a garden where the rain would follow the plow; a rich soil but a scarce rainfall; the building of frontier communities in which neighbor helped neighbor unless they were of a different ethnic origin or religious belief. Even the long geological evolutions were full of incongruities — once a great inland sea, a near tropical place where prehistoric animals roamed, the plains were reshaped by a massive glaciation into grassland where some of the first white settlers reported that not even a bird sang. Fossil beds across the plains yield bones of fish, camels, elephantine mammoths, and ancient peoples who apparently migrated to the region over the ice bridges from northern Asia. The first people arrived more than fifteen thousand years ago.
The many lives of the topography we call today the "Great Plains" raise the question of just where it is and how it is different from other plains. By most measurements, the region runs from the Canadian Prairies in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba down through West Texas and New Mexico to the Rio Grande. The southwestern section of the Great Plains — known as the Llano Estacado, or "Staked Plains," so called originally by the Spanish explorers because the plains end in a series of steep cliffs — is the driest and flattest of all. The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains includes a delightfully squiggly map showing the numerous definitions various cartographers have used. What is remarkable about this map is how much agreement there is and how little difference the variations register. For the purposes of this book, I shall use the map on which the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln settled.
The demarcations of the Great Plains are often drawn by mountain ranges and rivers. In Canada the great forests are another border. In places, the plains are visually dramatic, as they were for Bates at Pikes Peak. Landing at the Denver airport from the east, you see below you the barrenness of the plains, dotted here and there with green circles of center-pivot irrigation; rising ahead of you are the Rocky Mountains. Descending from Glacier National Park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road toward East Glacier Park Village, Montana, the mountains suddenly end, and the Great Plains spread before you as far as the eye can see. In 1804 Lewis and Clark met with the Otoe Indians on what they called the Council Bluffs. From this Iowa hill they could look over the Missouri River to the Great Plains that lay ahead of them.
Not all the lines of demarcation are so precise — that is, unless you are traveling the territory at ground level. One of the enchantments of the Great Plains is that once you have seen them, you will always know when you are there. Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri are not the Great Plains; the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas are. How can a river, even a wide one like the Missouri, make such a topographical change? The hills on the east side are often higher, the rocks bigger, the trees more plentiful, the creeks and streams more frequent. The glaciers did not have their way with them as easily as they cut through the plains. The earmarks of the Great Plains are aridity, wind, few trees, wind, grasses, empty spaces — did I mention wind? Nature is all extremes — in wind, in drought, in hot, in cold. In dazzling sunsets, in vast blue skies, in blinding blizzards, in tornadic clouds. How could we not love it? As the poet Mark Sanders wrote, "Were the weather any different / it would not be ours" ("Plain Sense"). Perhaps the ironies and contradictions in the history and culture cut so deeply because plains people live in a zone in which nothing much sets up the barriers that might moderate the extremes.
Climate and landscape play on the psyche, stirring two conflicting responses to the plains environment. Some find the space isolating and fearful; others find it liberating. Canadians often discuss the "garrison mentality" that seeks protection from a threatening environment by adhering to the group and its rules. Yet many longtime residents of the Great Plains speak of the need for the open horizon before them. N. Scott Momaday wrote that "the Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind in the wilderness." A former student returned for a visit after completing his basic training for the U.S. Marines in Parris Island, South Carolina. He told me he hated it. "The harsh training?" I asked. "God, no. That was fine. It was the trees. Trees everywhere. I felt I was smothering in them!" A professional woman who must work in urban Omaha lives on the western suburban edge of the city so that she can jog every morning to where her street plays out and the cornfields begin. "My favorite sign is 'Pavement Ends,'" she told me.
The Native tribes feared that the whites would fill up the land. Many of the settlers also thought that was the future, but most of the plains remains sparsely populated. The rural population is in decline, and some rural counties claim fewer than half a dozen people per square mile.
Those who make their living off the land require vast acreages, whether to farm or ranch or frack for oil. The few cities sprawl outward and not upward, because the land is there to develop. The isolation of rural life deepens as the changes in farming, transportation, and the aspirations of young people continue to empty out the little towns. That fabled little house on the prairie is more likely today to house two aging adults whose grown children have left the farm, rather than a boisterous family of kids and pet calves. The new residents who show up in towns are often Latinos. True to the darker side of frontier tradition, these "others" typically do not find a warm welcome, although their boost to rural population is arguably the one thing saving many towns from withering away. Across the plains, almost all the population growth is in the cities on the edges of the region — Winnipeg, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Kansas City, Lubbock, Denver, Calgary. What will be the effect of urban life on the psyche and the culture of a region developed under spacious skies and amber waves of grain when most of the population lives in cities? How far will they have to run to find that "Pavement Ends" sign?
A region so sharply defined by its geography and history was bound to produce a literary culture absorbed in telling its stories. There is a difference between a region being a setting and the region driving the story. This commentary on the literature of the Great Plains will focus on those writers whose work has an integral relationship to place and history. The reader who has picked up this book is assumed to have a curiosity about the Great Plains as a place and an interest in what the literature tells us about the region. There is a rich bounty of such Great Plains literature, especially when we consider how relatively short in historic time there has been a culture that could produce literary work. Many of the region's most distinguished authors knew people who remembered the events narrated in their novels. The literature discussed in this study was written in the twentieth century, though much of it is set in the nineteenth. Black Elk's memories are of events in his youth and climax in his account of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Willa Cather was born in 1873, Ole Rölvaag in 1876, and John Neihardt in 1881. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, novelist Margaret Laurence attempts to recapture the past through the myths and memory of characters who recall, and invent, an earlier time. Cather's first novel is published in 1912. Rölvaag's epic trilogy of the settlement of the Great Plains begins to appear in 1927.
Almost two hundred years of American literature had been amassed before the literature of the Great Plains began. William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation was written between 1630 and 1651, and African American poet Phillis Wheatley published her poems in 1773. Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville had all died before the end of the nineteenth century. Distant in both time and geography from eastern and southern literary traditions and the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, which dominated the history of those regions, plains writers were free from the thematic inheritance that had preoccupied much nineteenth-century literature. The large numbers of immigrants also brought to the plains many literary traditions from other lands. The Great Plains did not need to search for a "meter-making argument," as Emerson called for in 1844, because no school of plains writers had been trying for almost one hundred years to capture the realities of a new and different nation through British literary traditions.
In a survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature, there is almost nothing about the Great Plains except Washington Irving's Tour of the Prairies in 1835, an account of a trip he took to the "prairie" that went no farther than eastern Oklahoma, and James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie. This novel recounting the last chapter in the life of Natty Bumppo, hero of the Leatherstocking Tales, was written in 1827 by a New Yorker who never saw the Great Plains. Yet Cooper deserves a mention in this literary introduction for the profundity of his insight and imagination. His "rolling prairie" was "far beyond the usual limits of civilized habitations" and extended "with ... little diversity of character to the bases of the Rocky Mountains." Cooper adds that "the meager herbage of the prairie promised nothing in favor of a hard and unyielding soil over which the vehicles rattled." Though he described the famously shallow Platte River as "swift and turbid" and the dense and tall prairie grass as "meager herbage," Cooper caught something of the vastness of the Great Plains. He knew little about the people who were moving into it, however, or the living conditions that early settlement demanded. We can hardly fault Cooper for his deficiencies of understanding when he wrote this novel in the 1820s since there were very few settlers to describe it. It was not until the 1850s, and later in 1862 with the Homestead Act, that the flow of families westward significantly increased.
The literary portraits of the Great Plains begin with the journals of explorers. In 1690–92 a young man named Henry Kelsey was the first European to explore the Canadian prairies and record bison and grasslands. Kelsey was sent into the wilderness by the Hudson's Bay Company to encourage the Indians to trade with them, a task at which he was apparently successful. Kelsey was quite young, seventeen perhaps, and his assignment was nothing like that of Lewis and Clark, whose president had given specific directives to record all they saw of the unexplored territory. Kelsey's journal was essentially lost to Canadian history in the Hudson's Bay Company archives until the twentieth century. Much later and better known are the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, written during the 1804–6 expedition from St. Louis, Missouri, across the country to the Pacific coast. Americans first read a version of the journals in 1814, and one member of the Corps of Discovery also published his own account. Undoubtedly, the public was very interested in this expedition to chart the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase (1803) and its findings about the West, though it is hard to know just how much of the richness of the actual text of Lewis and Clark was the source of nineteenth-century understanding.
Accounts of the explorations of the Great Plains by Maj. Stephan H. Long and Zebulon Pike in 1819–20 were popular with the public and likely more influential on early conceptions of the area. Major Long first labeled the plains the "Great American Desert" and declared it unfit for cultivation. The journals of Lewis and Clark as a whole were not published until 1904–5. In 2001 Gary E. Moulton's thirteen volumes of a complete edition was published, and in 2003 a one-volume abridgement appeared as The Lewis and Clark Journals. Any reader who gets thoroughly hooked on the saga of Lewis and Clark will want to browse the many volumes that Moulton magnificently edited. The numerous illustrations and scientific details in the complete edition are wonderful to behold and deepen our regard for the thoroughness with which Lewis and Clark endeavored to meet the expectations set out for them by President Thomas Jefferson.
In many ways, the journals of Lewis and Clark are the West's equivalent to classic early American works by authors William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1606–46); William Byrd, The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (1728–36); and William Bartram, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1773–77). All are firsthand accounts of the earliest recorded history of a region, and Byrd and Bartram in particular share with Lewis and Clark the interest in recording observations about Indians, plants, and geography. All have the freshness of being original documents, and all record significant moments in American history.
Moulton calls the journals of Lewis and Clark "a national treasure" that will remain "for all time our American epic." Patricia Limerick calls the myth of the "Old Frontier" America's "creation story," the place where the virtues and values of the country took shape. John Neihardt also connected the story of settlement of the Great Plains to literary traditions of the classical epics. Epics of discovery and conquest are often the first literary representations of wars between cultures, complete with heroic actions against terrible odds, strange new dangers, long periods of suffering and conflict, and courageous triumphs over seemingly insurmountable troubles. They must have a cast of memorable characters, an episodic narrative, and a hero or heroes whose personal abilities lead to the victory over all forces. Surely the heroic Lewis and Clark; the vital heroine, Sacagawea; the fearsome and noble Indians; the various scoundrels and good Samaritans; the many adventures on the river and through the mountains; and the wonder of the Pacific Ocean on the western coast all fit the requirements of an epic.
Excerpted from "Great Plains Literature"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. Under Spacious Skies,
2. Fencing In the First People,
3. Taking the Land in Rölvaag's Immigrant Saga,
4. Cather and the End of the "West",
5. Dissent and the Great Depression,
6. City Living on the Edge,
7. The Circle toward Home,
Appendix: Great Plains Literary Sites to Visit,